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Saturday, October 14, 2006  
I've just been trying to figure out why I found Korean so much harder than Japanese (Language), and I finally had the time to sit down and read this afternoon, after the exam last thursday and before C block clerkship starts next week. This is going to bore you if you have no background knowledge of any of the Chinese, Japanese or Korean languages... or if you don't give a chicken about languages.

Anyway, back to Korean. I've only officially learnt Korean for 3 months, and it has took me that long just to work around the script (Hangul) and the phonetics. After that I tried to pick up the language myself, just like the way I did with my Japanese; but found it so much harder.

First off, the Korean grammer is so much more irregular than Japanese. The Japanese are more systemic (boring in a sense) they even cut down the types of verbs into 3 (from7 or 8 back in the early 20th century), meaning that there's now less to remember when you chance the tense. This is not true for Korean, where irregular verbs galore, and it is a huge pain because people don't use Chinese-loan verbs in daily life.

The Hangul script is said to be the most scientific script in the world, following the shapes of the mouth and pharynx. (For example L-shape for "n" and ^ shape for "s") Hangul is basically a cluster of alphabets, vowels and consonents stacked up together to fit into a square for easy printing (affected by Chinese). So when you change the tense, you shuffle the parts of the square, and this took me a long while to get used to.

Pronounciation wise Korean is a lot more colorful than Japanese. Sounds are a lot more complex and the combination of vowels and consonents is at least double that of Japanese. Well, good, that means Korean would not dwell on the same monotonous sounds all the time, making words more dissimilar. (Japanese: byou-in for hospital, biyou-in for beauty clinic) Wrong. You have to understand that Korea is a much bigger country than Japan, and the variety of pronounciation of the same standard national language is much greater. (i'm not talking about tongues and dialects yet here) the difference between some of the sounds is so little that everybody pronounces that incorrectly (technically) even on TV. eo and o, kk and k (ss and s etc), ae and e and so on. This will be ok for native Koreans, just like the case for Cantonese.

As for the Chinese-loanwords, some say that Korean is even more loaded than Japanese. But if you ask a Heilongjiang-dialect speaking Chinese how much he understands Korean, literally zero unless he learnt it. But for an experience cantonese speaker, one can pick out chinese phrases from spoken Japanese. (Backgound: the pronunciation in Cantonese is closer to the old chinese in Tang Dynasty, people living in the capital fled south in the next couple of hundred years, carrying the lingua de capitol with them. The Korean pronounciation is closer to the mid-northen Chinese dialects) Why not Korean?

I figure there're 2 main reasons, and that just hit me today.

1. Alphabet structure and modernation of spoken tongue
As I mentioned before, one of the hurdles in learning Korean would be the alphabets. Native speakers will tell you that, reading Korean is really easy, once you get all the circles and square right you can even mix and match your own characters. That's true, Korean is easy to write, but difficult to read FAST. I'll use an example to illustrate why the alphabet messes up with an otherwise comprehensible phrase to Chinese.

cantonese root: yeuk3 chok1 (to discipline, to bound; verb or noun)
putonghua/mandarin root: yue4 su1 (to discipline, to bound; verb or noun)
Korean: yak sok (promise; noun)
Japanese: yaku soku (promise; noun)

Fair enough, the romanization looks close; you will most propably recognize the phrase if you ask a Korean to read the root, noun form. But if you put it into contest, like in a cheesy BSB song. "Promise me"

Korean: yak sok hasipseyo
Japanese: yakusoku shite onegai

Here's the twist, Koreans tend to swallow the consonents and drag them onto the next word (like english), but in Japanese and Chinese, they're separate... and in Cantonese they're very seperated, hence the famous Chinese accent. We tend to cut off the consonents at the end of each word, that's how the Chinese and Japanese scripts are written and that's how we're supposed to read. In modern Tokyo, the max they can do is to silence the vowel eg. asakusa-sen becomes asaksasen and shinbashi becomes shimbash. And no matter what they do, they don't swallow the root, that is, they swallow the suffices and never the Chinese loan word. This is not true in Korean.

"yakusoku shite onegai" becomes "yassosshte negaiii" in Japanese.
In Korean, they stress on more on the suffices, which a lot of the times would obscure the root already e.g. "reul" as subject marker, "yak sok hasipseyo" becomes "ut'sutk sh'seyo", making the Chinese word unrecognizable

2. The loanwords Korean preferentially chose to retain
Both Japanese and Koreans brought in Chinese loanwords into their languages. Some say that Korean is more influenced by Chinese than the Japanese, because of the geography and history. If that's true, why would these loanwords so much harder to be picked out in Korean than in Japanese? The first reason is alphabet structure and the difference in speech modernization, the second reason has to do with the actual loanwords that Koreans chose to use.

Similar to Thai and Vietnamnese, Chinese loanwords are used to describe things that are more abstract, formal and ritual. (let's not talk about economics and modern science here, as most of the words came from the Japanese's mixing and matching of Kanji) Words for cats and dogs, trees and flowers need not to be borrowed as they are already well established in the native tongue.

The distinctive feature of the Chinese loanwords that the Koreans chose is actually the fact that they borrowed word by word, and one word at a time. The Japanese did that too, but they matched them with other Chinese loan words, for example oo-setsu-ma (living room), or they only borrow the chinese character and retained their native pronounciation (hikkosu for moving house, tadashi for correct). As for Koreans, "kkot" is flower (gok1 in cantonese and gu in mandarin), "han" is opposition (fan2 in cantonese and fan3 in mandarin), "hap" is to combine (haap6 in cantonese, he2 in mandarin) and the list goes on. Koreans again, put their native suffix after these single syllables they borrowed from Chinese. The end result is a mess, a mess for Koreans themselves so much that they suggested reviving Chinese charaters into their publishing, it is a mess for language learner trying to pick up the language

So what am I trying to say here. I admit that I found the Korean language hard and frustrating, I am looking for excuses to justify my lack of motivation to learn it properly. And the chance of doing that is just getting sleekier and sleekier in med school.

trapped in the maze of time..12:51 AM

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