[KS] KSR 2009-01: _Korean Language in Culture and Society_, edited by Ho-min Sohn.

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Sat Aug 1 18:06:12 EDT 2009

_Korean Language in Culture and Society_, edited by Ho-min Sohn. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2006. 292 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-8248-2694-9. Paperback $29.00.

Reviewed by Gerard Krzic
Ohio University
krzic at ohio.edu

Over the past decade, a growing number of books have provided insights into various aspects of Korean language and culture (for a diverse selection, see, e.g., Gateward, 2007; Han, Lim, and Sasse, 2003; Huat and Iwabuchi, 2008; Kendall, 2002; Kim, 2005). A welcome addition to the genre is _Korean Language in Culture and Society_ (KLCS) edited by Professor Ho-min Sohn of the University of Hawaii. Intended as a textbook for university-level Korean culture courses or as a supplement to the KLEAR Korean language textbook series, KLCS is a compilation of articles and essays and the first book of its kind to examine the Korean language and culture from a sociolinguistic perspective. The volume is divided into five main sections prefaced with an essay by the editor.

Professor Sohn’s opening article is a concise introduction to sociolinguistic theory, describing the interplay between language and culture in Korean society while at the same time preparing the reader for the articles to follow.  Sohn begins by explaining the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the relationship between language use and social context. He then takes on the difficult task of describing culture by utilizing a conceptual framework comprised of three cultural components: practices, perspectives and products. Next, he describes the evolution of modern Korean vocabulary, the abundance of metaphorical expressions in the language, and interpersonal communication patterns in the rapidly changing environment of 21st century Korea.  Sohn brings all these difficult concepts to life through real-world examples of Korean language and communication practices. He concludes his essay with a short introduction to the five main parts of the book and the accompanying twenty-one chapters.

Part One, “Sociolinguistic Innovations,” is comprised of five chapters. The first, an essay by Robert Ramsey describes the invention and orthographic principles of han’gŭl, Korea’s great but underappreciated contribution to world orthography. Students of Korean language and cultural study will no doubt be familiar with the various stories of the invention of han’gŭl; however, Ramsey offers evidence from 15th century documents to support a plausible narrative of King Sejong’s role in han’gŭl’s development. This revisionist look at han’gŭl is based on the king’s progressive philosophical theories and perceptive insights into areas such as  points of articulation in human pronunciation. The next essay by Jaehoon Yeon compares the language divergence that has been created by the political division of the peninsula.  Yeon presents the differences in vocabulary, phonology, syntax, levels of honorifics and morphology between the “Cultured Language” of the North and the “Standard Language” of the South. Part One concludes with two discussions by Sohn and Ramsey of the linguistic influences of Chinese and Japanese on Korean. Each chapter in Part One, as in all contributions in the volume, concludes with references and exercises for the student of Korean to pursue research outside the classroom.

The five chapters in Part Two, “Cultural Terms and Figurative Expressions,” are devoted to the sounds and expressions used in Korean proverbs, temporal designations, familial relations, and modern slang.  The first article, “Sound Symbolism in Korean,” explains the changes in consonant positions and vowel substitution in Korean onomatopoetic or mimetic vocabulary. The author, Young-mee Yu Cho, shows that changes in initial consonants, dark and bright vowels, and syllable-ending consonants produce nuanced connotative differences understood by native speakers but often unnoticed by learners of Korean as a second language (KSL). For example, the difference in the intensive and para-intensive sounds of the initial consonants in syllables “kam-gam,” “kkam-kkam,” “k’am-k’am” produce the following meanings: dark, pitch dark, and spooky/desolately dark.

Anyone who has spent time in language study in Korea can attest to the popularity of proverbs in everyday discourse.  In “Korean Proverbs,” Jeyseon Lee provides an analysis of the historical formation of proverbs and their reflection of ethnic characteristics and national personality.  Lee suggests that commoners in pre-modern Korea used these metaphorical expressions to express their animosity toward government officials and to reflect their class consciousness. The next chapter, “Korean Terms for Calendar and Horary Signs, Holidays and Seasons,” provides a comprehensive explanation of the division of days, months, and years and their relationship to Korean traditions. The author, Carol H. Schulz, explains kanji, the traditional Korean calendar system, which is the basis of the sixty-year cycle that culminates in a person’s hwan’gap or 60th birthday. The division of the seasons and their accompanying subdivisions highlights the important days of the Chinese-derived Korean calendar.

