The Celtic Roots of… Korean

Not meant literally, of course. This post is on the topic of substrate language influence and the search for it. The title and initial stimulus has come from a collection of edited papers, The Celtic Roots of English (2002), recommended to me by Janne Saarikivi who himself is specialized on Finno-Ugrian substrate studies. In the case of that work, too, the title is somewhat misleading in my view, because plant or tree ‘roots’ are an inaccurate metaphor for the non-genetic nature of substrate influence which might be better understood as the earth in which a tree – or language – is rooted. “Celtic (word) roots in English” would be more accurate but is less evocative as a title.

Celtic Roots of Englishc

How to explain the differences between related languages

The notion of genetic affiliation (language families) explains why two or more languages are similar in many regards but not why those same languages are at once so different to one another that they should be classified as distinct languages. The same issue applies to dialects within a language.

Language change

The conventional explanation is that languages naturally change over time as they are passed from generation to generation such that given long enough, the sounds, and occasionally the structure of words (the morphology) will significantly diverge from their point of origin, the proto language. The purest conceptualization is that languages split and evolve in relative isolation resulting in dialects and eventually new languages (but recognized as being within the same family).

Some apparently spontaneous/organic “language change” certainly occurs for any number of reasons, but rarely – if ever – have historical languages evolved in perfect isolation. The other phenomena, then, which cause languages to change stem from “areal contact” with other languages.

In the discussion of language families, the concept of areal contact most often comes up as the explanation for words which appear similar – usually too similar – but are not genetic cognates; they are interpreted instead as loanwords “borrowed” from one language into another; often they are associated with the introduction of new cultural or technological items and so tend to constitute secondary rather than basic vocabulary. Borrowing is generally restricted to words, not grammar, and as they are usually words for “things” the majority tend to be nouns rather than verbs or any other parts of speech; for this reason, even when there is a very large number of borrowings, they do not have much impact on the structure of the language. Korean, like Japanese, is heavily saturated with Chinese “borrowings” (even when they are calques they are derived from Sino-Korean vocabulary), but remains recognizably Korean and otherwise distinct from the Chinese language, both in structure and phonology (sound system).


The other aspect of areal contact relates to the movement and spread of whole languages. Since the last ice age, and particularly in a region such as east Asia, when a language does spread or expand it will have been over territory previously inhabited by speakers of other languages. In this case, the incoming language will invariably acquire “substrate” influences of the earlier languages.

How profound the influences are depends very much on the nature of the groups involved including both relative population ratios and stages of cultural development resulting in differing “prestige” values of the languages, again, relative to one another. In cases of invasion and conquest, most often the conquerors will be outnumbered by the indigenous population; if the new overlords have a social impact but fail to fully impose their language, the indigenous language will likely receive cultural loanwords but not too much further. Even in a maximal example of this, such as the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, an enormous number of Norman-French loans resulted in the pronounced diglossia (double vocabulary) of English, but structurally and genetically the language remained broadly English and Germanic.

The alternative situation is if the incoming group, even when a relative minority, is able to gradually cause the indigenous population to adopt their language resulting in anywhere between bilingualism (at least short term) to a complete “language shift” by the indigenous population to the incoming language. Under this process, as the incoming language expands, it may be more fundamentally altered – on the level of syntax and morphology – by the “substrate” (the previous indigenous) language influence of its new speakers.

A key property of substrate influence in the theory of language contact is that it has the greater potential to cause structural changes without necessarily influencing vocabulary; in a very simple model this might be considered the result of the indigenous population “mis-learning” the prestige language of the newcomers who are likely to constitute a socially higher class which will not make any effort to learn the natives’ – possibly a defeated enemy’s – language.

Separately, on the lexical (vocabulary) level, substrate languages survive in trace as the residue of local words for which the incoming language had no substitute word of its own or immediate interest to name; these typically include local flora and fauna, geographical features and toponyms (place names).

Thus, although not the only cause of language change, substrates provide one of the more concrete and interesting sources of explanation for some of the differences between genetically related languages and what would seem to give any particular language, or dialect, some of its distinct vocabulary.

An archetypal example of substrate influence accompanying language shift is the spread of Germanic Anglo-Saxon languages over the Celtic speaking Romano-British; in short, some of the structural features of Old English which distinguish it from continental Germanic languages (e.g. being structurally more analytic) are found in Celtic, especially Welsh. The traditional 19th view is that the Celtic languages were obliterated in the regions which became English speaking as the Celtic population was subjugated and marginalized to the northern and western peripheries but both archaeological continuities and toponymic evidence fail to support the total replacement of the Romano-British; rather, it seems, the Anglo-Saxon migrations occurred over a longer period of time (the introduction of the language potentially beginning with Germanic Roman soldiers) and there was more of a synthesis of language and cultures (visible in swirly Anglo-Saxon art and style of poetry) than previously appreciated.

Turning to Korean..

What substrate influence(s) might there be in the Korean language and what evidence of pre-Koreanic languages might remain across the peninsula where only Korean is spoken today?

If we accept the premise that two or more of the kingdoms of the Three Kingdoms period were Koreanic speaking, how might their languages have differed to one another?

It must be a certain that Korean, like all languages spread over a wide previously inhabited area, has significant substrate influences. Because these languages are prehistoric and unattested, however, we don’t know what they are, so it is difficult to frame a trendy academic question like “How Celtic is English?”; instead we have to ask “How non-Korean(ic) is Korean?”

The example of Celtic and English is neat because we have two language families, or at least distinct branches (both being Indo-European) with surviving and historically attested examples (Celtic and Germanic) outside of the contact area in question (England). As a basic method, one can identify where Old English differs from continental Germanic languages and compare those features to the Celtic languages, both insular (Q Celtic) and continental (P Celtic); if there are similarities – particularly with the Celtic languages geographically closest (i.e. Welsh) – these might be considered candidates for substrate influence.

The difficulty with Korean is that there are no surviving attestations of other Koreanic languages or candidate substrate languages with which to compare. Japonic is the only other language we can be reasonably confident was spoken on the Korean peninsula but we do not know the timing of arrival (assuming also that it had continental origins) and exact nature of interaction between the speakers: are there areas where Japonic was a substrate to Koreanic, for example, or Koreanic a substrate to Japonic? Or were they both influenced by an older indigenous substrate language now lost?

In many regards, the latter of those speculations seems the more intriguing prospect. We know that typologically (structurally speaking) Koreanic and Japonic are a part of the broader Altaic Sprachbund, but K and J also share certain features between themselves, in a sense forming their own smaller Sprachbund. Some of these features might be caused by a shared substrate influence.

Turning to dialects..

Although there is no surviving Koreanic language outside of the peninsula, there is internal variation – dialects – within. Difference between the dialects may also provide evidence of substrate influences.

Whilst some, or the greater proportion of dialectal variation may be due to the more spontaneous processes of “language change” associated with geographic isolation, it seems unlikely to be pure coincidence that the known dialectal zones of modern Korean broadly map the positions of the ancient kingdoms: certainly the Jeolla (southwest ‘Honam’) – Gyeongsang (southeast ‘Yeongnam’) divide persists; and elsewhere, for example, east coast Gangwon-do correlates to either “Ye” or “Ye-Maek” territory, perhaps extending north to southern Okjeo; northeastern Hamgyeong-do may correlate to Okjeo; Jeju-do remains particularly distinct as an island, and of course there is Pyeongyang, the former capital of Goguryeo. These dialects may carry echoes both of greater Koreanic variation and, beyond that, non-Koreanic substrates.

Toponymy and local lexicon..

The other area to investigate, as mentioned, are place names and local dialect words. These will not tell much about structural substrate influence, but they rather have the potential to identify the prehistoric “lost” languages.

The basic method to determine non- (or distantly related) Koreanic words is: firstly, if their phonology (the basic sound system from which the word is built) does not match proto- (or as old as can be reconstructed) Koreanic phonology, and secondly if the words cannot be semantically analysed as Korean (i.e. if they don’t carry meaning found in other Korean words and/or do not posses any Koreanic etymology that could be internally reconstructed).

For this to be potentially informative, we ideally need a lot of toponyms and local words which can be mapped; only then is there a chance that through naming patterns the meaning of recurring word parts might be deduced and that they might even be associated with local archaeological sites. The distribution of words may indicate the spread of a substrate language and would be even more telling if they corresponded to the distribution pattern of surviving dialects or historical polities (though they equally may not).

What sources might be used?

To my (possibly inaccurate) knowledge, there is very little literature on Korean dialects in English language whilst most discussion of toponyms relates only to those found in the Samguk-sagi.

In Korean, there are various collections of oral literature, such as produced by the Academy of Korean Studies, compiled during the 1970~80s at a time before standard Seoul dialect had yet to become so utterly pervasive through improved infrastructure and television; if studied, these likely contain toponyms as well as examples of local syntax and word forms.

The first studies of Korean dialects were produced during the Japanese era; they include the 1936 Bang’eon-jip (方言集 Dialect Collection, published by 京城師範學校 [醇和]朝鮮語硏究部 Keijō-shihan-gakkō Chōsen-go Kenkyū-bu) and Ogura Sinpei’s (小倉進平 1882-44) lifetime work Chōsen-go Hōgen no Kenkyū (朝鮮語方言の研究 Research on Korean Dialects, 岩波書店 1944).

Again, from the 1970s onwards at least the SK dialects have been the subject of investigation by Korean linguists; between 1987-95 the Academy of Korean Studies published the 9 volume Han’guk-bang’eon-jaryo-jip (한국방언자료집 Collected Sources [on] Korean Dialects).

The premodern local gazettes and maps, as well as private writings of provincial literati may also be a source of toponyms although there is the obvious challenge that they are mostly authored in Chinese.

If it hasn’t been done thoroughly enough already, it is still not too late to collect local toponyms from the oldest speakers of rural communities.

As a conclusion, I would suggest that whilst the genetic discourse of language families is regularly exploited for purposes of ethnic nationalism, substratum discourse reminds us of shared accumulative heritage across ethnic distinctions and encourages us to look deeper.

References (what I’ve been reading related to this topic)

Filppula, Markku (ed.). 2002. The Celtic Roots of English. Joensuu: Joensuun Yliopistopaino.

Kroonen, Guus. “Non-Indo-European root nouns in Germanic: evidence in support of the Agricultural Substrate Hypothesis” in Grünthal (ed.). 2012. A Linguistic Map of Prehistoric Northern Europe. Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 266.

Saarikivi, Janne. 2006. Substrata Uralica: Studies on Finno-Ugrian Substrate in Northern Russian Dialects (PhD dissertation). Tartu University Press.

Tristram (ed.). 2000. The Celtic Englishes II. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter.

