Korean Sociological Image #46: The Language of Exclusion

James Turnbull's picture


( Source: Mental Poo; reproduced with permission )

A receipt from a recent visit by blogger My Jihae to an upscale restaurant in Seoul, about which she wrote:

I’m not sure how many restaurants do this, and why this restaurant bothers to do this in the first place, but on the top of the receipt they blatantly keep track of whether the guests are locals or foreigners. They pegged me right away, I guess it’s that obvious.

For those of you that can’t read Korean, for now let’s say that waegookin (외국인) on the right generally means a foreigner, and naegookin (내국인) on the left a Korean person. And that does indeed describe My Jihae and her dining partner respectively, although she is actually Korean-American. But why bother to note the distinction between two ethnically-identical customers at the same table?

Some commenters to her post speculate that it may have been done for taxation purposes, and which as I wrote there, would be something good to know if true, as otherwise:

…many expats (myself included) may simply chalk things like this up to Koreans typically and completely unnecessarily pointing out our foreignness, when in fact they may be nothing of the sort.

And see Occidentalism here and here for a similar case in Japan. Unfortunately however, not all perceived Korean tendencies towards exclusion are simply misunderstandings on the part of non-Koreans.

Take the “Waegookin Shock Meltdown” for instance, which describes the situation:

…where when speaking in Korean, Koreans freeze up because they have some silly preconceptions that foreigners simply ‘can’t’ speak Korean or that they just ‘shouldn’t’ speak to us in Korean – the latter which comes without the help of the government and medias insistence in the last 10 years or so that ‘globalization’ means that Koreans should all have to speak English whenever they encounter big-nosed white people.

( Source: unknown )

And which personally used to get me extremely frustrated and angry while learning Korean a few years ago, although now I believe that that reaction from Koreans more often stems from simple inexperience and/or nervousness in dealing with non-Koreans. Still, whatever combination of factors are responsible in any given case, all have clear solutions, something which can not be so easily said of the ways in which Korean notions of nationalism, citizenship, and even the Korean language itself arguably inherently exclude others. Focusing on the latter in this post, I identify 2 main ways in which it does so:

First, because Koreans might take a vacation to New Zealand, say, and describe New Zealanders as waegookin while they’re there, so clearly “foreigner” doesn’t quite cut it as a translation. Perhaps “non-ethnic Korean” would be more suitable? But then what about about My Jihae back in the restaurant?

Given such confusion, then as you might expect the question of the most appropriate English term has already attracted a great deal of attention from many generations of expats, and so if you can forgive my heemanggomoon (희망고문; literally “hope-torture” or “stringing someone along”, and one of my favorite Korean words), I’ve decided that it would be unhelpful to repeat any of that here. Instead, let me refer you to this excellent post by regular commenter Seamus Walsh for the most recent and comprehensive discussion of this aspect of the language issue (but this and this post by others are also helpful), only passing on myself what I wrote in my own post on it 2 years ago:

It may not sound like much, but like I said in this forum, Korea’s (and Japan’s) bloodline-based notions of nationalism and citizenship emphasize and exaggerate the differences between natives and non-natives to an extent rarely found elsewhere in the world, and the constant reminders of these quickly become wearisome to anyone who’s spent even just a few months living here, let alone 8 years. And ironically, constantly hearing the term waegookin in our daily lives probably means that we come to adopt some of the same notions of division and distance ourselves too, and the effect snowballs.

Naturally, Seamus also covers the the second reason in that post, the fact that Koreans never say “my home”, “my wife”, “my language”, or “my country” for instance, but say “our” (우리) instead. And that I can add something useful to here, as by coincidence there was recently a lively discussion on that very topic on the email-based Korean Studies Internet Discussion List, prompted by the following question by William Pore of Pusan National University (image: Asadal Thought):

Dear List:

For any comparative Asian linguists, Ural Altaic linguists (?), or, maybe even Korean linguists on the list, I would like to inquire if a pronoun similar to the Korean we (i.e. ‘uri’) occurs with the same frequency/prominence in any related languages to the same degree that it does in Korean. Should we accept the assertion that I nearly always have had that the prominence of that pronoun in Korean is due to a particular Korean mindset alone?

