Sunday, August 13, 2017

#90. 박쥐 -- You're an opportunist

Browsing the Korean internet, and not having contact with real Koreans often always puts me under the impression that the Koreans are the most vulgar, foul-mouthed human beings that ever graced the surface of the earth. But then I meet the Koreans in person, and they are pretty much the polar opposite of what you expect from your interactions with them online.

In particular, the one thing that always shocks me is that the Koreans are amazingly literate. People often quote a random piece of literature as a part of their everyday conversation, and they are not always well-known from the anglophone point of view.

This past weekend, I was spending time with a good Korean friend who lives in New York City. The city traffic is always crazy, but we had a number of annoying situations where the cyclists refused to stop for pedestrians while our light was green. After we had one too many of these run-ins with the cyclists, my friend exclaimed in exasperation,
"진짜 박쥐가 따로 없네" (I'm having a hard time telling them apart from the bats!)

The Korean word for "bat" is "박쥐." It is said that this word originates from "박 (comes from "밝" as in "눈이 밝다" which means "to have sharp eyes," which makes sense since they fly around at night)" + "쥐 (rat)." So "박쥐" literally means "rats that can see well" in Korean.
This reference, which most Koreans will immediately get, comes from one of the stories in Aesop's Fables. The story goes that there was a huge war between the birds and the beasts. The bat, not wanting to get stuck with the losing side, watched the progress of the battles and eventually decided that the beasts were likely to win. So he folded up his wings and joined the beasts, convincing them that they were cousins of rats.

But then the situation turned and the birds began gaining major advantage. So the bat abandoned the beasts and went over to the birds, convincing them that since he had wings, he was one of the birds. Unfortunately for the bat, the war ended in a truce, and the animals found out that the bat had been attaching himself to the winning side. As a result, the bat was shunned by both beasts and the birds, and was forced to go into hiding, only coming out at night when everyone is asleep.

So, as this story stuck in many Koreans' minds, they began calling someone who changes sides based on what he can gain from it a "박쥐." For example, if your friend ditches your group and joins another group that has the smartest person in your class, you could call him
"박쥐같은 놈" (A bastard who acts like a bat.)
While this is certainly an insult, it lacks vulgarity! I mean, it's hard to bring vulgarity into speech when you're quoting literature, and the listener won't be as offended as he could be -- as long as it's not a direct insult, it could be used even in polite company.

So, why do the Koreans end up referencing literature so much? I think it's because of the Korean education system. As there is exactly one standardized exam each year that gets you into college, the school curriculum is extremely standardized. This means that the Koreans grow up reading the same books. Koreans also tend to emphasize studying a lot more than most other countries, so the amount of these books read is a lot more than other countries (for example, my Canadian high school required us to read two books together, and two books individually each year -- but even the recommended books varied by teachers.)

I suppose if you're confident that your listener also read the book that you're about to reference, then there is no reason to do it! And Korea's centralized education seems to have succeeded in injecting a little bit of class into the Koreans' everyday life.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Listening exercise with transcript #15 -- Introducing a Korean cartoon series

When I was just starting out in French, I watched a large number of cartoon series dubbed in French. I found that the dialogues were fairly repetitive and clearly enunciated (as they were made for children for the most part), and the vocabulary was at a very manageable level. Plus, it was more fun than poring over grammar books and vocabulary builders!

If you are asked to name a cartoon series, chances are, you are thinking of a series that were made in America (such as the Simpsons, South Park, and so on) or the ones made in Japan (such as Pokémon, or Sailor Moon). But Korea also has a number of fantastic cartoon series, one of which I hope to introduce in this post.

"아기공룡 둘리" (Baby Dinosaur Dooly) is a classic Korean cartoon which began airing in 1987, and new and old series continued to show up on Korean TV for many decades after that. The premise of the cartoon series is that a baby dinosaur, which was preserved in a piece of glacier, finds himself stranded in Seoul, and inserts himself into a family (interestingly, the original manhwa series appeared in 1983, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park was published in 1990! I guess the interest in dinosaurs was very high in the 80s!) The series deals with various chaos that ensues from it.

Find below the first episode of this cartoon series. I have typed out the transcripts from 0:00-7:00 here (the entire episode is about 22 minutes, so I have transcribed about a third of it). My goal in these listening exercises is to provide access to diverse Korean media, but for sake of completeness, if there is a large interest, I am also considering finishing the transcription in the next two listening exercises. If you feel strongly either way, let me know in the comments or via email!