강정희 2005. 재주방언 형태 변화 연구 (Research on morphological changes in Jeju dialect). 서울: 도서출판역락(亦樂).

박성종 2008. 강원도 영동지역의 방언 (The dialect of Yeodong region of Gangwon-do province). 서울: 제이앤.

Are Korean and Japanese related? The Altaic hypothesis continued..

See here for the first part.

A very brief history of the Altaic hypothesis and the Finnish connection.

The Altaic language family was initially proposed during the early 1850s by Finnish scholar, founder of Finno-Ugric studies, M.A. Castrén (1813-52). He himself expressed caution on whether genetic ancestry between the languages could be established. Early on the Altaic family (sometimes referred to as Tartar) was also considered to include what is now treated as the Uralic language family (comprising the Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic branches) however during the first half of the 20th century, the lack of tenable cognate vocabulary led to the distinction of Uralic and Altaic as two separate families; in the 1970s, Pentti Aalto (1917-98) resurrected the Ural-Altaic hypothesis but his assertion was primarily based on structural rather than lexical similarities. The Uralic languages do possess similar grammatical features to the Altaic languages so it is still possible, and at times useful, to discuss in typological terms a Ural-Altaic complex.

The most famous name in Altaic studies, certainly in relation to Korean, is another Finn, Gustaf Ramstedt (1873-1950). Foremost a specialist in the Mongolic languages, though with an extensive command and knowledge of many other, Ramstedt actively acquainted himself with Korean whilst working at the Finnish embassy in Japan between 1919-30. Aside from writing the first English language grammar of Korean (1939), Ramstedt did most to systematically incorporate Korean into the genetic Altaic hypothesis through the comparative method (as opposed to merely speculating on structures and look-a-like words in their modern shapes) and it is primarily his quite seminal albeit tentative and imperfect work, beginning with a short paper Remarks on the Korean Language (1928) and culminating in Studies in Korean Etymology (1949) which has formed the basis for postwar Korean scholars and popular history writers up until today. It was, incidentally, in the former publication that Ramstedt proposed the linguistic homeland of the Altaic languages to have been located, according to his estimate some 4,000 years ago, around the Khingan mountain range (興安嶺) in western Manchuria as opposed to the Altai mountains after which the language family was originally named.

Slightly proceeding Ramstedt, another pioneer scholar whose 1914-16 work is often relied on by Korean Altaicists, is Japanese ethnographer Shiratori Kurakichi (白鳥庫吉 1865-1942); having studied in Europe Shiratori was influenced by Heinrich Winkler’s (1848-1930) Uralaltaische völker und sprachen (1884) and from as early on as the 1890s he had proposed Korean as a member of the Ural-Altaic family, however, in contrast to Ramstedt, his hypothesis was explicitly based on grammatical similarities rather than sound correspondences (the crucial determinant in the comparative method). Ramstedt and Shiratori are certainly not the only scholars to have contributed to the Altaic discourse but relating to Korean, their works have remained by far the most representative and influential.

Are Korean and Japanese related?

Once more: typologically yes, but genetically not so much at all. Attempts to include Japanese in the Ural-Altaic family began as early as the 1850s but, for the same reasons as Korean, were not very successful.

Conveniently for the nationalist sensitivities of Korean Altaicists today, Ramstedt did not so emphatically associate Japanese with the core Altaic languages as he did Korean. Having mastered Japanese sooner, he did in fact explore Japanese-Altaic connections as early as 1924 (“A Comparison of the Altaic Languages with Japanese”) previous that is to focusing on Korean; at this early stage he also took the view that Japanese and Korean were genetically related but his final position seems to have been that he regarded Japanese a distant relative to proto-Altaic (what might be termed “para-Altaic”) whilst Korean he considered an early branch within Altaic. Studies in Korean Etymology (1949) thus includes some suggested genetic cognates with Japanese and Ryukyuan (the language of Okinawa genetically related to Japanese), but far fewer than for Tungusic, Mongolic or Turkic languages.

Perhaps more than with the core Altaic language families, modern Korean clearly exhibits a close structural similarity with Japanese but still only a relatively tiny amount of shared vocabulary: certainly not enough to posit them as genetic cousins split from a common ancestor. Modern (Sino-)Japanese, therefore, is best regarded as belonging to the Japonic language family which also includes the Ryukyuan languages of Okinawa.

By contrast with Korean, Ryukyuan shares a great amount of its basic vocabulary with Japanese and this is what a genetic relationship should look like.

To elaborate a little more, there are two primary processes through which languages are made or evolve: divergence and convergence, the former representing genetic division, the latter aerial contact. Where languages have diverged or split from one another, they will retain the same basic vocabulary; where they have converged they will possess different basic vocabulary but share other secondary vocabulary. These processes are not mutually exclusive and rarely occur in isolation (except in the neat case of uninhabited island settlement), so even as a language is diverging it will most likely at once be converging with others.

Being an island nation the Japonic languages had to have been taken there at sometime and simultaneously something has to account for the typological affinity with Korean. Given Koreanic seems to have been situated in its peninsula homeland for as far back as we can go, though certainly not forever, the most reasonable explanation is that for a significant period of time the two language families co-existed in close proximity on the Korean peninsula, at which time the Japonic language was typologically “Altaicized” and spread to the Japanese archipelago and Ryukyu.

Based on methods of internal reconstruction, linguists are generally agreed that, unlike the Altaic languages, proto-Japonic was a monosyllabic language, that is similar to southeast Asian languages and Old Chinese which are termed typologically as “Sinic” though genetically they were distinct; “Sinic” is not the best term as it implies the dominance of Chinese which at this early date would not have been the case. What is likely though, is that Japonic had continental origins from whence it crossed to the Korean peninsula and later on to the Japanese islands.

The migration of Japonic to Japan may be archaeologically identified with the bronze-iron age Yayoi period (c.300BCE-300CE) which shows both a distinct break and replacement of the prehistoric Jomon culture. By the end of this period, close material connections are known to have existed between the Gaya states on the south of the peninsula and the Japanese isles; additionally there is the now politically sensitive ethnonym of the Wa/Wae (倭 왜) which turns up in early sources such as the Gwanggaeto Stele (廣開土王陵碑 erected 414CE) and may have originated on the peninsula or been based on Tsushima island, independent of any nascent Yayoi polity then establishing itself in Japan proper.

It is during this early stage that Japonic spread across the Honshu island, pushing the Ainu people northwards, and also to the Ryukyu islands. Meanwhile the Japonic left on the peninsula (termed para-Japonic) further interacted with Koreanic whilst becoming itself the dominant language of Baekje, a kingdom historically well attested as having close links with, and even direct involvement in, the establishment of the Yamato dynasty (based in the Kinki region of modern Japan). During this period and in particular following the overthrow of Baekje, there was a further and indeed final migration of para-Japonic speakers, people of Baekje, who brought their closely related Japonic language but with a greater number of Korean loanwords, whilst also leaving Japonic loanwords on the peninsula, which account for what otherwise appear as genetic cognates between Korean and Japanese today. The proof for this explanation is that the Koreanic influence is predominantly found in Old Central Japanese, in the homeland region of the Yamato dynasty, but less so in the dialects which had spread further east and not at all in Ryukyu (Vovin 2010:240)

The evidence for the relationship between Baekje and Yamato is so strong that it has even been acknowledged by the current Japanese emperor,  Akihito (although that linked article is quite wrong in suggesting that Japan’s peninsula heritage or Akihito’s lineage is ethnic “Korean” because the very point is that those people did not remain on the peninsula to become Korean), but it is not a topic otherwise popular with the race-based nationalist ideologies of either the two Korean states or Japan today. For the Koreas this is related to post-colonial sensitivities and for Japan, it would undermine their colonial rhetoric of historical superiority and kokutai (國體) myth of exceptionalism pertaining both to race and language which has never been fully revoked.

Whilst on the peninsula para-Japonic would also have influenced Koreanic and perhaps have formed a substrate over which Koreanic ultimately expanded and gained some of its distinctly non-Altaic traits such as pitch accent and honourific speech levels.

Today it understandably remains ethnic anathema for Koreans to consider that a non-Koreanic language, particularly one ancestral to Japanese, was ever spoken on the peninsula, least of all by one of the celebrated Three Kingdoms, albeit the least popular one! The sensitivity originates in particular from the Japanese colonial era (1910-45) claim that early Yayoi contact with the Gaya polity (named Mimana in Japanese) and misidentification of the Wa/Wae people as “Japanese” was evidence of an ancient Japanese presence on and control over the peninsula; thus Koreans feel compelled to refute the notion that there was ever any relationship between early Korean and Japanese polities even when objective reasoning and historical sources tell us that the direction of cultural and linguistic influence would have been from the peninsula to Japan rarely the opposite direction. One might expect Korean nationalist rhetoric to happily reverse the 20th century colonial argument and claim Japan had once been an ancient colony of Gaya and/or Baekje, but rather the thrust of modern Korean historiography has been to emphasize homeogenous origins and maintain territorial and ethnic integrity over any desire to lay claim on Japan; where they exist, Korean irredentist urges are directed towards former continental territory in southern Manchuria.

Shouldn’t the earliest recoverable layer of the surviving Japanese language be from the Jomon period, prior to the Yayoi or Baekje influx?

Not if the Yayoi and Baekje migrations pushed to the margins and otherwise replaced wholesale the indigenous languages such as occurred to the Celtic languages during the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain. Indigenous Ainu, for example, (which may not have been related to other Jomon languages) was not absorbed into Japonic but displaced by it; this was a gradual process and Ainu was in aerial contact with Japonic from an early period as it has preserved some loanwords from Japonic in their earlier shapes.

Wouldn’t it be better to refer to the Japanese language family as “Baekje-ic” rather than Japonic?

Or perhaps “Kudara-ic” as a compromise, Kudara being the Japanese name for Baekje and therefore, arguably, closer to its original name. But, no, because language families tend to be named after their surviving representatives; hence Koreanic is not “Sillaic” because it is the people who self-identify, internationally, with the ethnonym “Korean” rather than Silla, who are the attested speakers of the modern language. This can be misleading in more complex language families such as Mongolic where Mongolian was only one branch of a very widely spoken language family which included other major branches, identified later, such as the Khitan language of the Liao dynasty predating Ghengis Khan. Similarly, individual branches of a language family tend to be described in relation to the more, or earliest studied, attested branch and named as “para” languages; consequently the Khitan language may be termed “para-Mongolic” and, quite separately, the dominant language of Goguryeo may be proposed as “para-Jurchenic” but this should not in any way be misunderstood at implying linguistic or ethnic subordination. Thus the language which was left on the peninsula to constitute itself as a separate branch of Japonic, can be termed para-Japonic.

