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Korea Blog: Our Language Battle, Korea’s Surprisingly Addictive Game Show of Vocabulary, Expressions, and Proper Spacing

If you want to understand a society, watch its game shows. The principle behind that advice has come to light with the advent of such entertainment sources as the Game Show Network, on which Americans can catch clear, sometimes too-clear views of the foreign societies that are Americas of decades past. You don’t stay tuned in to a 1970 broadcast of Sale of the Century because you care about who takes home the brand new Dodge Dart Swinger; what compels you are the aggressively trend-adherent aesthetics, and even more so the personalities of the everyday people who appear as contestants. Not subject to the same behavioral standardization as television professionals, they present and express themselves in a manner that exudes the place and time in which they live, all the more faithfully for its inadvertence. Hence the value, should you find yourself living in a genuinely foreign country, of finding a game show to follow.

Having found myself living in the genuinely foreign country of Korea, I’ve lately also found myself watching Our Language Battle (우리말 겨루기), a game show that has aired every Monday evening on KBS since 2003. Though it occasionally invites celebrities, and this past July even brought on members of the National Assembly, it usually pits four everyday Koreans (or four teams of two, usually family) against each other in a test of their knowledge of the Korean language. It begins simply enough, with the contestants buzzing in to guess the words or phrases that fill in a crossword-style board, but soon the challenges get dramatically harder: separating folk spellings and regional variations from the officially standard, filling in words missing from old television and newspaper clips, and — most difficult of all, even for contestants who otherwise dominate the game — properly re-spacing a text whose words all run together.

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