[KS] Languages in Korea

John Bentley TC0JRB1 at wpo.cso.niu.edu
Wed May 25 10:08:07 EDT 2005

Mr. Atkinson brings up an interesting though controversial question.

Unfortunately, I don't think there is any one easy answer. Scholars
are generally divided on the question, not because of the methodology
so much as the lack of data on previous historical polities and
the languages spoken by those people.
This question posed by Mr. Atkinson perhaps needs to be defined
a bit better, as the terminology is part of the issue. The difference
concerns what scholars consider a language and what they consider
a dialect. Leaving politics aside, most scholars at least pay lip
to the idea that a language is mutually unintelligible to another,
a dialect differs from another dialect in some vocabulary or
but is still intelligible to speakers of a related dialect. A dialect
is a
handy word, because each dialect is thus a part of the language
This is a helpful tool for national unity and what not. This basic
definition of language and dialect, however, would turn many European 
*languages* into mere dialects, while many dialects in China would 
now become full-blown languages. And there's your problem.
In Japan linguists call the Ryukyuan languages dialects, even though
these are unintelligible to any mainland Japanese speaker. In fact,
as a Ryukyuanist, I believe there are at least four 'languages' in the
Ryukyus. But the term 'language' implies nationality, and that opens 
up a can of worms, so people agree to call Ryukyuan a set of dialects.
I am not sure where Mr. Atkinson's friend came up with the number
six, but if we stick to a basic linguistic definition of language, we
may be able to claim anywhere from five to twenty languages on the
peninsula during the three kingdom period. The problem is that some
who make claims about what language was what on the peninsula 
are not being completely open and honest, as we have no written records

*in the languages* of Paekche, Koguryo, Kaya (Kara), Silla, or
peninsular Wa. 
So how do they know? I have written about the language of Paekche, and

have provided information and etymology for roughly 80 words from the 
Paekche corpus (Bentley, New Look at Paekche Korean: data from Nihon
shoki, Language Research (Ohak yon'gu), vol. 36.2, 417-443). But we
very little surviving data on morphology or syntax or other data that
would help
us see Paekche as a language, and not merely a list of words. My own
has suggested that Paekche and Silla were related 'languages', but
is simply a scholarly hypothesis, not a fact. I don't go around
claiming that
this is proven.
Lately Chris Beckwith has come out with a very provocative book
Koguryo: the language of Japan's continental relatives (Brill 2004). It
not my intention to review the book here, but suffice it to say this
relationship (the claim that Japanese is a Koguryo language) is based
on the tenuous comparison of about 140 Koguryo etyma. To me this is
looking at the skin of an elephant through a microscope and trying to
guess what the animal is. It is not impossible, mind you, just highly
difficult, and requires great skill.
Just to give one reservation I have with Beckwith's work: it bothers
to see his lack of knowledge about Japanese historical phonology (which

forms half of this theory). Let me give just two examples. Beckwith 
reconstructs Proto-Japanese-Ryukyuan 'eye' as *mika or *miak
This is based *entirely* on the Hateruma island word miN (N is a velar
nasal) 'eye'. 
He sees the velar nasal going back to a velar -k. This is then compared
with Old 
Chinese *mek 'eye' and Old Tibetan myig 'eye'. Gary Oyler, in 1997, did
an MA
thesis on the problem of -N in Hateruma, and concluded that the -N is
It only occurs word finally, and there is no pattern to which words
have the N and
which do not. It is completely random. My own work has found this same
in Yonaguni, an island not far from Hateruma, but the N is attached to
nouns than those in Hateruma (so the development of this nasal was
on the two islands). This velar nasal is simply a relic of morphology
that the speakers 
have reanalyzed as part of the noun, kind of like American speakers
spelling hafta
(< have to), where they treat two original words as one. It *cannot* be
as part of the proto-form. The true etymology of 'eye' would be *ma-i
or perhaps *ma-Ci. 
So Beckwith also has the vowels wrong. This destroys the comparison
with Chinese
and Tibetan. It is unclear why this etymology is brought up, as he has
no Koguryo 
word for 'eye' in his database, unless this is simply an attempt to
ultimately relate
Japanese back to Chinese.
Another problem is his grouping of homonyms. He reconstructs a
form *tiu 'liquid' based on ti 'blood, milk' (2004:154). The accent for
ti 'blood' and 
ti 'milk' are different, so I seriously doubt these two words have a
common etymology.
Also internal reconstruction suggests that 'blood' may go back to
*to-i, while 'milk' goes 
back to an earlier *tu-i (cf. Sam Martin's Japanese Language Through
Time, Yale Univ.,
1987:545). Again, Beckwith provides this etymology to make a connection
Chinese, but as all his Chinese cognates have /i/ as the nuclear vowel,
these etymologies 
also must be rejected.
Thus, if Beckwith's grasp of Japanese historical phonology has serious
then I am suspicious of his other conclusions. This does not mean his
theory is wrong, 
mind you, but it has not solved the problem, in my opinion. I know
others have claimed
that Koguryo and Japanese may be related, and I do not intend to refute
that claim. All 
I want is for the work to be well-grounded in the historical linguistic
(as well as phonology), and take account of what we already know about
historical phonology and its development. It is sad there are so many
who really do not 
understand the languages of Ryukyuan (but quote etyma from these
languages as
proof of X or Y), as these hold the key, I believe, to helping us
better understand
the relationship of Japonic (Japanese and Ryukyuan) to its neighbors.
In the end, Mr. Atkinson should ask his friend who the source of this
about a) the peninsula had six languages, and b) one migrated to Japan
We should remember that while Chinese and peninsular records talk
the Wa, we do not even know what language the Wa spoke. It could have
been Ryukyuan, or Western Japanese, Eastern Japanese, or Central
Or it could have been a language that eventually died out. There are so
many yet-to-be-
answered questions regarding this thorny debate. But that is probably
what makes
it so popular as a topic of dicussion.
John R. Bentley
Northern Illinois University
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