I still need more convincing..

Compelling evidence for the non-genetic nature of the relationship between Koreanic and Japonic has been produced by the Russian-American scholar Alexander Vovin. Aside from the depth of his knowledge, particularly on the side of Old Japanese, one significant aspect of Vovin’s work is that for a long time he was himself an adherent to the Altaic hypothesis inclusive of both Koreanic and Japonic. The motive of his study published in 2010, Koreo-Japonica, had initially been to substantiate the genetic relationships, but in the process he instead confirmed the opposite. The results of his exhaustive examination of 347 proposed Korean-Japanese cognates ultimately rejects 261 of them as being problematic according to the comparative method, it identifies 75 as definite loans leaving only eleven as “possible”, which were further whittled down to just six that “seem to be impeccable in the regularity of their phonetic correspondences”. (Vovin 2010:237) These were words for “fire”, “to fill [with water]“, “to hold/take”, “crane”, “field” and “melon” which do not strongly represent basic vocabulary items. The ratio of loan words to cognates, meanwhile, overwhelmingly bespeaks of aerial interaction.

In other areas, when analyzing Korean and Japanese personal pronouns, for example, the only possible cognate Vovin identifies is Middle Korean first person “I” na (나 still used today) attested in Western and Eastern Old Japanese, but crucially not the other Japonic branch of Ryukyuan; another word for “I”, wa, meanwhile is found in all of the Japonic dialects and not Korean, indicating that wa is mostly likely the Japonic word for “I” whilst na is a secondary borrowing from the language carried by the 4th century Baekje influx (Vovin 2010:65). It should be noted, however, Vovin regards the Baekje language to have been Koreanic with a Japonic substrate; so he considers the peninsula Japonic to have existed as a dominant language only previous to the emergence of the Three Kingdoms which, while not impossible, is perhaps less convincing when considering the nature of the close political relationship maintained between the Baekje and Yamato elites up until Baekje’s mid 7th century demise.

To give another example, in the case of demonstrative pronouns, modern Korean and Japanese share a similar system of i~ (이), geu~ (그) and jeo~ (저) with Japanese ko~, so~ and a~ (“this”, “that” and “that over there”), but Vovin points out they “seem to have been functionally much more different in earlier times than they are now,” indicating once more aerial convergence rather than genetic divergence. And, further, the words themselves are not genetically cognate.

Is the genetic Altaic language hypothesis completely dead?

Not entirely and there are still a few advocates. The main point to consider is that after decades of intensive effort and high level scholarship from both sides of the debate, the Altaic theory remains unproven, both in terms of the genetic relationship between the core languages and the relationship of Koreanic and Japonic, either to each other or to the others, and today a greater number of historical linguists specialized in typologically Altaic languages stand against rather than for it.

There is instead the view that more can be achieved working on internal reconstructions and establishing the nature of relationships, whether genetic or aerial, between some of the individual Altaic language families before expending further efforts on the “long range” Altaic question.

One of the most emphatic arguments used by proponent Altaicists is that any of the Altaic languages in question are notably more similar to one another than modern Greek appears to Swedish, yet Greek and Swedish are accepted as being part of the same genetic Indo-European family; therefore it should not be so unreasonable to postulate the certainty of an Altaic language family. I know neither language, but assuming Greek and Swedish are as different as they say: if only those two languages and no other intermediate Indo-European language were known then, indeed, it surely would have been impossible to establish the Indo-European family and any such hypothesis would have to have remained unproven, as is the circumstance of Altaic. In fact the situation with Indo-European is, apparently, the opposite in that there are too many attested languages and whilst their genetic affinity is more certain, untangling the knot of secondary areal interactions between them is a real challenge.

An only slightly more considered response to the video “Endangered Japan: Book 1: A Cultural War”


Response to the “preface”

If, in 2013, you are feeling culturally threatened, attempt to imagine how Koreans might have felt when their country was made into a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and fully annexed in 1910.

Appreciate further, how critically endangered they actually became when under the 1938 Naisen Ittai (内鮮一体) policy of forced assimilation they were made to adopt Japanese names and Korean language was entirely banned.  Today, Japanese culture is faced with nothing even remotely on this scale; the biggest threat by far to Japanese ethno-cultural identity is, in fact, Westernization and its own shallowness but this video does not discuss the topic.

Apple iPhone vs Samsung Galaxy

Ignoring the fact that Apple iPhones are not Japanese. The argument of design is just an excuse for the rival companies to gain an advantage in the market place. Most cars have very similar designs, as do laptop computers, planes and tea cups. The idea of originality is false and it is absurd to claim it in a generic object (where Apple invented neither the telephone, the computer, nor buttons nor rounded corners).

The Samsung Galaxy is obviously “inspired” and derivative of the Apple phone design but so initially were many Japanese products of Western invention.

Honda vs Hyundai

They both begin with “H”, a letter of the Roman alphabet. Apart from that they are cars and the above arguments apply; the car wasn’t invented in Japan. In English Hyundai gets pronounced as three syllables “hai-un-dai” which is entirely distinct from bisyllabic “hon-da”.  The original Sino-Korean word from which the name comes, hyeondae (現代 현대), meaning “modern”, in Sino-Japanese is pronounced gendai.

The Hyundai advertising using Japanese cultural imagery is less defensible – unless it was specific specifically targeting Japan as a market, but given the language appears as English in the pictures this doesn’t seem to be the case.  It’s almost as inexplicable as a pro-Japanese nationalist video arguing for the superiority of Japanese culture and its misappropriation by Koreans whilst using French music for its soundtrack.

Manga vs manhwa

Some Korean manhwa comics are highly derivative but this is hardly a major issue endangering Japanese identity. Whilst Japanese manga has always been popular in Korea (even though, or perhaps because, it was officially banned until 1998) Korea has its own very strong domestic market for comics, now mainly online, with plenty of originality and inspiration from Korean culture and society.  Despite this, manga is well known internationally whilst manhwa is not at all, to the point that I feel the urge to italicize the latter as a foreign word.

Again, although Japan does have a celebrated premodern tradition of popular style prints, it did not invent the comic book and, in particular, the ubiquitous large-eyed stylization of manga characters is well known to be directly “borrowed” from Walt Disney cartoons and cannot be found in Edo or Meiji era woodblock prints.

If less commercial than Japan, 18th Joseon, too, had its painters who produced genre folk scenes which could well be viewed as the predecessors to a modern comic book style.

chocolates, snacks and strawberries

These chocolates are clearly copied. Disgraceful and shocking; I wonder how the Mayans feel about this.

The video provides little background context for each individual case as often the Japanese and Korean companies may well have close connections with one another, itself a result of Japan’s colonization of Korea.


Are definitely not Korean!

Kimbap vs sushi

Kimbap was surely introduced, or innovated during the Japanese colonial era in much the same way, we could suggest, as tempura was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. Koreans certainly already had rice, seaweed and crab meat; kimbap does not use sushi vinegar or wasabi so it tastes entirely different.  It even has itself an entirely Korean name, and not just the Korean pronunciation of a Sino-Japanese equivalent.

Koreans could well make the similarly pointless claim that yaki-niku (barbecued meat) is a Japanese appropriation of Korean style barbecue (samgyeopsal, galbi etc) which itself is better known internationally.

Cherry blossoms

Trying to claim cherry blossoms as a traditional Korean aesthetic, if any one does, is unsubstantiable; though Korea shares a similar climate to much of Japan and cherry blossom trees are found in many other countries around the world.

That some Korean scientist (or journalist) might seek to “prove” that Japanese sakura trees originated on the Korean peninsula is indeed somewhat petty and simply an attempt to get under the skin of Japanese nationalists.  But then again, Japanese nationalists did invade the Korean peninsula and apparently plant extra cherry trees there.  Either way sakura are as Japanese as kamikaze.


Is definitely Japanese, though many Koreans enjoy practicing it. Most Koreans who practice kendo accept its obvious Japanese origins.

Perhaps it might be compared to the fact that American baseball is practiced like crazy and enjoyed by both Japanese and Koreans, even by those who may not otherwise be very pro-American, just as cricket is enjoyed by many more Indians than British.

Haedong Gumdo

Is a modern Korean invention. The issue of Buddhist statuary shouldn’t not be pushed too far as it is historically documented that Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the 4th century primarily from the Baekje kingdom on the peninsula and the oldest relics and statues in Nara were crafted by Baekje artisans.


Are definitely Japanese.

Judo vs “yudo”

Judo is definitely traditionally Japanese, and 99% of Korean practitioners would admit this.

Aikido vs hapkido

Aikido is definitely Japanese but of relatively recent origin having been created by Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969).

Karate vs taekwondo

Taekwondo is definitely a modern martial art influenced by karate. Karate, as noted, however didn’t exist in premodern Japan, but originated in Okinawa which was formally an independent kingdom, under vassalage to the Satsuma domain from 1609 and only formally incorporated as a province of Meiji Japan in 1879.

Even in the mid 20th century, at the height of Japanese imperialism, karate was still considered of foreign origin to Japan as demonstrated in Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1947) where it is presented as an unknown threat to orthodox judo.

Taekwondo, meanwhile, has evolved its own style and techniques distinct from karate and, therefore, we can best say it is about as Korean as karate is Japanese.

Taekkyeon did also exist in Korea as a martial folk sport and it is fair to assume Koreans knew how to kick things even before the Japanese annexation of 1910. To paraphrase Bruce Lee, as long as humans have two arms and two legs their fighting systems are all going to be relatively similar.

The broader argument of Sinocentricism stifling Korean innovation

You are largely correct that Japanese culture, from the Heian period until the 19th century, developed in a more idiosyncratic manner and flourished in relative, though far from complete, isolation; in fact Joseon Korea was the one country Edo Japan maintained diplomatic relations with throughout.

Korea, until the 19th century considered itself much more a part of the Sinocentric worldview but its sense of distinct cultural self-identity was also very much maintained. For example, the fourth of King Wang Geon’s famous Ten Injunctions (訓要十條) promulgated in 943, explicitly stated that Goryeo was not Tang China and it did not need to copy Tang institutions and dress; during the Goryeo period such works as Dongmyeong-wang-pyeon (東明王篇 동명왕편 the progenitor myth of Goguryeo), Samguk-sagi, Samguk-yusa and Jewang-un’gi were all composed and displayed a concern to record the peninsula’s history and folklore as distinct from China. Despite the usage of Classical Chinese and influence of Chinese learning which extended thoroughly also to Japan, Koreans continued to speak the Korean language and, even before the 1443 invention of the hangul script, devised systems to record Korean using Chinese characters, namely hyangchal (鄕札) and idu (吏讀) alongside a strong tradition of oral literature.

