Korean Braille & Elevators

Koreans, like many Chinese, have a superstition about the number 4. In Chinese it’s because 四(4) and 死(death) are both pronounced “si”. In Korean, it’s because in Chinese they’re pronounced the same. The Sino-Korean pronunciation of both is 사. In native Korean, 4 is 넷 and “to die” is 죽다, though a Sinitic-root verb also exists, 사망하다. At any rate, anyone I ever asked about this gave the answer that it’s considered unlucky because of how it’s pronounced in Chinese, not in Korean.

As a result of this, and like in China, many Korean elevators lack a 4th floor. Most often it’s replaced with ‘F’ on the button. I don’t think I ever saw a lift that simply skipped 4 as they often* do in China.

Digging through some photos of the past year, I came across one of an elevator panel that I found a little curious. Here’s the photo, scaled down a bit.

For floors 3-5, the buttons read as follows:
3 ⠼⠉
F ⠴⠋
5 ⠼⠑

Note the difference in the first letter in F as compared to 3 and 5. In Korean Braille, is the marker to show that the following glyphs are numbers. Also, consistent with many other languages written in Braille, is 3 and is 5. 4 is actually and if it were a number, would be 6. But in the second line, is preceded by . That glyph, , is actually called 영어표. That is, it’s the thing that marks the following letters as English. then corresponds to the English letter F.

It baffles me a bit that a superstitious homophone in a foreign language requires a remedy in another foreign language, when they could just write 4 and call it 넷.

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* I once lived in an apartment building that numbered the floors 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 … 11, 12, 15, 16 …, probably to accommodate the triskaidekaphobic foreigners who lived there.

relevant links:
- Site in Korean w/ the full alphabet
- More limited Wikipedia site, but in Engish

10 thoughts on “Korean Braille & Elevators

  1. Fascinating post! But I have to take issue with your final statement. You just can’t write a “4′ in that context and call it ‘net 넷’. That’s somewhat like saying “Why don’t English speakers pronounce ’1st’ as ‘onest’?”. In the context of naming floors, Sino-Korean numbers are used, not native Korean. That’s just how Korean works. Moreover, I think it’s really not accurate to say that the homophones in this case are in a “foreign language”. Sino-Korean words are as much Korean as Latin-English words (like “very”) or Franco-English words (like “enter”) are English.

  2. I meant simply as a taboo-avoidance method. Similar things have been done in manny languages, and possibly in Korean as well (thought I’m only speculating). יהוה gets read “Adonai” in Hebrew texts, for example, for the sake of avoiding a taboo. You’re right that that’s just not how Korean works, and i wasn’t meaning to suggest they should change the language. It’s just surprising to think that the taboo (again, from another language very few people in Korea speak) is carried over and remedied in this one case with a third language, instead of something like how Chinese uses the yāo pronunciation for 一 in a single instance for a single purpose.

    I can’t imagine Chinese saying they think red umbrellas are bad because “red umbrella” sounds like “matricide” in Manchu*, and then remedying it by calling them “paraguas rojo”.

    As for the homophones being Sino-Korean and not Chinese, the 사 pronunciation for death is to my knowledge not really used in regular Korean conversation. 사거 is the only word I could find, via Google Translate, and it’s not in the few dictionaries I have. I just texted a friend who would know these things, but it’s late in Korea so I don’t expect a quick reply.

    I wonder, if it was once used but now is not, would it still classify as homophonous? The majority of Mandarin speakers are unlikely to know the meaning of 圊 in classical literature. Would that still make 清 a homophone for ‘toilet’ to a modern speaker?

    *It doesn’t. I think.

    • You raise a very good point. It makes no sense unless there is a word used in Korean (whether of Chinese, pure Korean or even English origin) that is reminiscent of 4 in some way. And there is no such word…

      Then again, what superstitions really do make sense?

  3. Superstition amuses me immensely. I’ve actually seen someone skipping a row to avoid having their name in 4th position. Some Korean friends of superstition also believe one might die from having one’s name struck through (is this common in China?) or written in red. I’ve always felt tempted to write my name in red in the fourth item in a list and then strike it through, just to see the look on people’s faces.

    • I have heard many different explanations as to why names cannot be written in red in Korea. (some examples http://ask.search.nate.com/all.html?f=A&q=%BB%A1%B0%AD%BB%F6%C0%B8%B7%CE+%C0%CC%B8%A7+%BE%B2%B8%E9&thr=vnqa). Is it because
      (i) that person will die?,
      (ii) red as an auspicious color was restricted to only writing the name of the emperors?
      (iii) a red line is drawn under/above the name of a person on the death certificate and it is reminiscent of this?
      (iv) an artist depicted the queen’s likeness in red ink, she thought it looked inauspicious to look so bloody, so the artist was put in prison?
      The fact that everyone is asking but there is no consistent answer says to me that nobody really knows the true origin of this custom. From what I can tell, Chinese don’t seem to have the same strong aversion. I frequently see coworkers write names in red in China without a second thought and offer me a red pen or board marker to use when it is clear that we are writing names. But I could never write a name in red. That has been burned into my soul.

      I have never seen Koreans concerned with writing a name 4th on a list. I have also never seen the crossed-out name thing be an issue, but that is probably because I don’t believe I’ve had occasion to cross someone’s name out.

      If you really want to see someone climb the walls, though, try tearing up a photograph (like one that came out badly or an extra that you don’t need) of someone’s face in front of Korean people.

    • Interrsting that you’ve not encountered the res name thing. It was hugely common among friends and at work. That was in a slightly smaller Jiangsu town, though.

  4. In China as well. The explanation I always heard was that red is used only to write the names of the deceased. I don’t know much about Japan but the single episode of “Heroes” I saw showed a funeral in Japan and a husband painted his wife’s name on the grave stone in red. That may be connected.

    Also if I remember correctly, in North Korea, red is used when writing the names of the Kim (Il Sung) family, so either they forcibly did away with the superstition or it was never that strong in NK. I’d guess it’s the former.

    I’ve not heard about crossing it out, but I know people can be quite sensitive about how their written name is treated otherwise.

  5. I just spoke to some Chinese friends, and they didn’t seem to know about any superstition about crossing names out, but they did know about the “writing the name in red” superstition (they also said it was because that’s how they’re written on grave stones) and they said that they would avoid both 4 (死) and 14 (實死 “certain death”).

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