(Dialogue begins at 1:45)
Penguin 1: 쟨 뚱보? (It's the fat one?)
Penguin 2: 걔잖아? (It's him?)
Penguin 3: 이제 나오는거야? (He's coming out now?)

Grandpa penguin: 아이고, 그놈 살좀 빼야겠다. (Geez, he should lose some weight.)

Sailor: 저게 뭐야? (What's that?)
Sailors: 빙하다! 충돌한다! (It's glacier! We're going to collide!)

News anchor: 정체 불명의 빙산이 서울의 한복판 한강에 나타났습니다. 전문가들은 이 빙산이 남극으로부터 흘러들어왔으며 지구 온난화가 가지고 온 재앙이라고 합니다. 하지만 이 빙산이 무공해 웰빙 얼음이라는 소문이 나면서 생선조합, 냉면연합, 팥빙수협회, 주부 연합등 아저씨 아줌마들이 양동이를 들고 나타나 캐가는 바람에 얼음은 순식간에 그만 뼈만 남았다고 합니다.

(A piece of glacier of unknown origin appeared in the Han river, in the middle of Seoul. Experts call it a disaster from the South Pole resulting from global warming. However, due to rumours that this glacier is pollution-free (무공해) well-being (웰빙; means "organic" in English) ice, many ajussis and ajummas from the "fish union," "the naengmyun association," "the society of bingsoo," and "the association of housewives" showed up with buckets and took the glacier pieces home. So there was only the skeleton of the glacier left in a heartbeat.)

Boy: 아이 깜짝이야! (You startled me!)
Girl: 오빠, 빨리 가봐. 개천에 강아지가 있어. (Oppa, hurry. There's a puppy in the banks of the stream.)
Boy: 왜? (Why?)
Girl: 아직 안죽었어. (It's alive.)
Boy: 그게 뭐? (So what?)
Girl: 근데 그게... 녹색 강아지야! (Well, it's a green puppy!)
Boy: 어, 녹색 강아지? (What? A green puppy?)
Girl: 여기야. 어... 없네? 어디로 갔지? 거짓말 아냐 뭐! 누가 주워갔나? (It was here. Hmm.. it's gone? Where did it go? I wasn't lying! Maybe someone already took him?)

Boy: 영희야, 머리 치워! 머리 치우라니까? 영희야, 귀찮대도? (Young-hee, don't put your head there. Stop! Young-hee, you're bothering me! Here, we learn that the name of the girl is 영희.)
        으아! 이게 뭐야? (Aaah, what is this?)
영희: 그 강아지야 오빠! 얘가 내 뒤를 따라왔나봐! (It's that puppy, oppa! He must have followed me home!)
 And thus, the main character of this cartoon series is introduced. The characters then try to guess exactly what kind of animal Dooly is, until he looks at the dinosaurs on TV and cries, "Mommy!"

Friday, August 11, 2017

#89. Letter from a Korean king

This picture went viral on the Korean internet a couple of days ago:

This letter (which you are supposed to read from right to left, and top-down), is interesting for several reasons.

The first is that this was written by 정조, one of the kings of Joseon, when he was about five years old. And although the letter is hard to decipher even for a native Korean, you can see all the markings of a child's writing.

This is actually why this letter went viral in Korea -- regardless of the meaning, you can see that the child starts on the top right with quite impressive calligraphy. Then as he continues to write, his writing gets fainter (meaning that he wasn't dipping his brush into the ink often enough), and also larger (probably he was getting tired of writing this letter!) Koreans found this letter adorable.

This is 정조, who was a colorful character, and a good king, comparable to King Sejong.
Not only that, it is interesting that the letter was written in 한글 instead of Chinese characters. Ever since King Sejong made the unique Korean alphabets, the upper class, who saw China as the fashionable and powerful neighbour of Korea, objected to the popularization of 한글. Chinese was the language of the intellectuals (since each character has a meaning, and you need to study for quite a long time before becoming proficient at it), and 한글 was for the common folks who did not know Chinese.

However, here you see the next king of Korea writing a letter to his aunt in 한글! This letter was written in 1757, while 한글 was invented in 1446, so between these three hundred years, you can see that much has changed in the Joseonian society.

