Thursday, November 20, 2008

Korean Language Update

Keegan and I continue to faithfully attend our Korean language classes every Tuesday and Thursday evening. The class is winding to a close - our final exam is next Thursday, conveniently scheduled to make Thanksgiving that much less inviting. (Don't worry, we will be having dinner with a lot of other American ex-pats on Saturday.) Recently, we've been studying numbers. To make things interesting, Koreans use two different number systems, one based on Chinese (Sino-Korean), and the other pure Korean. The Sino-Korean system is used for telephone and bus numbers, for prices and for minutes when you're telling time. It's also used for anything over 100. The Korean system is used for counting, for ordering at restaurants, and for the hours when telling time. The Sino-Korean system works in a predictable fashion: for example, eleven is ten-one (ship-il) and twenty is two-ten (i-ship). But the Korean system is a bit harder to remember because twenty, thirty, forty, etc. are all different words that aren't similar to the numbers from one to ten. For example, two-ten would be tul-yeol. But twenty is actually semul, which has nothing in common with either two or ten, and also has nothing in common with the words for thirty, forty, etc.

Things get even stranger when you start talking about money. Korean currency is called the won, and the exchange rate is very roughly 1,000 won to $1 (it's actually better than that now, but still easy to think of this way). This means that you're often called upon to talk about prices that are in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. In English, we count that high with a base of 1,000, so a number like 526,000 is five hundred twenty-six thousand. But in Korean, the base is 10,000, so 526,000 would be 52 ten-thousands, 6 thousands. It makes the head spin a bit.

Last night we learned about saying this and that in Korean. Of course, in English, the difference between this and that has to do with how far the thing you're talking about is from the speaker. If it's close by, we say this, and if it's far away, we say that. Korean has a third distinction: close to the speaker, close to the listener, and far from both. I love the way different languages divide up the world in different ways. The grammar of this and that sounds pretty boring, but in this case, it points to a different way of thinking about the people and objects around you when you're speaking.

Another distinction was brought up the other day when I asked our teacher how to say "cat food" in Korean. She told me that the word for food is related to the verb to eat, but changed to indicate that the food is being fed to the animals. Then she said that the word for food is different for animals than it is for humans. And I thought, ah, it's just like in English how we call food for farm animals feed. But in Korea, according to my inference, cats eat cat feed. I don't think I should draw too many conclusions from this, especially since I don't know all the grammar involved, but it is interesting that we make a division between words for food between pets like dogs and cats (food) and farm animals like cows and horses (feed). But in Korean, cats at least are grouped differently from people. And indeed, in general I think many Korean people are more distanced from their pets than Americans are, although I suspect based on the number of tiny dogs in little dog coats walking around Okpo, that this may be changing.


Jamie said...

I loved everything about your update EXCEPT for the part about money words. That makes my head hurt.

ginny said...

I love your language observations, Ellen! I feel as if I am getting to learn some of the cool things about a foreign language without having to do the work of actually studying it!

KIM! said...

mybe they are more distant becuase they are not disinclined to eat those pets :) with my typical american comment.

i dont know how you keep track of all this stuff, but it is interesting.

chrissy said...

Most Americans can't even count that high! I had a student ask, "Why is it 6.5 billion? Why do we need the .5? Can't we just round up?" *sigh*