From the establishment of the Joseon dynasty, the ideological vigour of Sinocentricism was overtly enhanced by Neo-Confucianism (known in Korean as Seongnihak 性理學 “the study of human nature”) which was a neo-traditionalist ideology seeking to recreate the presumed Confucian utopia of ancient/legendary China to which Joseon dynasty Koreans considered themselves as much equal inheritors themselves, as contemporary Chinese. Thus the elite of Joseon Korea held aspects of ancient Chinese civilization as an ideal, in much the same way the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome have informed and inspired European art and philosophy.

That Joseon period architecture appears broadly similar to Chinese architecture (when photographed from specific angles) is similar to European countries all basing their architecture since the Enlightenment on Greek and Roman designs. At the same time, plenty of Korean architecture is entirely distinct including, the style of traditional Korean hanok houses and the early innovation of ondol underfloor heating; both the layout and interior of Korean houses is entirely distinct from continental architecture.

Seongnihak was created by the Song dynasty scholar Zhu Xi, but it soon fell out of popularity in China itself; in Joseon meanwhile it was later interpreted and innovated by major philosophers such as Toegye Yi Hwang (退溪 李滉 1501-70) who’s writings were highly regarded even in Japan. Seongnihak ultimately flourished more and for longer in Joseon Korea than in China so it is hard to describe its manifestation in Korea as purely “Chinese”.

In particular, with the overthrow of the Chinese Ming dynasty and establishment of the Manchu Qing in 1644, Joseon came to regard itself as the sole preserver of the lineage of ancient Chinese learning; it noticeably reduced contact with Qing China to a bare minimum of symbolic missions which is, more than anything, what retarded its development alongside over-adherence to Seongni-hak which had, over several centuries of domination isolated from the plurality of China, inevitably became reduced to a rigid dogma.

Returning to the video, the quote from Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbours (1898) is from the beginning of the book and represents only first impressions. Read to the end and you discover she very much warmed to the country, went to great lengths in describing its unique culture and was increasingly unimpressed by the actions of the Japanese.

Certainly, during the better part of the 19th century Seoul as a city failed to “modernize” which, albeit ironically, actually demonstrates its success at having staved off Western intrusions for significantly longer than Japan did.  Joseon society, by the mid 19th century, was in decline and many Koreans were fully aware of this.

Despite all this, the only pictorial examples of Joseon being similar to China presented in the video, are the robes of the king and architecture. As said, much Korean architecture was quite distinct from China (which of course had huge regional and diachronic variation itself) and for all the clichéd pictures of unique culture idiosyncratically developed in Japan (origami, bonzai trees etc), similar representative examples of distinctive cultural traditions can be found in Korea, including but not limited to: inlay decorated Celadonware sanggam-cheongja (象嵌靑瓷) of the Goryeo dynasty; buncheong-sagi (粉靑沙器) of the early Joseon period – a tradition which was wiped out on the peninsula but transferred to Japan during the Hideyoshi invasions of 1592-97 and there directly contributed to the development of karatsu-yaki (唐津焼); dal-hang’ari moon vases (달항아리) of the mid Joseon dynasty; Joseon dynasty paintings including the iconic works of Gyeomjae Jeongseon (謙齋 鄭敾1676-1759), Danwon Kim Hongdo (檀園 金弘道 1745-1806), Hyewon Sin Yunbok (蕙園 申潤福 1758-?) and Chusa Kim Jeonghui (秋史 金正喜 1786-1856); pansori epic storytelling, tuneful Korean folksongs, and musical instruments dating back to the Three Kingdoms period, including the geomun’go and gayageum zithers and daegeum transverse flute on which  sanjo “scattered melodies” (散調) improvisation technique was later innovated.

DSC00051c1080  DSC00264

낭구도 浪鷗圖 adjusted detail 김홍도_송하맹호도부분  월야밀회月夜密會 adjusted

Presentation of the Japanese colonial era

No doubt aspects of “modernization” and “development” were brought to Korea during this era. However, not a single one of these aspects were invented by the Japanese but had only recently been adopted into Japan itself, and they were already being introduced to Korea at the end of the 19th century even before it was annexed.

Schools, in particular, were being established by Western missionaries and Korea obviously had a long tradition of education previous to foreign incursions. A small number of influential Koreans were enabled to study in Tokyo but if not for Japanese colonialization they might have been freer to study in other countries as well and establish their own universities sooner as they did post 1945.

Imposed Westernization via Imperial Japan, was not a benign contribution!

I agree some Koreans privately benefited and profited during the colonial era, as described in Professor Eckert’s well known study but even for the most successful, they were to remain second class citizens in their own country vis-a-vis the Japanese occupiers. For Korea the country, meanwhile, the period of the Japanese empire was utterly disastrous, as it was in fact for Japan itself! Aside from the immediate thirty-five years of violent oppression and suffering, Japan ultimately took Korea to a meaningless, unwinnable war which directly led to its tragic division in 1945. For Koreans at the bottom of society the colonial era wasn’t necessarily worse than life had been during the late Joseon period but it certainly didn’t improve and became nasty in new ways.

Here, we can be informed by the first hand account of Frederick Arthur McKenzie (1869–1931) concerning Japanese rule in Korea circa 1920:

“To the outside, one of the most repulsive features of the Japanese method of government of Korea is the wholesale torture of untried prisoners, particularly political prisoners… torture is employed in many [detention] centres and on thousands of people. The Imperial Japanese Government, while enacting paper regulations against the employment of torture, in effect condones it…

The forms of torture freely employed include, among others:-

1. The stripping, beating, kicking, flogging, and outraging of schoolgirls and young women.

2. Flogging schoolboys to death.

3. Burning – the burning of young girls by pressing lighted cigarettes against their tender parts, and the burning of men, women and children by searing their bodies with hot irons.

4. Stringing men up by their thumbs, beating them with bamboos and iron rods until unconscious, restoring them and repeating the process, sometimes several times in one day, sometimes until death.

5. Contraction – tying men up in such fashion as to cause intense suffering.

6. Confinement for long periods under torturing conditions, as, e.g. where men and women are packed so tightly in a room that they cannot lie or sit down for days at a stretch.” (McKenzie, F.A. Korea’s Fight for Freedom, originally printed 1920, reprinted 1969, Yonsei University Press: Seoul pp8-9)

To say that most Koreans were happy during the colonial era in particular ignores the massive counter-evidence provided by the nationwide March 1st 1919 popular uprising which strongly demonstrated Koreans were not at all happy. The famously peaceful demonstrations were violently suppressed by the Japanese military whereupon those with a will to actively resist were forced to escape to southern Manchuria from where they waged continuous guerrilla warfare until the Japanese defeat.  Content people do not wage guerrilla warfare.

We can again quote from McKenzie concerning the argument that Koreans benefited from Japan’s rapacious colonial exploitation:

‘”The Japanese make improvements,” say the Koreans. “But they make them to benefit their own people, not us. They improve agriculture, and turn the Korean farmers out and replace them by Japanese. They pave and put sidewalks in a Seoul street, but the old Korean shopkeepers in that street have gone, and Japanese have come. They encourage commerce, Japanese commerce, but the Korean tradesman is hampered and tied down in many ways.” Education has been wholly Japanized. That is to say the primary purpose of the schools is to teach Korean children to be good Japanese subjects. Teaching is mostly done in Japanese, by Japanese teachers. The whole ritual and routine is towards the glorification of Japan.

The Koreans complain, however, that, apart from this, the system of teaching established for Koreans in Korea is inferior to that established for Japanese there. Japanese and Korean children are taught in separate schools. The course of education for Koreans is four years, for Japanese six. The number of schools provided for Japanese is proportionately very much larger than for Koreans, and a much larger sum of money is spent on them..’ (pp197-198)


Is both a lost cause for Japan and symbolic of South Korea’s post-colonial trauma. As a group of uninhabited rocks, it never “belonged” in any meaningful sense to either Japan or Korea and to say Korea’s occupation is illegal would ignore the greater illegality of nearly all of Japan’s actions up until 1945.

The fact is Japan accepted unconditional surrender in 1945 and was ordered to cede all of its colonial possessions: it is lucky, therefore, to have kept Hokkaido and Okinawa, and luckier still that it was not divided between Russia and America. Unfortunately many issues were never fully resolved because of the immediate onset of the Cold War and America’s hasty desire to rehabilitate Japan as an immediate ally against USSR and Mao’s China. This is the source for nearly all of the history and territorial disputes still outstanding.

Japan and Korea never fought a war against one another, but huge suffering was inflicted on the Korean people by Japan over which Koreans had no control.

The 1965 compensation payment by Japan unfortunately for the South Korea people, was a secret agreement negotiated with then dictator and former officer in the Japanese military, Park Chung Hee. This money never reached victims directly; the issue of apologizing is more problematic for both sides.

Concerning the motivation of the video on a wider level, regarding the genuine complaint of South Korean “plagiarizing” and its misappropriation of Japanese culture: in short, this is what happens when you colonize a neighboring country, impose a policy of forced cultural assimilation, only to be defeated in a larger war and have to withdraw and go into denial about recent history. Koreans never asked to be made so familiar with sushi and kendo: they were introduced into the Korean peninsula by the Japanese themselves. The fact that many Koreans, in spite of history, have adopted these items demonstrates the partial success of both Imperial Japan’s best and worst intentions.

Is Korean an Altaic language?

Typologically: yes. Genetically, no.

Typology refers to the structure of a language and, as is well known, modern Korean shares similar grammatical characteristics to Japanese and Mongolian as well as other more geographically distant “Altaic” languages such as Turkish, including a basic subject-object-verb word order, polysyllabic root structure and suffix based agglutinative morphology (the last being where grammatical particles and verb conjugations are directly attached to the end of, or come after, words).

However, the sense in which the Altaic language “family” was originally conceived and is still commonly thought of, is as a genetic language group equivalent to Indo-European or Sino-Tibetan and implying that the associated Altaic languages share a hypothesized common ancestor, known as a “proto” language, in this case “proto-Altaic”.

Why can’t the Altaic languages be considered a genetic language family?

In the case of defining a genetic language family, identifying basic vocabulary with shared etymologies (“cognate words”) between the candidate languages is more indicative and assertable as proof than typological similarities in grammar (the primary shared characteristic of the Altaic languages). The fundamental weakness of the Altaic language hypothesis is simply that the languages involved do not share very much basic vocabulary at all.

How are language families determined and what is Korean if it is not Altaic?

The complete vocabulary (“lexicon”) of any modern language can be understood as having been built up in layers over time in a manner similar to archaeological strata. Any language may include layers of foreign vocabulary such that the given language as a whole becomes a mix of more than one language family (or, in the case of English for example, a mix of separate branches of the same Indo-European). Out of this, the genetic family a language is ideally associated with is the oldest recoverable layer.