As for the contents of the letter, it says the following (the old Korean had some characters that we do not use anymore, so I have re-written it to today's standards, still using old expressions that you might hear in historical dramas):
"문안 아뢰고 기후 무사하신지 알고자 합니다. 이 족건은 저에게 작사오니 수대를 신기옵소서. -- 질"
 If you try to translate it to a more mundane language, it goes like this: 

문안 (greetings) 아뢰고 (asking) 기후 (the status of the body and mind) 무사 (no troubles) 하신지 알고자 (to know) 합니다 (want). 이 (this) 족건은 (pair of traditional Korean socks, called 버선 now) 저에게 (for me) 작사오니 (small) 수대를 신기옵소서 (give them to 수대, the name of his cousin). --질 (nephew)

These are the traditional Korean socks, called 버선. This pair is for men, and women often wore an embroidered version.
Putting these together:

I am hoping that you are well and want to know that nothing troubles you in mind and body. These socks are now too small for me, so please give them to 수대. - Your nephew.

Adorable, and kind of surprising that even the royals wore hand-me-downs!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

#88. 하드캐리 -- Playing the hero

When people start introducing foreign language into their own language, mistakes invariably happen. For example, apple pie à la mode should mean "fashionable apple pie" but we use it to mean "apple pie with ice cream." And what about words like maître d' which makes no sense in French?

When I hear the Korean word "하드캐리," I feel that this is a bunch of mistranslations rolled into a single word. This word is often used in gaming communities (it is said that this word originated from League of Legends), to describe someone who played a crucial role in leading the team to victory. Its verb form is "하드캐리하다."

So for example, you can say:
"이번 게임은 니가 하드캐리했다." (You pretty much won this game for us.)
 This usage within a game has been expanded into various other situations in life. For example, if a particular comedian is full of hilarious 드립 and makes an entire episode of the entertainment clip alive, then you can also say:
"이번회는 그 코메디언이 완전 하드캐리했네." (That comedian really made this episode.)
The origins of this word is admittedly a bit random. It seems that this word has English as its origin, as in "hard carry." The word "carry" comes from the newspaper articles that sound like this:

While the word "carry" is not an essential part of headlines such as this, it seems that the Korean gamers decided to focus on the word, and brought it over to Korean. So in the Korean gamer language, it means "to lead to victory."

There are a couple of hypotheses about the word "hard." One says that it is supposed to be an adjective to "carry" to emphasize it, so "hard carry" should mean that someone really lead the team to victory. Another hypothesis says that this used to refer to the team members who were weak at the beginning, but became stronger (=hard in the Korean mistranslation... oops!)

As far as its usage goes, it seems that most young-ish people tend to understand it, as it sometimes even makes an appearance as the subtitles of entertainment shows. With the older generation, however, it may just lose its meaning, although it is in no way offensive.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

#87. How the Korean dragons are born (Shamanism 7)

I've always been fascinated by dragons. While most mythical animals of the Orient and the Occident remained largely disjoint from each other, the idea of "dragons" seem to be common in both cultures. My personal far-fetched hypothesis is that perhaps the idea of dragons orally descended through stories from pre-historic times, when men and dinosaurs co-existed. From a linguistic point of view, if this were true, it would be pretty satisfying, because the Korean word for dinosaur (공룡) literally means "scary (공, as in 공포 "fear") dragon (용/룡, meaning dragon)."

In any case, there are some physical differences between the Korean dragons and the Western dragons. The Korean dragon (called "용") is described as having the face of a camel, the horns of a stag, the eyes of a ghost, the body of a snake, the scales of a fish, the hair of a lion, and the talons of a hawk.

When you put the above description together, you get roughly this picture.
The Korean dragon has amazing powers that are unparalleled by the other mythical beings. It is able to fly (despite not having any visible wings), it can control the weather, and it can breathe fire as well as cause frightening storms in the sea. This means that if humans dare to displease the 용, it can make your life very difficult. In particular, it could cause drought (Korea was an agricultural society, so this can lead to mass starvation), and only when the humans apologize in earnest will it bring rain.

Because of its strong magical abilities, the 용 were revered in Korea. The traces of this can be seen from the language. The face of a Korean king was not called "얼굴" -- as a sign of extreme respect, they were called "용안," meaning "the face of a dragon." The royal garb was called "용포" (the robe of a dragon) and so on.

Despite all this, however, the dragons seem to have a pretty sketchy origin in the Korean mythology.

