Sunday, September 10, 2006

Archaeology of Language

I used to want to become an archaeologist. In high school I was part of the archaeological triumverate/troika (with Sanjay and Larry) of Mr. Hines’ minions and we’d go on digs almost every weekend, chanting “dig it, don’t doze it!”
Now I haven’t held a trowel in years. But I’ve been looking for an excuse (for about 10 years) to use the word “edaphic” in polite conversation, so as an adjunct to our little language experiment I propose an archaeology of language...

Oh. What language experiment, you say? Sorry, forgot to fill you in. Each night after our little ones have gone to sleep, KC and I hook up the lighting rod and channel electricity in their little brains, hoping to stimulate language development. I play them Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, my beloved, so that they will gain a richer vocabulary than that which comes forth from my mouth. And we move them all over the globe in their formative years, keeping them learning a new language every few years. Mwah ha ha ha.

Now, this is a skewed perspective, as I live in the Educationally Obsessed Mommy Capital of the World, but I’d say I’m not a pushy parent. My kid is only taking taekwondo and soccer (and golf, taught by KC). I have him do math workbooks and ask him to read to me, yes. I bribe him with Lego mini-figs, I admit it. But other kids his age are enrolled in after-school art, math, piano, violin, Orda, English, etc. and studying until 8 at night. When’s a kid allowed to be a kid on that schedule?

But when it comes to language we are pushy. One of the main reasons for moving here was so that the kids could acquire a good grasp of Korean at a young age. And one of the main reasons we plan to move to China is so that they can do the same with Chinese. This is my gift to them -- the acquisition of these languages at a young age so they don’t have to suffer too much when they are older. With those three languages (Korean, Chinese, English) they should be able to pick up a bunch of others with ease if they want (thinking Japanese, Spanish, German, French, etc.).
But because we’re always moving back and forth between different countries, and exposing them to all these different linguistic influences, I can see the different linguistic strata accumulating inside their little brains.

So let’s take out a trowel, scrape away some dirt and worms and take a look at these edaphic zones.

The kids first. So far they speak fluently in both languages, but the fluency is of a different type. Aiden, for instance, knows a lot of adult vocabulary in English -- words like “compassionate” and “considerate.” In Korean he’s much better at kid’s slang. I learned words like “cutting in line,” (“엄마, 그 여자가 쌔지기 했어") “attack,” ("발사! 덤벼!") “bad guy,” ("나쁜 놈") “graffiti” ("낙서") from him. And he’s mastered exclamations in Korean: “Ya” or “Asa! Asabio!” rather than “Hey” or “cool/awesome.” And because their exposure to English speakers is limited, I hear my own phrases parroted back to me: “OK, here’s the deal,” “hold your horses,” “understand, rubber band?” And then, echos of the mass media influence, “I cannot believe it!” (from the Little Einsteins). And have to handle questions about different types of English, because his teacher at school is British, but teacher Leo’s British accent is different from David Bowie’s accent on the Peter and the Wolf CD (“Mommy, what’s a brahnch? what is “ahgued?”). I chuckle to myself every time I hear myself explain, “He’s from Great Britain, like Harry Potter.”

Now for me. My lowest and most primary strata would include an underlying uncertainty about certain grammatical forms and pronunciation, especially when nervous, which comes from being raised by two non-native English speakers who thought they were doing me a favor by speaking English at home. (Hmm, by that logic, I should avoid speaking Korean to my kids lest they pick up some of my non-native speaker idiosyncrasies. mental note.) The occasional jaw-dropping appearance of the word “pod” or “podded out” comes from spending sophomore year as Marina Lang’s roomate (along with the desire to use the delicious line, “you got a man? how long you had that problem?” though up to this point the occasion has not arisen). And then the main influence of my adult life has to be KC’s anti-article stance along with his various inventions (“hairlist” and “slow like dirt” come to mind which have managed to get past my alert sensors. “Hairlist” has spread beyond myself, in fact...) and his skepticism about certain words I use (he thinks I made up the word “rubbernecker.” Give a little credit to the native speaker, huh?)

Then there’s my Korean. I try to avoid driving in Seoul, but when I do I find myself uttering all sorts of things like, “야, 봐줘야지, 아줌마. 뭐 하냐? 이 자식 이게..." and other worse insults which have come from KC’s driving repertoire as well as from various taxi drivers.

My English parenting vocabulary is heavily influenced by my friend Diana: “You may not hit him. You may hit the pillow, you may hit the blanket, you may hit the floor, but you may not hit him. OH! That is not an inside voice. You may talk or you may whisper. Will you show me how your whisper?...”

As I wrote in Body Language I initially learned Korean from men, so I had a decidedly masculine way of speaking, which I haven’t quite conquered. I have also, like many English teachers living here, picked up quite a bit of vocabulary and intonation from my own children. (It is quite funny to hear Aiden’s teacher Leo speak Korean, as he sounds EXACTLY like the kids he teaches.)

If this little archaelogical experiment is any indication, it is a good thing I never became an archaeologist. I’m surrounded by dirt with no clear idea of whether a civilization exists.