As is commonly known, the modern Korean language is in fact Sino-Korean and likely has been since the political formation of historical Korea. At least half, if not more, of the lexicon is “borrowed” Classical Chinese and on top of that, there is now much modern English vocabulary. The earliest Chinese layers may date to the period of the Han Commanderies, c.108BCE, (currently a politically and historiographically sensitive topic in Korea) or rather their subsequent downfall which, according to historical accounts, may have seen “Chinese” refugees enter the peninsula; prior even to that, the harshness of the Qin dynasty was also said to have caused a refugee influx conveniently resulting in the establishment of the Jinhan polity, but this latter may equally have been a fictitious Chinese claim. These layers were then followed more definitely by the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism which were transmitted in written Chinese, then later reinforced with the ascendency of Neo-Confucianism from the 14th century onwards, and finally (so far) early modern Sinic vocabulary introduced first via Catholic missionaries active in China late 18th and early 19th centuries, and then in greater volume from Sino-Japanese during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it should be noted much of these last strata were direct translations of European biblical, ideological and technical terms rather than Chinese though, in a similar manner, much of the early Buddhist Chinese vocabulary was also translated or transliterated from the original Indic Buddhist languages. In North Korea there has been a further layer of imported Sinic vocabulary associated with Marxism which would have first been introduced from Japan and later via Chinese.

However, the Korean part of Sino-Korean (aka the Korean language), what Koreans today refer to as “pure Korean” (순우리말 sun-uri-mal where, somewhat ironically, sun meaning “pure” is itself Chinese 純), understood as the earliest layer of the Korean language into which all the subsequent layers of Chinese were borrowed, can be identified as “Koreanic.” Thus there is a language family termed Koreanic of which only the Korean language survives. When there is only a single language attesting a language family, that language may be described as an “isolate”, so the modern Korean language is an isolate of Koreanic; historically, too, there are no other known Koreanic languages, that is, anything more distinct than regional dialectic variations.

Because Chinese is, of course, as traceably old as Korean, it is not impossible to argue that the Sino-Korean language is a Sinic language classifiable under the Sino-Tibetan language family; the Sinic vocabulary in Sino-Korean together with Sino-Japanese is useful in helping to reconstruct early Chinese phonology. However, the important thing in terms of taxonomy is that we can be certain that there was a prehistoric era in the ancient past when a Koreanic language directly ancestral to modern Korean was being spoken before it came into contact with ancient Chinese. What “pure Korean” nationalists today tend to misunderstand is that this period would have been much earlier than the formation of any “Korean” polity or cultural identity and geographically limited to only a small region, possibly the southeast of the peninsula and that only a tiny minority of the ancestors of the post Silla expansion population of the peninsula would ever have spoken this ancient Koreanic tongue whilst others, including the populations of Goguryeo and Baekje, would have spoken entirely different, quite likely non-Koreanic languages which would already have been infused with Chinese vocabulary before coming into contact with Koreanic. Historically, though, it was Koreanic which spread and either replaced or absorbed the other peninsula languages such that it was Koreanic which borrowed Chinese and other vocabulary into its lexicon meaning the oldest original stratum of the surviving Korean language is Koreanic and not Chinese. Of course, there would also have been regions and periods when Koreanic vocabulary was borrowed into other languages and in those cases it would not have been the oldest stratum, but those languages or idioms ultimately perished or, for example, may have survived outside of the peninsula such as is potentially the case of Japanese. But, in any event, this is why it is reasonable to term the modern (Sino-)Korean language as Koreanic.

The assumption then, is that Koreanic would be a branch of the Altaic language family collateral to other Altaic language groups (Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic), all descended from a single proto-Altaic language (as the earliest hypothesized recoverable layer). “Recoverable” means that the former existence of an extinct language can be confidently postulated and some basic vocabulary reconstructed: this is the work of comparative linguists who use the “comparative method” of linguistics to accomplish, or at least attempt, this.

How does the comparative method work?

To scientifically prove that two or more languages are descended from a common ancestor it is not enough to simply find words which appear similar, although that tends to be the initial starting point, rather consistent sound correspondences have to be established. The theory is, when two languages split and are subsequently isolated from one another, over time the pronunciation of certain sounds in the language will naturally evolve and change in different directions; the key phenomenon exploited by comparative linguists is that the sound changes are internally consistent within the languages, so not just one word changes its pronunciation by chance but the same sounds (certain consonants or vowels in certain positions for example) as they occur in all words in the language change in the same manner. Additionally, however, there are also other changes or exceptions which may occur to pronunciation including the influence of secondary (or multiple) borrowings between genetically related languages which have split and this all muddies the waters.

When trying to identify the sound laws dictating regular correspondences to other genetically related languages the other secondary influences on given pronunciation need to be accurately identified mainly in order to disregard them. This understanding of the historical development of a language allows for “internal reconstruction” of its vocabulary; that is, before comparing a look-a-like cognate word in one language to another, it is necessary to establish as far back as possible the original shape of the word. Two words which happen to look similar in two languages today (even if the two languages are in fact related) may in the past have been quite different from one another and only come to appear similar by coincidental or secondary processes, in which case they cannot be considered indicative of a genetic relationship.

When attempting to identify potential cognates between two or more candidate languages, focus needs to be directed on basic vocabulary items as these are most likely to be the oldest parts of the language whilst any more complex or conceptually abstract words are more likely to be new or borrowed from neighbouring languages. Basic vocabulary may include the numerals 1-9, body parts, weather, natural geographic features (river, mountain etc), native flora and fauna and primary colours, but even in these cases there is often secondary borrowing from other languages so nothing is certain without rigorous investigation. Potential cognates should also have relatively similarly meanings as otherwise it is simply too easy to find look-a-like words in other languages: for example, if the word for “tree” and word for “sea” are similar this is more likely to be a coincidence, but the words for “lake” and “sea” obviously could have evolved from whichever word referred to a body of water depending on whether the homeland of the proto language was beside a lake or ocean.

A key challenge in establishing genetic cognates is that it is ultimately very difficult to prove whether look-a-like words in two or more languages are the results of borrowing or genetic affinity. In fact, if words look too similar it should raise suspicion that they are borrowings as it implies they are, in relative terms, more recent and have had less time to change. For this reason, the better proof of a genetic relationship between languages comes through words which on the surface do not look alike but can still be connected through sound laws.

Aside from politics and racial theory, the reason it is useful to establish a genetic relationship between two surviving or historically recorded languages is because through the theory of regular sound changes (which have to be identified), vocabulary from ancestral languages going back to a common proto ancestral language, can be deduced and reconstructed. In this way the comparative method is a natural science on which predictions can be made; reconstructed vocabulary, always marked with an asterisk * prefix in academic papers, are the predictions which may ultimately be proven only through discovery of ancient texts containing the older languages. By contrast, there is currently no productive or known theory relating to the typology of languages, it is simply descriptive.

The fundamental weakness of the Altaic hypothesis:

With this in mind we can return to the idea of the genetic Altaic language hypothesis and why Korean cannot be classified as such. In short there are two problems: one is that the original genetic relationship between the “core” Altaic language groups of Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic has not been satisfactorily established through the comparative method, so there is no Altaic language family within which Koreanic could be included; the other is that Koreanic shares little to no basic vocabulary with any of the said core groups.

Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic share much secondary vocabulary most likely owing to areal contact (meaning they have interacted in close geographic proximity allowing for the borrowing of vocabulary into one another’s languages). In particular, there is shared vocabulary between Turkic and Mongolic, and Mongolic and Tungusic, but less so between Turkic and Tungusic which is all indicative of the processes of areal contact rather than the three language groups having a shared genealogy. However, the corpuses of proposed Altaic cognates have been built up usually on the premise that Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic are equal candidate branches of Altaic; this means that when hypothesized Altaic cognates are sought for in Koreanic, Japonic (Japanese) or other languages, there are three language sources from which to pick the most convenient look-a-like word. Through this “omni-comparative” approach which untrained linguists tend to adopt and willing believers accept, many secondary borrowed items are mis-identified as genetic cognates, but they are not supported by regular sound changes and so the situation remains that there is little proven shared basic vocabulary between the core language groups and especially so with Koreanic.

Why, then, do the Altaic languages appear so seductively similar?!

Despite the lack of a genetic relationship, there has been a close cultural relationship and long early history of interaction between the speakers of the Altaic languages which are now spread in an expansive arc across the central Eurasian steppe. Intensive borrowing of vocabulary between the core languages (as mentioned, particularly between Turkic and Mongolic, and Mongolic and Tungusic, but not Turkic and Tungusic) and their similar grammatical structures tell us that their homelands were once in closer proximity, and from relatively early on (by 1930s) this has generally been agreed to have been around the region of southern Manchuria, and not the Altai mountains after which the proposed language family was evocatively named when it was initially suggested to have originated from the central area of its contemporary known spread (that is, at a time when the Uralic languages were also thought to be a part of the Altaic complex – see more on this in the next post).

However, once more in contrast, Koreanic shares very little borrowed vocabulary indicating that it was isolated from the other proposed Altaic languages particularly early on; there may have been later interaction with the Tungusic Jurchenic branch (ancestral to Manchu) during the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (assuming Koreanic was the primary language of Silla and Jurchenic spoken to the north in the continental territory of Goguryeo) and, as a much more secondary and ultimately quite limited influence, historical contact with Mongolian under the Yuan dynasty. Otherwise Koreanic appears to have evolved and survived in relative isolation.

So, it must have been at a prehistoric stage of settlement in the peninsula that Koreanic speakers interacted with those speaking other languages of the Altaic typology. It is not known under what circumstances this occurred; for example, it may have been that Koreanic entered into the peninsula from the north having previously passed through, or evolved alongside, Altaic languages in southern Manchuria; or there may have been other Altaic type languages, subsequently lost, spread across the peninsula which came into contact with Koreanic in its historical southeastern homeland region.

It is not unreasonable to postulate and, in fact, vital to keep in mind that aside from the historically known languages there would have been many other languages and language families which were absorbed or forced into extinction by the languages which subsequently survived. Travelling back in time, the linguistic map would not become reduced to only the few proto-languages that are discussed today: it would be just as complex as ever with any number of languages we have no knowledge of having existed alongside the proto-languages we do know of. The proto-languages discussed today are not the oldest languages, only the oldest recoverable layers of known languages; they in turn belonged to earlier language families which, where necessary, can be termed “pre-proto”.

