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A man reads a newspaper reporting the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Experts say the Korean language is central to a national identityImage: Lee Jin-Man/AP/picture alliance

Koreans celebrate language but fear foreign encroachment

Julian Ryall Tokyo
October 8, 2021

Imported English phrases are becoming commonplace, but linguistic purists fear the adoption of "Konglish." Experts say more foreign words are used in South Korea as a result of globalization and international media.


October 9, a national holiday to honor the Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is a red-letter day on the South Korean calendar.

The holiday was established in 1970, and purists are now warning that the writing system, which will mark its 575th anniversary this year, is increasingly threatened by foreign words. The words, purists say, are being adopted as a result of globalization, the influence of foreign media and a desire among young people to appear more international. 

The 51 characters that make up the alphabet were first devised by King Sejong the Great in 1443 to replace the use of Chinese in written documents. Chinese was seen as a complex language with thousands of characters that only the wealthy and educated could use.

Most importantly, Hangul served as a symbol of national identity and resistance to Japanese rule during the 36-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula, and South Koreans retain a deep connection with a writing system that they share with North Korea. 

'Language forms national identity'

"We Koreans are very proud of our language because it has helped us to form our national identity after previously using Chinese and then being occupied by the Japanese," Ohe Hye-gyeong, a lecturer in world languages at the International Christian University in Tokyo, told DW. 

"During the occupation, Koreans had to take Japanese names, had to learn Japanese in school and were not allowed to speak Korean, so we have celebrated being able to use Hangul since independence in 1945," she said.

By the 1990s, however, word processors and computers started becoming more prevalent in the workplace and in homes, with English as the dominant operating language. At the same time, more young Koreans started going abroad for their tertiary education, with the United States, Canada and Australia being the most popular destinations.

More recently, technological leaps have occurred in social media, music, television, film, gaming, sports and countless other areas, with English once again becoming the most important source language.

A trend among young people

Critically, the consumers of these services are predominantly young people. There is also a trend among Korean teens and 20-somethings of using foreign terms in conversation.

"There are a lot of reasons why foreign 'loan' words are creeping into Korean, from changing social influences to the impacts of technology, economics, the globalization of music, art, television, fashion, sport, and countless others," Dan Pinkston, a professor of international relations at Troy University's Seoul campus, told DW.

"Younger Koreans have a very different perspective on language from older people here — they are exposed to different sources of information and consume it very differently, so it is only natural that they adopt foreign terms and slang words, which gradually become embedded into the language," Pinkston said.

"But all languages are constantly evolving and adapting to the times, so this is not only an issue for Korea," he added.

This week, however, The Korea Times printed an opinion article condemning "Konglish," an amalgamation of Korean and English. The paper wrote that "Konglish" can be defined by the "indiscriminate use of inaccurate words — some of which don't even make sense at all."

One example that has emerged during the coronavirus pandemic is "untact," which is a combination of "un" and "contact" that translates to "contactless."

Another term that has found favor among some is "corona blue," meaning depression due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the national government has been accused of worsening the problem by naming a scheme to adjust to life with the coronavirus: "With Corona." 

Loan words a 'grave threat' to Korean

The article suggested that misusing foreign loan words could damage Koreans' correct use of their own language, while an unnamed expert said that, if the trend of adopting outside words continues, "it can pose a grave threat to our cultural identity and the Korean language may be relegated to an inferior status."

"Whatever you call it — globalization, internationalization, Americanization — I'm not sure there is much that can be done to halt or reverse this trend," Ohe said. She added that there are many sectors that are very much in favor of encouraging greater English-language skills, such as tertiary education and businesses with international operations or ambitions. 

"I imagine the government and some scholars could do something to try to encourage greater use of Hangul and attempt to limit the use of loan words, but that would be a very protective, conservative stance and I'm not sure it would be effective," she said. 

Pinkston echoed those comments. He pointed out that the language transfer goes both ways, as a record 26 Korean words have been added to the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. This, he said, reflects the growing influence of Korean youth culture, such as the music of pop superstars Bangtan Boys, Girls Generation or Blackpink, as well as the growth of Korean films, television series and sporting stars beyond the borders of Korea. 

"Here, young people are adopting foreign words and using them in conversation because they are 'hip' or sophisticated," Pinkston said. "But it was the same with young people a generation ago and the generation before that — and not just in Korea. It's how language evolves." 

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