The Koreans believe that only the snakes that have lived a thousand years have a chance of becoming a dragon. These large snakes, called "이무기," usually lived near a secluded pond, would spend their days meditating and hoping to become a dragon. They would develop scales after 500 years, and become a dragon after another 500 years, if it has lived a commendable life for the past 1000 years. When it does become a dragon, it would develop the rest of the features of a dragon (the horns, the talons, etc.) and rise to the sky.

The pure Korean word for a tornado, therefore, is "용오름," which literally translates as "the rise of a dragon." While tornadoes are very rare in Korea, it has been observed in the waters, and given that the 이무기 live near the water, this must have activated some imagination.

To ancient Koreans, this looked like a newly-born dragon.

However, if the snakes fail to be a dragon after 1000 years of wait, this is when things become problematic for the Koreans, as they are really bitter (I mean, wouldn't you be?) To make things worse, apparently 1000 years of meditation will still give them some magical and physical powers, most of which gets used for harming the innocent villagers!

Many legends (although there is not a single one that is particularly iconic) speak of sacrificing a virgin to pacify such snakes (often this is an annual event, which must have been a terrible burden for the villages). Then a hero (often in the form of a Buddhist monk or a known Korean historic figure) shows up and defeats the snake using various means (some legends talk about a full-on battle, some speak of a self-sacrifice where the hero gets eaten by the 이무기 after having slathered on poison all over their body).

Of course, since the dragons could control weather (very important for the farmers!) the dragons figure into the ancient shamanism a fair bit. Many Korean shamans would conduct a religious ceremony (called 굿) aimed at pleasing the dragon and bringing the rain. Unlike the other creatures introduced so far in the shamanism series, this is one deity worth worshiping!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

#86. 의문의 1승 -- How Koreans do sarcasm

Let me begin this post by talking about one of the Korean soccer heroes.

The name of this dreamy man is 안정환 (Jung-Hwan Ahn). He scored the most number of goals (3) in the Korean history during World Cup over his career. And he is considered to be one of the most good-looking soccer players in Korea. Despite looking like he grew up like a prince, his family was very poor and dysfunctional, so his grandmother raised him (he was so poor that he begged on the streets when he was young, and had never tasted an orange before he was selected to the national youth soccer team.) Even after his debut as a professional soccer player, his team manager was greedy and did not give him a good salary.

Despite all the trials and tribulations of his life, he still managed to be an extremely successful soccer player, who holds an iron-clad 까방권, and a hero of many Koreans.

안정환 often appears on TV shows after his retirement. Times have flown, but he is still a good-natured 아저씨 with a great sense of humour!
Then there is your friend, who just openly cheated in her exams. She talks about how poor her family is, how she would lose her scholarship if she failed this exam, and so on. You soon get sick of listening to her self-justifying excuses.

While you'd love to say something, unfortunately you are currently in Korea. It turns out that the Koreans are incredibly polite. Sure, they may push and shove strangers in the subway, but between the people who are actually acquaintances, you see almost no displays of rudeness. Most Koreans prefer to avoid confrontations and take a small personal loss, and standing up for oneself seems rarer than in North American culture.

So, you don't want to say things like:
"그래도 컨닝은 나쁜거야." (But cheating is wrong nonetheless -- Koreans say 컨닝 (cunning) for cheating.)
This makes you sound like you are engaging in a bit of 선비질, which Koreans generally don't appreciate. You also don't want to say things like:
"이세상에 너만 있냐?" (Do you think you're the only one living in the world?)
This is far too direct for most Koreans' tastes. As the Koreans tend to walk away from fights (often saying that both sides are terrible), this attitude won't win you any friends, either.

It seems frustrating, but there are probably many reasons for doing this. They probably don't want to be the subject of gossip -- Koreans really hate to stand out as the community is valued above the individual. The consequences of confrontations could be greater in the Korean culture as well -- stand up to your manager who wants you to put in an extra hour's work tonight? You might become a 왕따 in your company. Between losing an hour's sleep and having none of your coworkers speak to you, I would probably choose to not stand up for myself and just do that hour's work, too.

As a result, any behaviour that could result in burned bridges or social repercussions is highly discouraged in the Korean society (and many people would make these choices by themselves without pressure, because they have probably seen the consequences of the alternative).

This doesn't mean that the Koreans aren't sarcastic people. In order to create good sarcasm, you need it to be more obscure, and you need a lot more humour. 

