Thursday, December 03, 2009

Making out in Korean English @koreangov

I discovered the blog @koreangov via Roboseyo yesterday, and if you haven't read it, it's well worth your time. Imagine consistently funny satirical "government press releases" in the kind of English that obviously hasn't been checked by a native speaking editor.

I wonder what the earliest publication of such writing would be. Jack London included a note written in broken English from his Japanese interpreter, K. Yamada, in a letter home to his future wife in 1904:
For you don't returned returned within long time there happened trouble yesterday that I has been arrested to Japanese gendarme as reporting military secret to you and after 10 hours examined several questions, I could come back to my boarding house. Received telegram and I shall do your order.[...] If you don't come back I can't help plenty troubles.
London makes no comment on the style, however, only using it to illustrate his many woes. As for official communication, I imagine, with so many foreign 'advisors,' during the late Joseon and Daehan Empire eras, that there was better proofreading done than these days, but I'm not really sure. If anyone's interested in how things were done in 1959, this description of the water clock at Deoksugung might be of interest. In the essay looking at the history of expat publications in Korea that opens Scott Burgeson's book Korea Bug, he notes that Peace Corps newsletters, particularly The Noodle, also used to poke fun at such language, such as in fake letters to the newsletter asking for English lessons, along the lines of 'I want to intercourse with you.' (I don't have the book with me at the moment - if someone wants to send or post one of those letters in the comments, please do.) (And speaking of Scott, there's a lengthy interview with him in the Korea Herald here.)

That there were interesting things to be found in the Korea Times back in the day (when it seemed to have a better reputation that it does these days) is also obvious in Korea Bug, with its mentions of Gary Rector's columns and an inclusion of an article by Ken Kaliher that appeared in the "Thoughts of the Times" section in 1976 about his memories of Nakchi Kolmok', the street that used to mirror the almost disappeared Pimatgol, running parallel to Jongno on its south side. Actually, related to tortured English, in his interview, Kaliher takes issue with "written English - Korean organizations pour millions of won into slick publications, but won't spend the extra thousands to have competent native speaker check the English. So yes, they have a fancy English publication to show off, but it's full of stupid mistakes. All those students who love to learn English idioms should be teaching their parents about 'penny wise and pound foolish.'"

More evidence about interesting things to be found in the Korea Times in times past can be found in James Wade's book One Man's Korea (Hollym, 1967), which I recently bought online. It collects Wade's articles from the Korea Times (under his own name and various pseudonyms like "Alf Racketts" and "Arthur Journeyman"), Korea Journal, and other publications. Wade first served in Korea with the U.S. Army in 1954 and returned in 1960, working as a musician, writer, and columnist. The book includes KT columns, fiction about Korea (including a series of stories published in the Times poking fun at the foreign community), travel articles and articles about Korean musicians. The "Scouting the City" columns by Alf Racketts read like mid-1960s blog posts, ripping on Nelson Algren or Male magazine for their takes on Korea (and its prostitutes), tearing down other well-known authors, describing trips to kisaeng houses or rainy days at Haeundae, and complaining about Korea's Christians. A later Korea Journal review is here, though perhaps the titles of this and this (not by Wade) should have been proofread. Here's a piece somewhat related to the topic at hand (the first of many I imagine I'll post):
Getting Down to Earth

I have in my private library (very private, alongside certain translations Chinese novels and outpourings of Parisian high spirits) a little pamphlet I picked up for a few cents in the market at Pusan in 1954. The title of this pamphlet is "American Slang," and it is mostly in Korean, since it is a manual for study by Koreans who wish to acquire language proficiency in order to get jobs with American agencies, specifically Army units. However, the words that are defined and discussed by the Korean philologist appear in English as well as Hangul transliteration, so I know what the subject matter is.

I should like to quote from this manual, but I know that if I do so in such a way as to give an accurate idea as to its flavor, even my very tolerant editor will suppress this article. (He has told me that he sometimes receives complaints even now about the nature of some of the material appearing in this 'family-type' publication.)

Suffice to say that among learned dissertations on the usage of "Habba Habba" (Obs.?) and "I wanna see a man about a dog" (Archaic?), there is a preponderance of material dealing with sexual intercourse and/or personal abuse in those ageless Anglo-Saxon terms which anyone who has ever been associated with the U.S. Army, however reluctantly, will instantly and perhaps squeamishly recognize.