One explanation for why so many distinct language families arose in the region of Manchuria may be the number of river basins which could support the development of several cultures whilst allowing for their independence; the spread of the Altaic languages, particularly Turkic and Mongolic, westwards would have been enabled through the adoption of nomadic pastoralism which first required horses and was greatly enhanced with the introduction of stirrups that allowed for mounted archery and success in warfare.

The “out of Manchuria” expansion of the languages was subsequent to the initial development of their Altaic typologies but most of the borrowing of vocabulary would have occurred in the context of historically known interaction during and post expansion, for example the Turkic speaking Xiongnu and Mongolic Xianbei when the Xiongnu occupied what later became known as the Mongol steppe and the Xianbei were in the Liaoxi (遼西 “west of the Liao river”) region directly adjacent to their east. Koreanic speakers were more isolated in the peninsular and so there was less borrowing.

How is it that languages could interact enough to influence one another’s structures without imparting vocabulary?

In short, rules are not known, but interaction (“areal contact”) can occur between languages in any different number of ways depending on such factors as the relative ratios of populations involved and their respective stages of cultural and political development. Areal contact of languages is directly related to the concept of layers where one language will expand over another, or may survive under an expansion itself; obvious examples occur in the case of invasions and colonization, but whether it is an entire population expanding over less populated or political developed regions, or an elite takeover of an otherwise established civilization, will make a difference to how the languages interact.

A pertinent example of a language being influenced typologically but not lexically (the borrowing of vocabulary) is Mandarin Chinese which, as a northern variant of Chinese that came to dominance during the Manchu Qing dynasty, exhibits many Altaic features absent from other Sino-Tibetan languages, namely more polysyllabic vocabulary, fewer tones and greater use of suffix-based morphology (“morphology” referring to the shape of words) implying it has undergone a process of partial “Altaicization” without absorbing new vocabulary.

The following post will discuss the relationship between Korean and Japanese as well as the historical context of the Altaic hypothesis and reasons for its enduring popularity amongst Koreans today.


Sources: Yi Gyubo’s “Ballad of King Dongmyeong” 東明王篇 – part 3 of 3

See parts 1 and 2.

形勝開王都  형승개왕도  At a propitious site (形勝) [he] established the royal capital,
山川鬱嶵巋  산천울죄규  the emerging rivers were [surrounded by] dense [forest] and soaring peaks.

自坐茀蕝上 자좌불절상 Sitting upon a reed seat,
略定君臣位 약정군신위 the position of ruler and subject was roughly fixed.

The king sat by himself on bound reeds  (茀蕝) and roughly fixed the position of subject and ruler.

咄哉沸流王  돌재비류왕  [He] rebuked the Biryu king,
何奈不自揆  하내불자규  “How could you not realise (撥) [who I am],
苦矜仙人後  고긍선인후  proud [only] of being the descendant of a mountain spirit (仙人)?!”
未識帝孫貴  미식제손귀  Not knowing the nobility of the imperial grandson,
徒欲爲附庸  도욕위부용  trying to make [Jumong's kingdom] a vassal state,
出語不愼葸  출어불신사  the Biryu king] spoke without caution or fear.
未中畫鹿臍  미중화록제  He was unable to hit the deer’s navel
驚我倒玉指  경아도옥지  [and] was astonished by our (我) shattering the jade ring.

The Biryu king, Song Yang (松讓) was out hunting [when] he saw the king [Jumong] whose appearance was unusual. He waylaid [引] him and sitting together said, “[My] remote [kingdom] () is in a corner of the sea [and so] I have not had the chance to see you, lord, [earlier]. What happiness this is today to meet by chance?! Who are you? From where have you come?”

The king (Jumong) said, “I am the grandson of heaven and king of the western country (西國). I dare to ask you, lord king, your lineage.”

Yang said, “I (豫) am descended from a mountain spirit (仙人) and have been king for generations. This present land is small and cannot be divided between two kings. The days are shallow since you made your kingdom [so] you should become a vassal to me.”

The king said, “I am a descendant of heaven. [You,] current king, are not of divine lineage (今王非神之胄) [but] you insist on (强) calling [yourself] king. If you do not submit (歸) to me, heaven will surely kill (極) [you].”

[Hearing] the king repeatedly (累) declare himself the grandson of heaven, Song Yang [began to] harbour doubt inside himself. Intending to test his talents he said, “I wish to shoot together with you, king!”

[They] set up (寘) a deer frame within a hundred paces and shot [at] it. His arrows did not [even] enter the deer’s navel, [but] rather he seemed clumsy handed (倒手). The king (Jumong) ordered [his] men to dangle a jade ring at more than a hundred paces and shot [at] it. It shattered like a tile disintegrating [at which] Song Yang was greatly astonished, etc.

來觀鼓角變  내관고각변  Coming and seeing the drums and horns (鼓角) had changed
不敢稱我器  불감칭아기  [he] dared not [even] name his own bowls.

The king said, “The task of the country (國業) has been newly created and so there is not yet any dignified majesty (威儀), when the Biryu emissary visited I was unable to receive him with the appropriate royal etiquette (王禮) and so he regarded me lightly.”

Attendant vassal (從臣) Bubunno (扶芬奴) came forward and said, “[Your] vassal will, for the great king, take the drum of Biryu.”

The king replied, “How can you take something hidden (藏) in another country?!”

[Bubunno] responded, It is something given by heaven, how can [we] not take it?!  (夫) When the great king experienced hardship in Buyeo, who would have said the great king would be able to reach [this far]? The great king has now come through (奮身) the peril of ten thousands deaths and his name is known [even] in Liaodong (遼左 lit. ‘left of Liao’). This has been carrying out the order of the Celestial Emperor. What task will not be accomplished?”

With this Bubunno, together with three others, went to Biryu, took the drum and returned. The Biryu king sent an emissary saying what one would expect (云云). The king (Jumong) was fearful [that Song Yang] might come to see the drum and horns (鼓角) [and so] colored them dark [to look] as though they were old (故). Song Yang did not dare to make war and left.

來觀屋柱故  내관옥주고  Coming and seeing the old pillars of [Jumong's] abode (屋),
咋舌還自愧  사설환자괴  [Song Yang] bit his tongue and felt ashamed of himself.

Song Yang had meant to make [Goguryeo] a vassal [based] on the respective ages of their capitals. When building his palace, the king (Jumong) used rotten wood for the pillars [making] it appear a thousand years old. [After] Song Yang came and saw [the palace], he no longer dared to dispute the age of their capitals.

東明西狩時  동명서수시  When Dongmyeong (aka Jumong) went hunting to the west
偶獲雪色麂  우획설색궤  by chance he caught a snow white gwe (麂).

A large deer is called a gwe.

倒懸蟹原上  도현해원상  Hanging it upside down above Hae-won (‘crab’) plain (蟹原)
敢自呪而謂  감자주이위  he dared himself to curse saying,
天不雨沸流  천불우비류  “[If] heaven does not rain on Biryu
漂沒其都鄙  표몰기도비  floating and sinking that capital and surroundings
我固不汝放  아고불여방  I will definitely not release you!
汝可助我懫  여가조아치  You can help my anger (懫).”
鹿鳴聲甚哀  녹명성심애  The deer belled with an awful sadness
上徹天之耳  상철천지이  piercing the ears of heaven above.
霖雨注七日  임우주칠일  Summer rains poured down for seven days,
霈若傾淮泗  패약경회사  the force of the rain was as if the Hoe (淮) and Sa (泗) rivers had tipped to one side.
松讓甚憂懼  송양심우구  Song Yang was deeply worried and afraid;
沿流謾橫葦  연류만횡위  torrents flattened reeds with contempt,
士民競來攀  사민경래반  nobles and commoners [alike] (士民) fought [with one another] to hold on [to anything they could].
流汗相目+咢 眙  류한상악태  With sweat flowing, the [could only] shout and stare.

東明卽以鞭  동명즉이편  Dongmyeong with his whip thereupon (卽)
畫水水停沸  화수수정비  struck the water and the water ceased bubbling (沸).
松讓擧國降  송양거국항  Song Yang took his country and surrendered;
是後莫予訾  시후막여자  thereafter he did not again slander (訾) [Jumong].

Hunting westwards [Jumong] caught a white deer. Hanging it in Hae-won plain, he made a curse (咒), “If heaven does not rain, floating and sinking [those] of the Biryu royal capital, I will definitely not release you! If you want to avoid this difficulty you are able to beseech heaven. The deer belled sorrowfully and [its] voice pierced the sky (天). Summer rains fell for seven days and submerged Song Yang’s capital. The king used a reed rope (索) to cross the torrent, riding ducks and horses; the people all grasped this rope (索). Jumong struck the water with his whip, the water soon (郞) disappeared (滅). In the sixth month, Song Yang took his country and surrendered etc.

玄雲羃鶻嶺  현운멱골령  Black clouds enveloped Gollyeong mountain (鶻嶺 ‘pereguin peak’);
不見山邐迤  불견산리이  the mountain became faint (邐迤) and could not be seen.
有人數千許  유인수천허  [The sound] of many thousands of people’s work cries (許) [could be heard]

斲木聲髣髴  착목성방불  like the sound of timbers being cut.
王曰天爲我  왕왈천위아  The king said, “Heaven is, for me,
築城於其趾  축성어기지  constructing a fortress on that spot.”
忽然雲霧散  홀연운무산  Suddenly the cloud and mist dispersed
宮闕高山纍嵬  궁궐고류외  and a towering palace soared up high.

In the seventh month, black clouds arose [on] Gollyeong mountain. People could not see the mountain, they could just hear the sound (聲 lit. ‘voices’) of several thousand people [as though] engaged in construction works. The king said, “Heaven is constructing a fortress for me.”

On the seventh day, the cloud and mist dispersed by itself. A fortress, palace buildings and pagoda/raised pavilion (臺) had all spontaneously been made. The king bowed to imperial heaven (皇天) and took up residence.

在位十九年  재위십구년  Nineteen years after assuming the kingship
升天不下莅  승천불하리  [he] ascended to heaven and did not return (莅).

In the ninth month during autumn, the king ascended to heaven and did not come down [again]. At that time he was aged forty. The crown prince held funeral rites on Yong-san mountain (龍山 ‘dragon mountain’) using the jade [handled] whip [the king] had left etc.

俶儻有奇節  숙당유기절  Talented [and] ambitious, [he] had wondrous integrity;
元子曰類利  원자왈류리  the eldest son was called Yuri (類利).
得劒繼父位  득검계부위  Obtaining a sword he inherited his father’s position;
塞盆止人詈  색분지인리  plugging the vessel, he stopped the person’s rebukes.

