Konglish: Korean-Style English

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Would you believe me if I told you that even if you are new to the world of Korean, you may already know a lot of words of the language if you can speak English? If you have consumed audiovisual content such as podcasts or Korean dramas, you will know that I am not lying to you because it is very likely that on your way, you have already come across one or another word, which, even if it had a slightly different pronunciation, sounded surprisingly similar to another of the English language. It is not magic; this phenomenon is something for which we can thank the one who maybe is going to become your next great ally to quickly increase your arsenal of Korean vocabulary, Konglish (콩글리시). Criticized by some, loved by others, Konglish has become an essential part of daily conversation, advertising, and entertainment in South Korea, so if you are interested in knowing about the origin, advantages, and disadvantages of these hybrid Korean-English words, which are nothing more and nothing less than another small sample of the great extent of globalization, continue reading, and you will find information that will even be useful for you to advance in your journey to conquer the Korean language.

Konglish, also known as Korean-style English (한국어식 영어), is a word that comes from the union of two terms: Korean + English, and is used to define all those words from the English language that Koreans have adapted and adopted as their own through hangul. Konglish words look Korean but sound clearly in English and maintain a “Koreanized” pronunciation. Over the years, its use has become more extensive in South Korea due to the anglophone cultural influence, especially in the United States, which is noticeable in the closeness of these words to the pronunciation of American English, which through eloquent, ingenious, and great artistic quality films, music, and television programs has earned the privilege of sociolinguistically representing luxury, youth, sophistication, and modernity. An example of this is the trend in Seoul of naming apartment buildings with combinations of English words such as Luxtige, Blesstige, Tristige, and Forestige, in which terms such as luxury, blessing, trinity, and forest are joined with the word prestige, this because it is believed to be an action that will improve the brand image of the properties.

However, Konglish is an acronym that was first recorded in 1975 and whose precedents date back many more years, at the time of the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945. During the colonial period, there were times when it was forbidden to teach and speak Korean; therefore, Japanese was the principal language through which the communication terms in English were imported into Korea, especially with the arrival of Western culture and technology in the following years and have been gradually evolving ever since. After the Korean War (한국전쟁) that took place between 1950 and 1953, at the same time as the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, the separation of the two Koreas occurred, and the people of the South were plunged into a period of great poverty and crisis, from which they recovered thanks to the support of the USA; that further increased the popularity of the use of English in the Korean language and was the determinative influence for the development of Konglish.

The modern use of this has accentuated the linguistic division between North and South Korea, considering that even when some Korean words are already used differently between the two countries, the first one has suffered a systematic purification of its language seeking to restore its unique North Korean identity, removing the traces of Japanese culture that penetrated deep into the Korean peninsula, and likewise it has continued to resist adopting words borrowed from foreign sources, especially English; therefore, Konglish terms, if any, are hardly known in the North Korean language. In consequence, defectors could have trouble integrating into South Korean society since Konglish can lead to confusion, misunderstandings, or delays in the process. While this problem exists between North and South, it also does between metropolitan and rural within the Republic of Korea itself.

To better understand what words we can consider in Konglish, we must first clarify that in the Korean language, there are two different categories for those derived from English: 1) loanwords (외래어) and 2) Konglish. Loanwords are those words derived from another language for which there is no equivalent or substitute in Korean; therefore, they have the same meaning in both languages, only the pronunciation is going to be a little different from the original depending on the particular articulatory and acoustic characteristics of the language. These are easier to understand and remember because they sound almost the same as the original word. As an example of this we have words like 버스 [beo-seu] = bus, 주스 [ju-seu] = juice, 바이러스 [ba-i-reo-seu] = virus, 컴퓨터 [keom-pyu-teo] = computer, 피자 [pi-ja] = pizza, and 쇼핑 [syo-ping] = shopping. Some loanwords that can also be commonly found in Korean come from Japanese and German, such as 아파트 [a-pa-teu] = apartment and 아르바이트 [a-reu-bai-teu] = part-time job, respectively.

Konglish, on the other hand, includes words that are derived from the English language but whose meaning or pronunciation has been altered. In that order of ideas, we are going to have two types of words; those that exist in English, but have a different meaning for Koreans like 서비스 [seo-bi-seu] = something free-charge at a shop or restaurant, 밴드 [baen-deu] = band-aid or 노트북 [no- teu-buk] = laptop, and others that are hybrid words or non-standard abbreviations that will have roots in English, but have a meaning that only exists in Korean, such as 에어컨 [eeokeon] = air conditioner, 아이쇼핑 [ah-ee -syo-ping] = eye + shopping > window shopping or 오피스텔 [o-pi-seu-tel] = office + hotel > a multi-purpose building in Korea with both residential and commercial units. These sound like English words, but you have to give them a lot of thinking to discover their real meaning, which is why many foreigners who study Korean are puzzled when they hear them. It’s curious, but the word Konglish is itself a Konglish term.

Konglish undoubtedly has its beauty, but also its dangers, and some even suggest that it masks the problem of English education in Korea; but the truth is that there is a big difference between expressions like 화이팅 / 파이팅! And the bad grammar and vocabulary that could be seen on billboards, signs, packages, or on TV in Korea. The excessive importance given to learning English has also been criticized, arguing that in the long term, this is going to damage the Korean language and blur the national identity of South Korea, considering that sometimes there have even been debates about if English should be adopted as another national language in Korea. Another concern with Konglish is related to misunderstandings, especially in the spheres of tourism and business. Poor English on signs, brochures, websites, or in other media can cause tourists to get lost; for example, when Incheon Airport first opened to the public, more than 49 signs were found to contain errors in English. In addition to keeping tourists away, their use can lead to the breaking of trade agreements if, due to misunderstandings, a foreign trading partner loses confidence in a Korean company. And finally, while Konglish can be a good first approach for Korean natives to learn English, over time, it may lead to the endurance of some mistakes in pronunciation, interfering with the structurally and technically correct learning of the language. Thus, the limitations of Konglish must be recognized, and it is the responsibility of the Korean education system to make a good choice of qualified English teachers who have had a prudent amount of time to prepare.

If we can give you one last piece of advice before you launch into the world of Konglish and start putting all its words to use, it is to familiarize yourself with the Korean alphabet or hangul, so your pronunciation will be impeccable, the natives will be impressed with your language skills, and you will get more opportunities to practice the language. It is an undeniable fact that today the world is a global village and that English is one of its principal engines that has played an essential role in our growth as a collective. As time goes by, our cultures and languages will continue to evolve, motivated by aspects ranging from tourism to trade; perhaps they will be intertwined to such an extent that they are going to be unrecognizable compared to what is our present, and it is that from this moment, English is already positioning itself as something essential to be considered competent in the labor market; it is but to look at other large Asian countries such as China and Japan where Chinglish and Japlish exist too. Even so, it is good that we always remember what our roots are and preserve our identities that are unique and complex, because there is beauty in diversity.

I hope you enjoy learning Korean a lot, and if you want to review more vocabulary related to the topic, you can check pages like Lingua Asia, LearnKorean24, or 90daykorean. Don’t get lost in Konglish!

Written by: Laura Herrera

Reviewed by: Angie Salavarria

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