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Korea Blog: Korea’s Dilbert-Era Loanwords

Lulled into a false sense of security by the simplicity of its alphabet, those students of the Korean language who don’t give up in frustration will sooner or later find themselves facing a variety of unexpected challenges of communication and comprehension. Nearly a decade after learning that deceptively easy writing system, I still often get unintentional laughs from Korean interlocutors myself, especially when I fail to recognize one of the many words they borrow from my own mother tongue. “What, you don’t speak English?” they jokingly ask, but in fact I don’t speak Konglish, that curious hybrid of Korean and English now so commonly heard south of the 38th parallel.

Rather than an oscillation back and forth between the local language and English, as in the Philippines’ “Taglish,” Konglish fills Korean grammatical structures with English loanwords. Often those latter replace existing Korean words: you now take pictures with a kamera instead of sajingi, enroll in a class of a certain rebel instead of sujun, and draw up a riseuteu instead of a mogneok. Owing to the difficulty of consistently pronouncing these Konglish words in the “correct” Koreanized manner when my adult language-learning brain stubbornly wants to pronounce them in American English as it always has, I tend simply to use the old words and accept the strange looks they draw as the cost of doing business.

Not that Koreans’ Konglish doesn’t draw strange looks from me. That goes especially for its outer reaches, a harbor for those faddish terms beyond the simple realm of cameras, levels, and lists which, long dead in America, turn out to have drifted across the Pacific to be reborn. Past decades saw attempts to purify the Korean language in the face of mounting “English fever,” but by the 1990s none could hold fast against the mighty tide of buzzwords from American media, business, and technology, with the result that millions of Koreans now walk around sounding like characters out of Dilbert. Here are but five of the many words that, seldom if ever heard in America in English anymore, see use each and every day as Konglish in Korea.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.