In “Korean Kinship Terminology,” Ross King provides a clear explanation of paternal and maternal affiliations and the importance of distinguishing between hoch’ing (terms of address used when calling a relative) and chich’ing (terms of reference used when referring to a relative) in Korean families.  Using a genealogical tree to demonstrate these differences, King discusses the concepts of teknonymy (referring to an adult through his/her relationship to a child) and geononymy (referring to adults through their association to a geographic location) to explain the Korean tradition of avoiding the use of personal names. In Part Two’s final article Duk-Soo Park tackles the provocative topic of “Slang in Korean” by describing the origins and functions of slang that emerged from the 1970s through the late 1990s. Park shows how the tectonic changes of that turbulent era, fueled by rapid economic growth, the IMF crisis, and a speedy transition to the Digital Age, contributed to the semantic evolution of words such as “chagi” (a second person pronoun used to address romantic partners), “hwabaek” (contraction of “hwaryôhan paeksu,” which Park translates as  “magnificent unemployed person”), and numeric shorthand codes in text messaging (e.g., 1414 – “shi sa shi sa” – let’s have a meal).

Part Three, “Linguistic Etiquette,” contains seven articles focusing on uses of honorifics, phatic communication, politeness strategies and gender differences in communication.

In the first chapter “The Structure and Use of Honorifics,” Miho Choo explains how Korean speakers will modify their use of honorifics based on an addressee and referent perspective. That is, speakers will adjust their sentence endings and verb suffixes when talking about a superior (e.g., grandparent as referent) to a superior (e.g., teacher as addressee).  The second essay, “Usage of Korean Address and Referent Terms,” by Haejin Elizabeth Koh continues the theme of address and reference in a cross-cultural comparison of Korean and English. In this article, the author suggests that Korean differs from English in the way it deals with solidarity and power. According to Koh, English emphasizes the interplay between these two oppositions. Korean, on the other hand, is more intricate and incorporates a keen awareness of social distance and a sensitivity to the need for deference between communicants.  Koh concludes by suggesting that the mutual use of first names in Korean is restricted by the power dimension, which in turn is constrained by the difference in age of the speakers.

Chapter 13, “Phatic Expressions in Korean,” provides insights into the way Koreans use expressions for affective, relationship-building purposes. The author, Duk-Soo Park, notes similarities and differences in greetings between English and Korean. He suggests that non-native speakers of Korean may find themselves misinterpreting the illocutionary force of Korean expression such as “Odi ka-seyo?” (“Are you going somewhere?”), expressions of flattery (e.g., “You haven’t changed a bit since we last met”), and self-deprecating expressions (e.g., “I didn’t prepare much food, but please eat a lot”).  In Chapter 14, “Politeness in Conversation in Korean: The Use of  nunde,” Yong-Yae Park examines the conversational function of the connective ending “-nunde” in sentence medial and ending contexts.   Park suggests that “-nunde” is used to invite the listener to make an inference about indirect meanings of the illocution and thereby continue the conversation in a subtle, fluid manner.

In Chapter 15, “Korean Cultural Values in Request Behaviors,” Andrew Byon discusses the way native and non-native speakers of Korean and English may differ in request strategies. The conclusions suggested by the author are that KSL learners should be sensitive to the hierarchical, collectivist-orientation of language use when making requests to Koreans in a variety of social and professional contexts.  Chapter 16 “Gender Differences in Korean Speech” by Young-A Cho examines gender differences in titles and occupational terms, kinship expressions, and in general discourse.  According to Cho, occupational titles in Korean, while appearing gender-neutral to the casual observer, are actually coded to imply “maleness.” For example, a female doctor would more often be referred to using the gender marking prefix “yŏ” such as in “yŏŭisa” while the generic term “ŭisa” normally connotes male doctor. Similarly, kinship terms emphasize the patriarchal lineage in a Korean family while distinguishing the maternal side with the prefix “oe” (outside).  Cho further notes that, in general discourse, female speakers may use more rising intonation and the polite verb ending “-yo” in contrast to male speakers who use the more formal “-mnida” style.  In Chapter 17, Hye-Sook Wang continues the discussion of gender with an examination of gender-related differences in politeness strategies.  Wang suggests that Korean women tend to use more tag questions, hedges and ambiguous phrases, honorifics, and indirect requests to soften their speech.