[Since] he was small, Yuri had a strange (奇) integrity etc. When he was small he employed himself [shooting] sparrows with a sling shot. [One day] he saw a woman carrying a water pail [and] shot it. The woman became angry and reprimanded (詈) him, saying, “A boy with no father has shot and broken my bucket[!]“

Yuri [felt] greatly ashamed; with a round mud pellet, he plugged the pail’s hole [making it] like it had been before. Returning home, he asked his mother, “Who is my father?”

[Because] Yuri was [still] small his mother teased him saying, “You have no definite (定) father.”

Yuri cried and said, “If a person has no definite father then in the future what face (面目) will he have to look at others?!”

In the end he sought (欲) to cut his own throat. Greatly shocked, his mother stopped him saying, “I was only teasing your ears just now. Your father is the grandson of the Celestial Emperor and Habaek. [Due to] resentment [felt by others] at his becoming a vassal (臣) of Buyeo, [he was forced to] flee to the southern lands and there established a nation (國家). You [should] go and see him.”

[Yuri] replied, “My father has become a ruler (君) of men, I have become a [mere] vassal (臣), how could I not be ashamed (愧)?!”

His mother said, “When he left, your father said these words, ‘I have a hidden object above the pine tree on top of a stone in the seventh valley of the seventh mountain ridge/pass (七嶺七谷). The one who is able to obtain it is my son.”

Yuri went to the mountain valley by himself. He searched but could not find (得) [it]. Exhausted, he turned [to go back, when] he heard a sad voice [coming from] the pillar (柱) of an alter/shrine (堂). The pillar [turned out to be] a pine above a stone tree; its body had seven ridges (稜). By himself Yuri realized that, “The seven [mountain] ridges and seven valleys are the seven ridges [of the tree]. The pine above a stone is the pillar.”  Ascending, he then saw that at the top of the pillar was a hole. [There] he found the fragment of a broken sword and was greatly happy.

In the 4th Hongjia year (鴻嘉 17BCE) of Former Han [emperor Cheng 成] during the 4th month, summer, [he] fled to Goguryeo. Presenting the sword fragment to the king, the king took out a broken sword [he] had, and the sword fragment matched. Blood emerged and it became a single sword [once more]. The king said to Yuri, “You are truly my son. What divine holiness (神聖) do you possess?”

Responding to [the king's] voice (應聲) [Yuri] lifted his body and soared into the air. Riding the sunlight [coming through the] light shaft, [he] showed his supernatural [power] of divine holiness (神聖之異); the king greatly rejoiced (悅) and made [Yuri] crown prince.

我性本質木  아성본질목  My nature is originally truthful and rustic (木),
性不喜奇詭  성불희기궤  [by] nature [I] do not like the strange or peculiar.
初看東明事  초간동명사  When [I] first saw [about] the events of Dongmyeong
疑幻又疑鬼  의환우의귀  [I] was suspicious that they were illusionary and demonic.
徐徐漸相涉  서서점상섭  Slowly, gradually through extensive investigation (相涉),
變化難擬議  변화난의의  the transformation was difficult to deny (擬議 doubt).
況是直筆文  황시직필문  With it directly written down by brush
一字無虛字  일자무허자  [I see] not one character is false (虛).
神哉又神哉  신재우신재  It is [simply] divine (神) and divine again!
萬世之所韙  만세지소위  It is something which has been correct (韙) throughout all ages.
因思草創君  인사초창군  Consequently [I have come to] think about a sovereign who establishes [a dynasty],
非聖卽何以  비성즉하이  if this is not holy (聖) then what is?!
劉媼息大澤  유온식대택  Old lady Yu rested in the great pool (大澤)
遇神於夢寐  우신어몽매  and in a dream whilst asleep she met a god.
雷電塞晦暝  뇌전색회명  [Amidst] thunder, [brightness] turned to black,
蛟龍盤怪傀  교룡반괴괴  a wingless dragon strangely coiled (盤) [itself]
因之卽有娠  인지즉유신  and so there was a pregnancy.
乃生聖劉季  내생성유계  Thereupon the holy Liu Ji (劉季) was born.
是惟赤帝子  시유적제자  This was the son of the Red Emperor (first emperor of the Han dynasty).
其興多殊祚  기흥다수조  [Upon his] arising there were many special omens.
世祖始生時  세조시생시  When Shizu (世祖) was first born
滿室光炳煒  만실광병위  the chambers were filled with shining light.
自應赤伏符  자응적복부  Responding by himself to the [prophetic] Chifufu (赤伏符 ‘red letter token’) [text],
掃除黃巾僞  소제황건위  [he] swept away the Yellow Turban fraudsters (僞).
自古帝王興  자고제왕흥  Since ancient times when an emperor (帝王) rose up
徵瑞紛蔚蔚  징서분울울  there would be many auspicious omens
末嗣多怠荒  말사다태황  [whilst] the last successor would be lazy and rough
共絶先王祀  공절선왕사  and cease sacrificial rites for all (共) previous kings.
乃知守成君  내지수성군  Now it is known that a ruler who successfully continues the achievements [of his ancestors]
集蓼戒小  집료계소비  is attentive to [even] small matters on [this] harsh land (集蓼),
守位以寬仁  수위이관인  maintains his position with generous humanity
化民由禮義  화민유예의  and cultures the people through ritual etiquette and ceremony.
永永傳子孫  영영전자손  [The kingship is] transmitted through descendants for long ages
御國多年紀  어국다년기  [in order] to govern their country for many epochs.

Korean History Education – a casual essay

The following is an informal essay recently written by a first year undergraduate student at Korea University who, as she readily notes, has not herself majored in Korean history. Despite, or rather because of this it provides a refreshingly unconstrained discussion of the topic as seen from a regular, contemporary Korean perspective.  Translated with her permission, she would no doubt emphasize that it represents only one opinion. The essay is not the product of any deep research but merely reflects her personal experience and immediate knowledge, the insightful cohesiveness of which makes it highly readable.

Korean History Education

There are [currently] many problems [concerning] Korean history education [in Korea]. In terms of content there cannot but be problems, however the [whole] system of Korean history education has some really big problems. This is because Korea’ education policy itself is broken and gradually getting worse. The current education policy has already continued too far in the wrong direction [to be able to discuss all matters in this essay], so here I will try to give an overview of the current situation concerning Korean history [as a taught] subject.

The focus on university entrance exams is a fact [of Korean life] which remains unchanged, however, as competition has heightened and the system of entrance keeps changing, the age at which [students] begin preparing for the exams is gradually decreasing. In Korea, compulsory education lasts up until [the end of] middle school and from high school education is [nominally] elective, consequently at high school there is a greater freedom in the choice of subjects. [But] with high school being the stage just before taking the university entrance exams, it is inevitable that the choice of subjects is centered on preparing for the College Scholastic Ability Test (수능 suneung for short). Here, too, in the past students would begin preparations for the suneung exams in their final [3rd] year of high school, but now there is a demand [from parents?] to have suneung style classes not just throughout high school but even from middle school. In order to prepare for the suneung, music, sports, art and ethics classes which used to each be for an hour per week are all relegated to the first year [of high school] to complete the required hours, whilst the remaining [two year] period is devoted to Korean, maths and a foreign language (언수외, the ‘foreign language’ refers to English) study. However, the former topics used to provide time each week for students to take a break [from entrance exam study] and have some fun. With these classes now all moved to one year, the volume of study has become too great and the level of enjoyment halved; for the remaining period [students] have to continuously study [only] for the suneung and so the level of stress becomes many times higher. Particularly subjects such as ethics are important because if regularly taught, they provide students with the chance to think about life, but if the lectures are used merely to fill required hours (수업일수) they really are of no help.

The most basic method for entering university is sitting the suneung, but if all education is [exclusively] centered around it then such preoccupation becomes entirely unhelpful and meaningless study [only endured] out of the necessity [to enter university]. For example, the three subjects focused on most for the suneung are Korean, mathematics and a foreign language (English); of course these topics are important but I do not see for what reason these three are [considered so] especially important when compared to other topics. But with everyone concentrating [only] on Korean, maths and English (언수외), other subjects are neglected, whilst [at the same time] with everyone [forced to compete so hard] the average results continue to rise and so the difficulty of [exam] questions has become unnecessarily high.

Except for Korean, maths and English, the remaining topics are all grouped under the category ‘society’. [They include] politics, economics, society and culture, Korean geography, Korean history, modern history, ethics, a second foreign language (Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Arabic [or] Russian) and world history; when applying for the suneung, three or four [of these] are selected. It is a completely free choice up to the individual and so those subjects not chosen do not have to be studied at all. This is an issue for other topics as well, but it is quite absurd (어처구니 없다) that [both] Korean and modern history are treated as elective subjects. Of course history is obligatory during elementary and middle school but because Korean history is originally so long and complicated (양이 많다 lit. ‘there being a lot of it’), the truth is [students] quickly become confused and forget [what they have learnt]. It is also ridiculous (황당하다) that Korean and modern history are divided. Korean history covers prehistory, and from Old Joseon to the [end of the later] Joseon dynasty, whilst modern history [deals with] the subsequent period until the present. During elementary and middle school there is so much history to study, by the end of each academic year, the content is rushed through whilst the modern history segment is dropped entirely. Then, in my own case, at high school for the suneung I did not choose modern history and so I know almost nothing of modern Korean history. In my mind, I am really frustrated and want to learn [about it] but whenever I have free time there is always something else and so, currently, even I can feel myself just how ignorant I am about modern history.

When studying history it is very useful to know hanja (Chinese characters), but hanja classes are only continued until [the end of] middle school and then they are only once per week and we only learn the most basic and simple words and so younger Koreans today barely know any hanja characters. Trying to memorize Korean history without knowing hanja makes it all the more difficult. It is said that during our parents’ generation, if they met a Chinese or Japanese person abroad, even if they could not speak, it was possible to communicate at a basic level through writing hanja. But for the current generation it is best to not [even] entertain such expectations.

In the case of the suneung exam, there are well crafted questions, but for [earlier internal] school exams the questions are made by the teachers for the sake of ease and so they nearly always consist of questions which can be answered simply through rote learning. For example, [being asked] to arrange in order a series of events which occurred during a similar period, or, in [multiple choice] questions choosing the right date where only the last digit of the year given as options differ from one another. Unless [one goes on to] study history for the suneung, any interest in studying Korean history is soon lost.

