The Beauty and Perils of Konglish, the Korean-English Hybrid
Ran Park is a graphic designer from Ulsan, a coastal city in South Korea. Not long ago, she visited her home country after five years of studying in London and Los Angeles, and noticed something strange: the local language had changed. “People had started using English words as if they were Korean,” she says. Local fruit vendors sold “바나나,” pronounced “banana.” Electronics stores had posted advertisements for “컴퓨터,” pronounced “keomp-yut-eo,” or “computer.” The words looked Korean, but they sounded distinctly English.
Park’s observations inspired her latest art project, a zine filled with artfully smudged definitions of English words that have burrowed their way into the Korean language. She calls it “Lost in Konglish,” after the macaronic form of English sweeping through South Korea.
Konglish follows few strict rules. It includes loanwords like camera (written as “카메라,” pronounced like “camera”), and ice cream (once again, written as “아이스크림,” but said like, “ice cream”). Not all terms copy English exactly; nail polish (매니큐어), for example, is pronounced like “manicure.” Konglish also encompasses mistranslations, as well as fabricated phrases that incorporate English words but aren’t easily understood by English-speakers. The Korean translation for “cell phone,” for instance, is “hand phone.”
But Konglish does follow the rules of the highly phonetic Korean alphabet. Known in South Korea as “Hangul,” the language’s phonemic and syllabic characteristics, and even the shape one’s tongue makes when pronouncing specific sounds, are encoded into the structure of the written characters, themselves. If that strikes you as exceptionally cool, it’s because it is; linguists love the Hangul alphabet for how it marries the form and function of its letters. It is a simultaneously beautiful and practical system.
It also accommodates, and morphs around, other languages—particularly English, the cultural cachet of which is evident in the rise of Konglish throughout South Korea. In Seoul, luxury apartments go by names like “Luxtige” (a portmanteau of “luxury” and “prestige”), or “Forestige.” According to The Korea Herald, these Konglish names help promote a “premium brand image.” When the City of Seoul selected a new promotional slogan, “I.Seoul.U,” Koreans mocked it on social media, saying it didn’t make sense in English. Park, too, acknowledges the ascendency of the English language in her home country: “It is really important for going out and getting a job,” she says.
But Park is also skeptical of English’s increasing influence on the Korean language. For one thing, she says, pseudo-anglicisms often lack the descriptiveness of native words. (In North Korea, for example, people don’t call donuts “donuts”; they say “ga-lack ji bbang,” which translates loosely to “a ring of bread.”) “People haven’t really realized that there’s a phenomenon, that we are losing our own language,” she says.
To that end, she designed “Lost in Konglish” to become less and less legible as you flip through it. She also created graphics of new letterforms that fuse the shape of Korean Hangul letters with English ones. The artful distortions and smudges grow more intense, until the text becomes indecipherable. “It becomes more chaotic, because the phenomenon is more serious,” she says. “There is communication missing.”
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