Mixed-script Korean

This was on the seat in front of me on a recent flight to Korea:

That’s “着度中에는 安全帶를 매십시오” and “救命胴衣는 座度 밑에 있습니다” in case the image doesn’t show up.

This makes me think two things. 1) I really need to practice my Korean typing again. That took way too long to write. 2) This is probably an old airplane. I’m pretty sure newspapers, even conservative ones like Chosun Ilbo (조선일보/朝鮮日報), stopped using mixed-script in the mid-1990s. I certainly never saw it when I lived there with the exception of a 美 or 大 here and there. Planes get used for a really long time, and this one certainly had some thai cosmetic issues to account for years of service.

There are a number of textbooks that include mixed-script texts for the sake of learning hanja, but little else is currently printed in that way. It’s almost too bad. It’s a nice look, and knowing a few more hanja probably wouldn’t hurt anyone. But then it’s not doing a lot for improved literacy rates this way.

Lettering in Korea

Anyone who knows me knows how much I like graphical display of language. Some people call that “typography”.

I’ve been in Korea for the past few months, and I’m leaving tomorrow, at least for a little while. Before I go I thought I’d share a few of my favourite instances of lettering I’ve seen around Seoul and Busan. Some of these I liked for what they say, or how they look, or just because they’re representative of hangul calligraphy. Of course most of this is hanzi. A couple of these photos are from friends. Most are from my phone.


Trilingual blogs (中韓英)

My university had a language centre as all modern universities do. In addition to the required X hours spent doing coursework there, you could borrow DVDs in various languages. Most were outdated or over-watched VHSs converted into DVDs, so the quality wasn’t the best, but then again we were listening to Umm Kuthum at the time anyway so lo-fi was the way to go. The only real problem was the student workers. I remember quite clearly going in one day and asking to borrow an episode of افتح يا سمسم, call number AS-03 or something like that. “AS-03?” she asked, critically, while shooting a glance to her friends standing nearby. “You want to watch Sesame Street?” Chuckles all around.

Yeah, you jerk, I do. Sorry I don’t want to pretend to understand every nuance in the dialogue of La Haine just to look cool in front of the other language students. Give me my damn muppets and leave me alone.

I’m still working through some stuff from when I was younger.


Korean Grammar by way of Characters

[The following is a guest post. Yi Chonsang lives in Seoul where he works as an anonymous grunt for a multinational.]

I spend most of my time at work. I would love to enroll in a language program but it’s just not an option with my schedule. Meanwhile a friend here in Seoul is studying Korean full time, and he’s gotten pretty good at it. Now he’s looking to learn hanja, the Korean name for Chinese characters. He recently showed me the book he’s using for this, Learning Hanja the Fun Way.

He said it has been very useful so far for learning hanja. It must be because he’s going through it fairly quickly. I had a different idea. I thought it would be a good way for a Mandarin speaker to learn Korean grammar by going through the book in reverse. Since I studied Chinese before, that’s exactly what I’m now trying to do.

The book is divided into lessons, each composed of a list of vocabulary words followed by a reading comprehension paragraph in Korean and English. The words from the vocabulary show up in the reading as hanja (漢字 hànzì); the list of hanja are given with hangul (the native Korean writing system), a definition, and a little picture to show you what it’s supposed to be representing. This is like what you find in books like Remembering the Kanji/Hanzi.


Discounts in Writing

I’ve been trying to learn some Korean lately. Hangŭl 한글/韓글 is easy enough. It can be learned in a couple hours. Actually I went through that before a visit to Seoul in October. While there with friends I stopped in to a small eatery with a handritten menu. The friends, students of Korean, had some trouble making out the letters. I, oddly enough, did not. I just figured maybe it was because the same strokes in handwritten hanzi 汉字/漢字 get messy in the same ways when used to write Korean.


Observations on discounts and predictiveness

I was remembering something from my trip to Seoul in October, which then got me on to other things. The word for woman, or at least the important syllable when it comes to choosing the right bathroom (i.e. not the one that says ‘woman’ in my case) is 야 (ya). I thought of this because a friend who is studying hanja asked about 肉 which is 욕 (yok) in Korean (as far as the hanja is pronounced) but nyo’ in Wu, yuk in Cantonese and にく (niku) in Japanese¹. So basically I figured Mandarin r- becomes Korean hanja y-, though it’s ny- in Wu and Cantonese. Turns out I stopped one step too soon. the y- in Korean is actually only half the story. If the syllable is the first in the phrase, then it is in fact y-. Beyond that, however, it picks up an n-, making ny-. So the 肉 in 鸡肉 would actually be closer to nyok, bringing it almost perfectly in line with many Wu dialects.


Ryakuji in Mandarin

In Japanese they’re called ryakuji りゃくじ. In Korean, yakja 약자. The corresponding characters are 略字, pronounced lüè zì in Mandarin. They are the unorthodox simplifications that are seen in handwritten texts from time to time. They are not in any official list of approved kanji/hanja/hanzi, and you won’t really learn them in school. But they are used.

Think 仃 for 停 but lacking the authority once (briefly) held by 仃. Or, think of all those times you wrote 旦 in place of 单 蛋 or 弹 in your notes in class, because you couldn’t be bothered by all those strokes at the time. I know I’m not the only one to do this.


Parallel Homophony

While looking up some obscure thing from Zhuangzi 庄子 this week, I fired up Pleco on my iPod and stumbled across something I liked, though I may be the only one.

燕 yàn means swallow, as in the bird.
嚥 yàn, also written 咽, means swallow, as in what I’m doing with a cold bottle of maibock as I write this.

That’s freaking amazing! Or maybe just slightly amazing. Two homophones in English are also homophonous in Mandarin, internal to each language. How often does that happen? Maybe often and I’ve just never noticed. So I thought I’d post it here and see if anyone had other examples of this sort of thing.

It reminds me of another interesting but obviously different thing that happens sometimes, which is two words that sound the same in two languages, mean the same thing, but have no etymological connection. For example the word “and” in Arabic is written وَ while Korean has a word meaning “and” written 와. Both are pronounced “wa”. There’s some better example between Japanese and English that I’ve encountered before but I can’t recall what it was. Suggestions of that sort are also welcome.

Signage and foreign languages

The first word I ever learned to read in Japanese was クラブ, derived from and meaning “club”. There were 5 such Japanese clubs to be passed in my five minute walk to work last year. But my favourite use of foreign languages in a business façade is probably the massage parlour. A number of them say 안마¹, massage and マッサージ², but not always the Mandarin equivalent.