I am sick of Korean. Not the country of Korea, mind you, but the Korean language (known here as Hangul). I have always had problems with foreign languages, but at this point I am entirely fed up. I guess it’s worth beginning with the good points before really digging in, though. First off, it’s not a tonal language. This is a very good thing as it means that I’m less likely to inadvertently insult somebody’s dead cat when trying to ask for a beer. Another good thing is that there is a real alphabet, and it wasn’t a total afterthought. I’ve heard that to read a Chinese newspaper you need to know 30,000 characters. Koreans will tell you that you only need to know the 24 Korean letters in the Hangul alphabet. This is a boldfaced lie. It’s hard to decide where to start with this ridiculous statement (their ridiculous statement, not mine). First off, Koreans are inordinately proud of their language. It was allegedly invented by their most intelligent and benevolent King Sejong in the 15th century. This mirrors what Russians will tell you about how Peter the Great invented surgical tools and giant pianos, and no doubt how some old Germans will tell you about the great Kaisers and their fantastic invention known as the deli roll. Most cultures make incredibly outlandish proclamations about their ancient leaders, but some of the Koreans seem to have taken it a bit further. I have to admit that it is a fairly brilliant alphabet, made entirely of circles and straight lines; very easy to look at and read. Despite these facts, I will not accept the whimsical concept that the letters were meant to mimic the shape your mouth makes while making the intended sound. This is utter baloney. But it is only the first in a long line of lies you will be told about the Korean language. Another lie is that while they claim to only have 14 consonants, they are not counting the double letters. “Double letters?” you might ask, but calm the fuck down and I’ll explain.
It turns out that many consonants can be doubled up. These double letters are very important as, for example, most swear words start with a “double S” sound. Koreans will explain to you that to make this sound you should say the letters with a deeper breath, allegedly making a different and distinguishable noise. I call shenanigans. The only distinguishable bit is that they just say it much louder, and you are more apt to get spit on. I attempt to explain that the only difference is that between saying “sah” and shouting “SAH” but they just don’t seem to get it. “No, no, can’t you hear the difference?” they ask, while thrusting their face towards mine and yelling “S” sounds at me from within what Kindergarten teachers would call my “private bubble” and spraying spittle this way and that.
In addition, they also double or even triple up vowels. Unfortunately, these are even more difficult than the consonants. It turns out that you can combine nearly any vowels to make new sounds. One of the issues is that people will teach a fairly insane way of figuring out what these new vowels should sound like. First off are the simple combinations of vowels. These would theoretically be easy, except for the fact that they make no sense. For some reason, the combination of an “O” vowel and “Ah” vowel makes a “Wah” sound. My teacher acts as if this is the most reasonable thing in the world. The theory is that by saying “O-Ah, O-Ah, O-Ah” very quickly it starts to sound like “Wah.” This would be far more reasonable if you had 5 seconds per vowel to figure out what they should sound like. It turns out it is far easier just to memorize that a vowel with that line configuration makes a “Wah,” and similar looking ones make “Wuh” and “We” sounds. In a similar manner, doubling up an “Oo” sound makes a “Yoo.” Why this is the case is I may never know. I just try to remember what they look like as best as I can, and think curse words at the letters as loudly as mentally possible.
Another fairly annoying point is the difference between L’s and R’s. There is a myth in America that Asians, be they Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or other, do not distinguish between the two. This is only partially correct. Koreans do not, in fact, have a different letter for the two, rather, they have a sort of backwards block 5 shape that takes the place for both. The annoying point is that at different places in different words it makes either one sound or the other. In certain words it is a very distinct “L” sound, while in others it is a distinct “R” sound (honestly, they have a burger joint called “Lotteria”). It gets frustrating in that when you ask the person responding is inevitably unable to tell you which one it is. It’s the opposite of the Spanish letters V and B, which are written differently but sound exactly the same. At least in that situation you can ask the inane question “v de vacca, o b de burro?” which roughly translates to “I speak Spanish very poorly. Please speak more slowly.” In Korean, there is no equivalent way of figuring out what the sound you are supposed to be making. You just sort of guess and hope that eventually people will stop brining you soup when you ask where the nearest hospital is.
Another extremely frustrating issue is that the Koreans have somewhere between 4 and a million different kind of O-ish sounds. Normally, this would not be much of an issue, except that they tend to sound very similar, and screwing them up can cause fairly serious communication errors. While attempting to get to rugby practice one day, one of my teammates told the cabbie that we wanted to go to “Chong-day Chong-moon.” The cabbie then began happily driving across town in a very unfamiliar direction, and eventually stopped the cab in front of a convenience store across the street from a forested area. At this point we realized that we must have made some kind of mistake and called the captain for help. After hearing my teammate yell into the phone “I TOLD him Chong-day Chong-moon” for about the fifth time he handed over the phone to the cabbie, who after a brief back-and-forth began laughing, hung up the phone, and started driving. At this point he turns around and says “AHHHH, ChUUUUUUNg-day ChUUUUUUNg-moon. Bleep bloop bleep bloorp Chong-day Chong-moon. ChUUUng-day ChUUUng-moon.” I took this to mean that whichever sadist designed the city had intentionally made different districts with nearly identical names just to swindle foreigners out of cab fare, but I was unable to confirm my suspicions. I honestly can’t believe that if you told a cab driver in New York to take you to the “Umpire-State Building” he would drive you to Yankees Stadium and then be utterly bewildered with his mistake. Well, maybe if he was a native New Yorker he would, but certainly not a cabdriver from out of state.
Finally, I hate Korean Grammar. You need to mark everything in some way with a suffix to explain what kind of word it is. Are you using a word indicating time? BOOM, suffix. How about a place? Suffix. Maybe you were going to use somebody’s name. Suffix. Maybe you’re just going to use a boring, run-of-the-mill noun. SUFFIX. You end up spending half of your time determining whether or not you need to add a suffix, and the other half of your time figuring out which suffix to add, depending on if the word ended in a consonant or vowel. You may think that with all of these rules the language would at least be unambiguous, but you would be entirely incorrect, because they leave out the pronouns in a sentence. Who is going to buy a book tomorrow? Tough shit if you thought it was Mina, because it was clearly Sora. Moron. And it’s not only the language that is ambiguous. Try learning Korean names. They all have the same number of syllables, and because of how they are constructed, they are all made up of around 60 different pieces thrown together. In fact, Korean names are so similar to each other, and last names are so common place, that their baseball jerseys have 2 initials before the last name. Imagine the embarrassment if you were to mix up H.K. Park and H.J. Park. Some Korean last names are so common that it is like how it must have been in Southie in the 50s, where you couldn’t swing a whiskey bottle without hitting an O’Brian, a Murphy, or an O’Sullivan.
You may at this point think to yourself that I have gone a little bit over the top with some of this. Well, I will respond the way my father would. Perhaps YOU’VE gone a little bit over the top. Think about that for a while. You could fairly point out that I’m probably just bitter because I’m terrible at learning foreign languages. You could say I’m just lucky that I was born to English speaking parents, because I’m far too lazy and inept to learn it otherwise. And I’d say you’re right. And God bless America.