And rather than have you scroll through the full June archive yourself, my contribution is in presenting a truncated and much(!) more readable version of the most pertinent comments instead. Starting with JMF’s reply then:

Perhaps this is not directly related, but I witnessed some very interesting aspects of “uri” while raising my daughter in Korea. Not only my daugher but all of her “pure Korean” friends as well naturally used the words “I/my” almost exclusively. I saw and heard all of them say in Korean “my house,” my school,” “my Mommy/Daddy,” etc. Of course, they were quickly corrected/reprimanded by parents and teachers until they capitulated and began to use “we/our” almost exclusively where they had once felt that “I/my” was more natural. In a word, ”uri” is not somehow “organic” to Korean-ness or Korean language but rather externally injected and enforced.

Frank Rudiger, University of Vienna:

And here comes something even less directly related, yet not completely unrelated: In Russian, there is a similar way of saying “we” when actually meaning “I”, for example “me and my mother” would literally be “us with mom” (my s mamoj). In other words, this is not necessarily a purely Korean phenomenon. I guess Russian is not the only example. What about “we won” (wir haben gewonnen) meaning “our team has won” in German (at least)?

( Source: Stinkie Pinkie )

Dr. Balazs Szalontai, Mongolia International University:

In Mongolian language, which has some interesting grammatical similarities with Korean, this practice is carried even further. One would often hear a lady utter the term “manaa nuhur” (our husband), rather than “minii nuhur” (my husband), though she supposedly does not intend to share the said individual with any additional ladies.:)

Alison Tokita, Tokyo Institute of Technology:

I know Japanese much better than I know Korean, but clearly the Korean uri has its equivalent in Japanese language and usage. The Japanese equivalent of uri has indeed been very frequent in recent decades as an aspect of Nihonjinron (theories or discourse of Japanese uniqueness), but is probably declining in the younger generation. The Japanese equivalent actually uses archaic forms of the pronoun. Some examples:

Japan is expressed as not only Nihon, but as waga kuni (our country; cf the softer watashitachi no kuni). The Japanese are not only Nihonjin, but wareware Nihonjin (we Japanese). My or our house can be wagaya (cf watashitachi no uchi).

Then there is the use of koku (country, nation): Japanese literature is koku bungaku (recently the use of Nihon bungaku is starting to replace this); Japanese history is kokushi (now changing to Nihonshi); Japanese (national) language is kokugo: what is taught to Japanese in schools is kokugo and what is taught to non-Japanese is Nihongo.

The use of our and national instead of the country name conveys a somewhat closed country, nationalistic mentality, and as Japan is becoming more internationalized this seems to be going out of favour. These are only my impressions, but others may know of research on this linguistic phenomenon.

Dr. Edward D. Rockstein:

Of course, the usage of koku [a Sino-Japanese loan word] you describe has antecedents in Chinese usages such as  guoyu national language, guoshi national history, guowen national writing system or national literature, ddeung ddeung, nado nado, deng deng.

And by Owen Miller, with a similar example from England that I was very surprised and happy to see as a former Geordie myself(!), and with most of my extended family still in the region:

I wouldn’t like to step to far into the territory of the linguists on this list but I really wonder whether the case can be made empirically that the pronoun we is more frequent in Korean than in other languages. While I’m sure that John Frankl is right about its enforced use (as a result of ideological norms of national and familial collectivity that probably have relatively recent *historical roots), this doesn’t mean that it isn’t used **frequently** in similar ways in other languages. *

The use of the ‘national we’ is not uncommon in the UK, although perhaps uncommon enough that it makes me wince when I hear it. For example, teaching the First Opium War last year I found myself feeling strangely uncomfortable when the students spontaneously started discussing how terrible it was that ‘we’ had done this bad thing to China.

In certain British English dialects ‘we’ is also very commonly used in the way that Ross King describes above (exclusive first-person plural pronoun) in non-national contexts. For example, the Geordie English pronoun ‘wor’, as in ‘wor lass <http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wor_lass>’.

It strikes me that the Korean discourse on the use of ‘uri’ is probably something of a self-reinforcing feedback loop: Encourage the use of a word in official discourse so as to strengthen national collectivity –> discover that word is used frequently –> find that this is evidence of strong national collectivity –> further encourage use of word etc etc.

Finally Jonathan:

Is there evidence of widespread vernacular use of uri prior to the twentieth century? I ask because I wonder if its use was prompted by the Japanese use of ware as in wareware Nihonjin?

And after all that, a clear message that this lingusitic feature of Korean is by no means as unique to Korean as many of us probably thought!


(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

(Posted at The Grand Narrative)


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