Now this seems to me an aspect of cultural interchange that has heretofore been shamefully one-sided. How many times has your housemaid or driver come out with something approximately English in mixed company that produces snickers or blushes due to its Rabelaisian frankness? How many times have cultivated and high-minded Koreans (provided any of these trust you enough) asked you in private whether certain English words or phrases ought to be used openly or not? Obviously the Koreans are trying to find out the score. But are we Americans?

It is not enough, in the view of this rich English rhetoric of my little pamphlet, for Americans to be able to call someone a "stone-head" in Korean. They can't fool us; they must have some riper epithets in their vocabularies than this. But how are we to learn them? No enterprising publisher, to my knowledge, has put together a comparably rich pamphlet of "Korean Slang."

This is a project which I recommend to UNESCO, the USIS, and especially the Army information program, on the principle that, until we have it, our effectiveness as representatives of western culture is severely handicapped. (-1964)
Moving past the obvious differences in the terms on which foreigners meet Koreans these days (not just your driver or housemaid anymore), and the fact that Korean films can teach a lot of the 'riper' slang these days, there is a book I can think of that has such Korean slang: Making Out in Korean. Of course, that book hasn't always been so popular here (it also appeared in some of the earliest posts at Anti-English Spectrum in 2005).

Question: Would this kind of writing in Japan be similar? I'd imagine so, seeing as Korean and Japanese are grammatically similar, and the example above might suggest similarity. Another question would revolve around the origins of the terms 'Japlish' and 'Konglish.'


@koreangov said...

WOW^^!! Thank You! For the mention @koreangov.

Gomushin Girl said...

There actually is a "Making Out in Japanese" ~ it's part of a series. I've read through the Korean version, and it's both a lot less racy and a lot less useful than one would hope (if you're curious, the entire text seems to be online here: with just one chapter of cursewords and another of fairly easy sentences that most elementary Japanese students could put together on their own (kondomu tsukete? for "will you use a condom" is just the word condom + the question form of the verb "to use") It's firmly aimed at heterosexual males who think they can manage to seduce local chicks by reading them elementary lines out of a guidebook - good luck with that, boys!^^V
As for the Korea Journal, they've long worked with native speakers as consulting editors, but sometimes things aren't perfect because of time constraints or firm but bewildering author preferences.

matt said...

My sister, who taught in Japan for a couple years, has a copy of "Making out in Japanese" - something I imagine she bought before she first left (my guide of choice for Korea was the Lonely Planet's phrase guide).

And yes, to be fair, those examples from Korea Journal are from the early or mid 1960s. Notable about that era is how much translated fiction there was - it's a pretty useful source, actually, and collecting links to some of the better stories would make for a useful blog post.

Helen said...

I think there are three types of Korean english speakers.
-Koreans who have an excellent command of english
-Koreans who speak broken english but are trouble-free
-Koreans who try not to speak broken english too much so have a trouble to communicate.

If it's hard to become the first case, I would prefer the second one. Of course it should be proofread by native speakers when it is published even though it's written by the first one.

petestravels said...

Matt, thanks for the excellent article. However, I find the "Making out" series to be rather juvenile, poorly thought out and not a very interesting or dynamic way of learning Korean slang. Of course there is another publication introducing Korean Slang to the westerner in a more interesting format, with practical situations, etc. It is called 죄꼬리만큼 or "As much as A Rat's Tail"

Synopsis: Korean Slang invective and euphemism – An irreverent look at Language within Culture.
Korean is rich with the dynamic linguistic expressions and freshly coined language. A Rat’s Tail dives into the intricacies of the modern Korean slang introducing the hip, hot, spicy and sexual, the irreverent and inspiring, the cultural, crass and comical. This is the Korean not covered in the language books, full of color and infused with philosophy. With A Rat’s Tail in hand, you can impress others with your verbal acumen as you complement their fashion sense, dish out dirty words, or text up a storm, as you gain insight into the mind and culture of the Korean people.

check it out at

It is also a good way for Koreans to learn a little English - with comparable slang when appropriate.