So what is the best course of action for venting your frustration? I think a reasonable action taken by many Koreans is to first walk away from the girl (creating the setup for 왕따), then making a light and obscure about her online. Don't vent all of your anger, don't obsess, just say it once and move on, people will remember. Here is a lighthearted remark that gets used often online:
"안정환 의문의 1승이네 ㅋㅋ" (It looks like a mysterious score 1 for Jung-Hwan Ahn).
Basically, you pulled out the obscure fact that 안정환 had a childhood even more difficult than your friend; either this reference will lose some people, or it will evoke such strong comparison that it will convince your listeners that your friend is complaining about nothing.

Furthermore, it is a humorous remark, as you are randomly entering your friend into a match against the Korean soccer god. As it's funny, most Koreans won't feel so uncomfortable at this, they will laugh and move on, secretly harboring their discontent deep inside them, taking solace in the knowledge that someone else also hates her for cheating.

There are other instances where you can use this slang. In K-pop, idol groups have a fairly short lifespan. They sign a contract for seven years, and by the time seven years are up, they are either fed up with the entertainment industry, their company, or with themselves. Most of them are ready to disband, and they do.

This is the K-Pop group called 신화, Shinhwa.

In this case, you could make a remark such as:
"신화 의문의 1승" (It looks like a mysterious score one for Shinhwa)
 The K-Pop group Shinhwa (신화) debuted in 1998 and they are still going strong, setting a great example that most other groups fail to follow. So every time some group fails to follow in their footsteps, Koreans like to say that Shinhwa has yet again triumphed.

As this is getting to be a pretty long post already, I will return to this post in the near future to talk about a few more funny examples, but feel free to experiment and pull out some obscure references! It will be cool if someone gets it, and if no one gets it, it'll be a conversation starter.

Monday, August 7, 2017

#85. 좆같다 -- That sucks

Here's a phrase that you will hear a lot from the Korean men (women tend to be a lot less foul-mouthed than men in Korea in general). When something doesn't go well, or when something that they didn't anticipate happens, they might mutter in anger and frustration:
"진짜 좆같네." (This really sucks.)
This vulgar expression and its derivations are one of the most common profanity that you will hear in Korea. While the Koreans probably have an idea of what this phrase actually means, most of them use it without really thinking. (That being said, please please please do not use this expression in front of polite company. You use it with your good buddies, or when you are really angry.)

Koreans all know that "좆" is a very vulgar slang word for "penis." However, this word appears a lot in Korean profanity, and it is likely that Koreans are almost never referring to a penis (or even thinking about one) while they are swearing using this word.  In formal writing, you should say "성기 (reproductive organ -- can use for vagina as well!)" or "음경 (penis).

A less offensive slang word for penis is "고추," which writes and sounds exactly like the Korea word for "hot peppers." By the way, one of the Korean proverbs goes: "작은 고추가 맵다," which translates to "the smallest hot pepper is the spiciest." Wait, what?!
 But once you start thinking about what this expression means, you will see that it's actually a fascinating expression! It's so fascinating that its vulgarity almost goes away (key word: almost).

When you are in a frustrating situation, by saying "좆같네" you are saying that this situation is "like a penis." How so?

Well, the situation is beyond your control, just like how you can't always control your penis. And despite the fact that it is beyond your control, you often get into trouble for failing to control the situation. Ugh! (Not that I'd know, I'm a woman, in case you haven't realized it yet.) So, many Koreans are actually unconsciously drawing a really interesting and hilarious analogy between two situations beyond their control.

You can also build on this analogy a bit further (actually, there are countless expressions using the word "좆," but let me postpone the other meanings to other posts, and stick to this one particular aspect -- the uncontrollability of your penis -- for now). Say that you are working with a bunch of people on a project, and you have been put in charge. One person in particular refuses to pull his weight, disagrees with the group, and is in general hard to control.

You could decide to badmouth him with the rest of the group, and one of the common expressions that you might choose to use is:
"아, 저 좆같은 새끼!" (Literally - Ugh, that penis of a bastard! Nuance - That asshole!)
Again, you would be more correct than you originally intended, in the sense that you made an unconscious analogy between the guy that is the source of your frustrations, and how your libido is hard to curb.

No one should be swearing like this in front of you, if they respect you. But unfortunately, you will probably hear this word every now and then. Instead of being offended by the vulgarity of the expression, maybe we could be secretly amused and give the offending party some credit for an (unwittingly) well-constructed metaphor!