Some detritus...

Language is such a funny, fascinating thing. There are words in Korean which are so perfect that I can’t help wanting to adopt them (like so many Korean children) in the U.S. Words like “씽씽카" (shing shing ca) which is what you call a kid’s scooter with 3 wheels. It somehow captures the feeling of the wind flowing past your ears as you propel yourself down the sidewalk to the consternation of your mother. And then there are all the English terms, or perhaps I should call them “Konglish” terms, which, like Korean Americans who come back to Korea to visit, are given much more weight than they should be. The Englishish advertising terms used so frequently here used to provide a constant and much needed element of humor to my life here (I remember gathering in the local convenience store outside Sogang Univ to snicker at the yellow Coolpis soda.) They used to sound so weird to my ears, but now I’ve been worn down by the advertising and I don’t even blink at “digital exciting” or “bravo your life” or “well-being” (as in well-being yoga, well-being ice cream, well-being rice, etc.). The Yangpa (Korean for Onion), has a great spoof on these advertising campaigns as well as all those bizarre tee-shirts

Korean has adopted a lot of foreign words: sofa, radio, television, engine, leadership, internet, etc. But many other adopted words have taken on mew meanings here which don’t correspond to their use in American English. Well-being (pronounced wellbing) is one of these; it’s a very fashionable word right now that has about the spread of “green” in American English (“green” referring to anything environmentally-friendly; well-bing referring to anything healthy). Both are mainly marketing terms whose job it is to add a luster of vibrancy and social responsibility to something entirely banal. “Cider” is another mutant; it refers to a clear soda like Sprite or 7-Up here, not what we American’s think of as cider. “Rouge” here refers to lipstick, not rouge (though I suspect that may have come by way of France; if I were a better scholar I would track these words’ entry points). “Orae” is commonly used when someone’s trying to help you park your car. I think it is supposed to be “all right.” “Condition” is most commonly used like this: “His condition is not good” (“컨디션이 안좋아") which means “he’s feeling a little under the weather.”

These mutant words caused me a lot of confusion, as did some Korean words which seem like they can directly translate into English, but in reality have different categorical associations. For instance, “friend,” in English is, well... anyone who you are friendly with. But “친구" in Korean only can refer to someone who is the same age. I can’t tell you how many weird conversations I had because of that. (“Are they friends?” “No, she’s a year older.” “But are they friends?” “No, she’s a year older!”) Similarly, “school” only refers to elementary school and above, and not kindergarten. People ask me, “Is your son in school?” I say, “Yes, he goes to FYKO kindergarten.” Insert weird look here. “OH, he’s in kindergarten.”

As I move back and forth between the two countries, I can feel how quickly the languages are changing. Young Seoul people are famous for their slang, and new words are constantly falling in and out of favor. My chinese teacher just taught me “된장녀" (“bean paste girl”) which refers to young women who spend too much money on clothes, purses, and drinking coffee in expensive cafes. I can’t even begin to guess what that has to do with bean paste. The written language has changed quite a bit since the early 1900s, and even since KC left Korea in 1985. I remember him correcting the spelling of my Korean essays while I was at Michigan, and having them returned to me full of red ink, since there was a language reform after he left and his spelling was out of date. Intonation is also changing a lot: when a young woman (I cringe to write that, as it admits that I am no longer in that category) takes my order at some restaurant or cafe and ends with and rising and really elongated “다...." or "요...."

It’s the same feeling I get when I watch an old movie or listen to an old speech (President Kennedy comes to mind) and hear the different speech patterns. I already feel somewhat alienated from English since as the child of non-native speakers I always feel that my grammar and pronunciation are on shaky ground (I learned most vocabulary from reading, but reading doesn’t teach you the correct pronunciation as I learned in various embarrassing moments), and now I’ve been living out of the U.S. for long enough that I can no longer recall English words that well. Trying to speak English now is a bit like trying to write with a full bladder -- there’s a point where the particular point you wish to make gets sacrificed to the limits of physicality (bladder or lazy brain). But when I go back to the States and listen to the young people (there it is again, my former category... ) they sound so loopy and ditsy. I’ve become one of those geezers who sits around and talks about the good old days of English without the word “like?” I’m almost tempted to keep Aiden away from U.S. English so he doesn’t learn to talk like that.


minnie said...

It thinks being an effect of Confucianism thought. ('friend' case )

Anonymous said...

된장녀 eats very cheap and basic stuff like 된장찌게!

Jennifer Lee said...

I need to add some "English-ish" words to this.
"After Service" ("A/S" for short): refers to warrenty-type repairs.
"DC" (pronounced "deeshee"): discount.

there was one more but I forgot what it was...

Jennifer Lee said...

I remember now. "Handphone." It means "cell phone" and is more accurate too. I wonder if Chinese's "shou3 ji1" comes from this, or vice versa, or if both have a different origin? Anyone know Japanese?

Jennifer Lee said...

Another categorically different word: "감기." In English we distinguish between "cold," "fever," "bad cold," "flu," etc. But in Korean these are all "감기." Gives me lots of problems when talking to my in-laws.