Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Language Dictates Human Interaction

My girlfriend and I recently attended a movie theater in Seoul to watch “300.” You should know that a Korean theater is as good a place as any to watch unrealistically fit Greek soldiers and unrealistically deformed Persians hack and stab at each other for two hours. In fact, the only real difference between watching this in Seoul and watching it in America is that the Greeks’ chest-beating banter is translated, via subtitles.

Therefore, at the bottom of the screen were words a Korean man might say were he prone to pounding his upper torso and shouting full-throated one-liners that exude machismo and are ready-made for movie posters.

However, it was something that occurred outside of the room where we watched such improbable puncturing that made me wonder about how languages dictate human interactions. I was thirsty and so I went to a vending machine on the same floor as the theater. I had no coins so I put the 1000 won (roughly equivalent to $1) bill in the machine in order to purchase a bottle of water.

The machine wouldn’t take my bill, so I considered asking the theater attendant, a woman who appeared just slightly older than me, for help. The trouble was deciding what to say to her in order to facilitate helpful service. In many ways, my Anglicized standards of what is a polite request got in the way.

When Koreans ask an older woman for help, I hear them say “Ajuma!” However, this word is usually associated with a middle-aged, married woman, usually one with children. If I were in America and needed help from a woman in the same age bracket as this one, addressing her as “Middle-aged married woman, usually with children!” she might walk all the way across the room just to lay an open palm across my cheek.

On the other hand, the word for young, unmarried women in Korean is “agassi.” I don’t know why they are called this, but I like to think it’s because many young Korean women are bald and have the greatest return of serve in the history of professional tennis. The trouble with this word is that this woman was probably older than me, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to shout out “Young lady!” in public. Korean culture has a very strict standard of addressing those older than you, and I fear there may be etiquette police who are just waiting for me to slip up so they can jump out of the shadows and take turns laying open palms across my cheeks.

Later, I asked my girlfriend what I should do in a situation such as this, and she told me that I should say “Yogi-oh!” In Korean, this phrase can mean, “Please come here” or “I was very surprised by what the former manager of the New York Yankees just did!” Not surprising, the former is more common.

I have eaten enough in Korean restaurants to know that this phrase is commonplace, but it just doesn’t sound right to me. If someone said “Come here, please” to me, my usual reaction would probably be to say, “What do you need?” in order to make sure the trip was worth the effort. If the Korean woman had asked me that question, my meager studies of the language would have left me painfully short of being able to reply.

It was at this moment that I was finally put into a position where I could be proud of my own language. For so long I have heard so many people say Spanish, French, or Latin are more beautiful languages than my own. Also, many people in this country say that Korean is very scientific and much easier to learn than English. While my language may be a linguistic mutt borne of Latin and Germanic languages and the pronunciation of its vowels may be inconsistent, we do have one wonderfully effective word to our credit: “ma’am.”

Just by saying “ma’am” I can tell a woman of indeterminate age that I respectfully request her attention. I have yet to discover a single Korean word that sums up this thought, and it would be awkward to shout “Woman of indeterminate age, I request your attention respectfully!” inside a movie theater.

The barrier was so great that I ultimately said nothing to her. Instead, I went back inside and asked my girlfriend if she had any change she could lend me so I could have something to drink during the movie. She did, and my problem was solved.

However, the whole experience left me wondering about how context changes when words are translated from one word to another. For example, how authentic do the chest-beating quotations in “300” sound when translated into Korean subtitles? For example, when King Leonidas says “Give to them nothing! But take from them everything!” what does that sound like in Korean?

I don’t know, but I like to think that the Korean viewers see this: “Take from them everything but give to them English lessons, because somehow we’ve mastered the language at least 800 years before it was widely spoken! I mean, we speak it even better than the Ancient Greek which is our native tongue!”

I don’t think that would fit on a movie poster, however.

Comments: Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]