Part Four contains two chapters focusing on the Korean language in the media. Chapter 18,“Advertisements in Korean,” by Young-A Cho and Douglas Ling begins with a brief analysis of Korean advertising and follows with a comparison of Korean food and liquor advertisements across different eras. The language in these ads provides a contrast between the cultural values of the 1970s, with their emphasis on rigid adherence to social hierarchical norms, and the emergence of individualism in the 1990s. The authors conclude by saying that these advertisements are not just passive reflections of Korean society but also agents of cultural change. In chapter 19, Susan Strauss examines differences in television commercials in Korea, Japan and the U.S.  According to Strauss, jingles and attractive word plays in commercials are popular in Japan but not in Korea or the U.S.  However, Korean and American commercials both use explicit, direct communication to present their products as trustworthy while an explicit mention of trust in Japanese commercials would have a negative effect.

Part Five begins with an essay describing the linguistic structures of Korean.  The author, Sungdai Cho, presents the sound patterns and rules in Korean, the SOV sentence structure, and semantic and inflectional honorific forms. In the next chapter, “Korean Narrative Structure: Evidence from Two Popular Fables,” Shin Ja J. Hwang discusses two Korean short stories in order to analyze their unique rhetorical structures.  The book’s final chapter, “Dialectical Variations in Korean” by Ross King describes the dialects used across six geographical areas on the Korean peninsula. For each dialect, he provides examples of phonological/phonetic features and morphophonemic changes in verb structures. King concludes his article by stating that Korean dialectologists are in a race against time as regional dialects are under threat from the diffusion of a standard Korean dialect through the mass media.

The intended audience for Korean Language in Culture and Society is students in East Asian language and culture courses. The book can also serve as a supplemental text for KSL learners with at least a low-intermediate level of Korean language proficiency.  The volume is most appropriate for readers who have familiarity with Korean and some experience living in a community of native Korean speakers.  In particular, the chapters on Korean honorific usage, request behaviors and politeness, kinship terminology, phatic expressions, and dialect variations provide valuable insights to help KSL learners refine their language skills.  Other chapters (e.g., Korean terms for the calendar and horary signs) are also of value to students interested in gaining more than a superficial understanding of Korean culture.

While the editor claims that the book was written “as much as possible in non-technical language,” readers without knowledge of basic linguistic concepts such as morphonemics, palatalization, and vowel harmony may find the reading difficult at times. One aspect of the volume that could be improved is the inconsistency in the use of han’gŭl, the McCune-Reischauer Romanization system, and translations throughout the text.  Over sixty percent of the chapters are written using the McCune-Reischauer system with English translations for the linguistic examples.  Other chapters use a combination of either han’gŭl, McCune-Reischauer and translations, or only Korean and English translations (i.e., chapter 22). Since the main audience is individuals who have studied Korean, it may have been more valuable – and less confusing for all readers to provide examples in all three formats: han’gŭl, McCune Reischauer, and English translations. Also, one might argue for more research to support claims made by the authors in this edited volume. However, Sohn makes it clear that the lack of empirical studies on the socio-cultural aspects of Korean precludes much of this type of research being included. Instead the editor relies on the “intuitive knowledge and personal experiences” (pg. 16) of the individual authors.
In spite of these minor shortcomings, second language learners of Korean and students of East Asian and Korean culture will find the text to be most valuable in helping them understand the language and culture of one of Asia’s most dynamic societies.


Gateward, F.K. (Ed.). (2007). _Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema_. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Han, K.K., Lim, J.H., Sasse, W. (Eds.) (2003). _Anthology of Korean Studies. (Vol. 3)_.  Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym Publishers.

Huat, C.B. & Iwabuchi, K. (Eds.). (2008). _East Asian Pop Culture: Analyzing the Korean Wave_. Hong Kong:  Hong Kong University Press.

Kendall, L. (Ed.) (2002). _Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in the Republic of Korea_. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kim, Y.K. (2005). _Uncovering the Codes: Fifteen Keywords in Korean Culture_. (Jung, H.Y., Trans.).  Fremont, CA: Jain Publishing Company.

Krzic, Gerald, 2009
Review of  __Korean Language in Culture and Society_, edited by Ho-min Sohn (2006)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2009, no. 1
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr09-01.htm

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