Of course, there are many other important subjects taught at school but because there is almost no one who would refute the fact that Korean history is really important, there are visible efforts here and there to encourage the study of Korean history. In the case of Seoul National University, perhaps because of its self-pride (자부심) as the representative university of Korea, one can only apply for a place there if they have taken Korean history as a suneung examination subject. Recently, also, a new test offering a qualification has been established, the ‘Korean History Ability Evaluation Test’ (한국사능력검정시험 Hanguk-sa neungnyeok-geomjeong-siheom); this is very useful for students preparing their seupek (스펙 ‘spec’ from English ‘specification’, a term used to denote additional academic qualifications)for the suneung exam. Considering its only relatively recent introduction, the influence of the Korean History Ability Evaluation Test is surprisingly large and is an exam which is invariably taken by those who need seupek. In spite of there being such efforts, for students to whom university entrance exams are their entire world, it seems the importance of studying Korean history remains under-acknowledged.

Separate to the issue of education policy, the genre of Korean [television] dramas [known as] sageuk (사극 ‘historical dramas’) exert a negative influence on the study of Korean history. The majority of historical dramas are not only based on a past period [of history] but also deal with historical figures and events. However, viewers are surprisingly naive and will very often believe that whilst there is some fiction, most of the content is true. The problem is that the people who write the scenarios have not themselves majored in history. The scenario writers simply borrow the names of minor historical personages and facts and then create fiction with their own imaginations, but the viewers accept it [all] as fact and so accumulate nothing bu inaccurate knowledge. The settings of the dramas are never entirely invented but will indicate a particular period of Korean history within which the story unfolds, however, [the scenario writers typically] know nothing about the period and so the clothing, food and sets are all entirely made up and fake. When the historical dramas are broadcast the episodes almost never begin with any notice [to the effect] that, ‘This story deals with historical events but the content is ahistorical fiction’. Just occasionally will there be such a notice but, it seems only when the plots are particularly extreme.

At least [in terms of] the content of Korean history education, some positive change is visible. During the period of Japanese occupation, many cultural relics (문화재) were lost and simultaneously the content of history education also greatly changed; this was a necessary process for [the Japanese to] legitimize [their] rule. The content that changed during that period is [now] referred to as ‘the colonial view of history’ (식민사관 singmin-sa’gwan). When I was learning Korean history, we were already being taught both about the ‘colonial view’ and original history. Very often there were [multiple choice] test questions asking to identify the ‘colonial view’. Because I was taught in this manner from the beginning I accepted it as natural (당연하다), as a consequence I was really surprised to [only] recently learn the fact that even during my parents’ generation they were taught Korean history as it had been altered by Japan but without it being termed the ‘colonial view’. It was quite chilling (섬뜩하다) to realize that something I had vaguely assumed to have been the case in the distant past [had in fact continued] up to our parents’ generation. But on the other hand, I am [equally] reassured (뿌듯하다) to realise [therefore] that efforts to search out the ‘colonial view’ and preserve original history (원래 역사) have already [achieved] the stage of near complete success.

To give the most representative example of the ‘colonial view’, it would be the factional politics (붕당정치 bungdang-jeongchi) of the Joseon dynasty. Even during my parents’ generation, they were taught that the factional struggles over power were because the Joseon people’s sense of ethnic identity (민족성 minjokseong) was weak and so they easily formed rival groups and fought [amongst themselves, ultimately] causing the downfall of the dynasty. However, any average student of my generation will have heard the term ‘factional politics’. When I was taught [Korean history, we were] told that rather than power [continuously] residing in the same place it was divided between several parties/factions (당파) and so tension and a balance of power was maintained and this played a large role in Joseon’s longevity.

In this manner, by describing (표현) Korean’s sense of ethnic identity as historically (나쁘다 lit. ‘bad’) and painting Joseon as an inferior country, [they] emphasized the necessity of rule by a more advanced country (선진화된 나라) such as Japan.

Another example of the ‘colonial view’ is the ‘hypothesis of Mimana (任那 Kor. Imna) having been a part of Japan’ (임나일본부설) and, to be sure, during the Japanese occupation it was taught not as a hypothesis but as fact. It was another excuse to legitimize [Japanese] rule through grafting (집어넣다) their own traces onto ancient history (아주 옛역사). However, presently (in Korea) the “Mimana hypothesis” is taught as a clear term together with logical evidence disproving it as fact. [Teachers] do not simply insist that it was false but always systematically (논리적으로) teach the reasons [why], which in my view, is very good.

Although, even during our parents’ generation history was taught [still] based on the ‘colonial view’, as young students they did not seem to have taken that ‘fact’ [as truth]. But for my grandparents’ generation, because they were the generation which actually experienced the Japanese occupation, their education was [no better than] brainwashing and even today they still believe that Japanese culture and civilization (문물) is extremely good. It seems that because much Japanese culture remains from their memories of when they were young, there is an aspect of sensing the fragrance of their youth in Japanese things. For example, [if they hear Japanese language] they feel nostalgic for their youth. Even in such horrid circumstances as when one country uses military force to rule and oppress another country, the fact that in spite of that, the [aggressor] country could leave a positive impression on the victim country, I felt as truly frightening. Even if it is only limited to cultural [impressions].

I am not sure if it is related to the Japanese colonial era, but [in China-Korea relations too] I heard they used to teach that Korea sent tribute to China because [Korea] was always weak. Of course, [I] realise the strength of China and Korea do not bear comparison and know that Korea sent tribute to China but in Korean history education today, this fact too is logically presented (표현) even [manages to be interpreted] quite positively. Firstly, there is the clear evidence that although China invaded Korea countless times, Korea was never annexed by China and has remained [independent] to the present. Historically there were instances when [Korea] practiced sadae-ju’ui (사대주의 lit. ‘serving the great -ism’ i.e. active Sinocentricism) and instances when it pursued a policy of strengthening its borders (강경책) according to the individual kings; always, in this manner, there were various opinions on what to do about relations with other counties which depended on individual people and circumstances. Crucially, if it [had only] been a case of normal products being paid as a tribute tax (상납), then certainly it could be seen as having been little more than a system of Chinese rule, but because it can be understood that, rather than [simply] offering up tribute (물건), they were [in fact] exchanged for even more treasures (물건) [from the Chinese side] and so profited Korea, the relationship can be interpreted as not having been so one-directional (수동적 lit. ‘passive’) [after all].

Of course, because I do not major in history, this is [only] my personal interpretation [combined with] the content of Korean history lectures I [only] vaguely [remember] but anyway, it is a clear fact that the Korean history syllabus is moving towards emphasizing Korean independence (자주성 as having been chief protagonist in its own affairs) and identity (정채성). Nothing is good if taken to an extreme but because, for a long time, Korea was described [as] not having [any strong] identity, I think this kind of process [of reemphasizing Koreanness] is very much necessary.

Aside from Japan [related matters], the manner of portraying (표현 방식) many other historical incidents is [also] changing, or has already. The [most] representative example is the case of the May 18 Gwangju Democracy Movement (5.18 광주민주화운동) [which] at the time was termed the [Gwangju] ‘riot’ (폭동). Actually, I’m not exactly sure when the name was changed to ‘democracy movement’, but to me it has always been [called so]. In actuality, at that time, the government tried to cover up many large incidents and so even if people did not believe the government, there was [still] no way to accurately find out the reality of [such] incidents. Consequently, if the government termed [it] a ‘riot’, then people too would [find themselves] referring to [it] as a riot and so the expression would stick. Actually, very recently there have been attempts to change the term back to ‘riot’, that is, since the start of Park Geun-hye’s administration.

The period (체제 lit. ‘system’) of [South Korean] dictatorships was no less awful than the Japanese occupation [and so] I was really surprised last year to see Park Geun-hye [daughter of Park Chung Hee] selected as a presidential candidate. This was because, although I knew that my grandparents’ generation had a positive appreciation (인식) for Park Chung Hee, I had not realized they liked him to this degree (i.e. enough to vote his daughter into power). I had thought that no matter how much common people’s eyes and ears had been covered by the government and [in spite of] the economic development achieved, inside their heads they would have [also] known just how many horrible incidents there had been. Concerning this point, I do not know if it is the influence of education or that, despite having been a dictatorship, [most] people had felt it to have been peaceful (평온하다).

Finally, I will finish with an explanation about Korean history textbooks. In our country, until the 7th [National] Curriculum (교육과정), there was only one Korean history textbook (modern history was a normal publisher {i.e. various textbooks were available}) [but] from the 8th Curriculum, it changed so that normal publishers could also publish [their own textbooks for premodern Korean history]. Although I do not know well myself, [as I understand], before the 8th Curriculum came into place for first year high school [students] in 2009, [each chapter of] the Korean history textbook was nearly always divided into [separate sections on] politics, economics, society and culture and so [each topic] was taught in that order. Thus having learnt all the politics of a [given] period and feeling like it was finished [and ready to move on], in the next lesson [they] would study the economics of the same period, and then the society, and then the culture; only having studied one period (나라) from each of these aspects four times over would it finally be finished. However, because Korean history is originally long with several dynasties which each repetitively came and went, it is very easy to become confused on the different periods. Consequently in the Korean history text and workbooks there were [and still are] often tables to show the similarities and differences between the different periods. This is because (i.e. helps to demonstrate that) although there were differing dynasties, their systems and culture remained similar.

However much the syllabus of Korean history is changed, it is difficult to have a perfect curriculum and so it is always a topic of debate amongst experts. Each time the curriculum is changed, there is much debate (말 lit. ‘words/talk’) and complaining (불만). The content is one thing, but the need to strengthen Korean history education is also something being very much emphasized. As stated at the beginning, this is because Korean history education is not being properly achieved. From the point of view of students, the amount (범위 lit. ‘range/scope’) of Korean history is so incredibly much greater than other subjects, studying it is always difficult and hated.

It would be difficult beyond description to completely change the Korean education system but it would be good to at least elevate Korean history from simply being one amongst various topics to that of a much more special topic. An important starting point for this would be getting students to recognize the importance of studying Korean history. It will be impossible to have Korean history education without any complaints, but I hope the several positive experiments will be incorporated (이어받다) and that it will continue in a direction of gradual development.

Sources: Yi Gyubo’s “Ballad of King Dongmyeong” 東明王篇 – part 2 of 3

See part 1.

河伯責厥女  하백책궐녀  Habaek reprimanded that girl,
挽吻三尺弛  만물삼척이  She pulled her lips stretching them three cheok (尺, 1 cheok roughly equals 36cm).

乃貶優渤中  내폄우발중  She exiled her to the middle of Ubal (優渤)
唯與婢僕二  유여비복이  giving her just two servants.

Habaek was greatly angered with her daughter [saying], “You did not follow what I taught you and in the end have brought shame on my house. Ordering [attendants] left and right to pull her lips, they were lengthened to three cheok. She banished (貶) her to the middle of Ubal waters. Ubal is the name of a swamp; today it is south of Taebaek-san mountain (太白山).

漁師觀波中  어사관파중  A master fisherman saw through the waves
奇獸行駓騃  기수행부애  a strange creature clumsily moving around.

乃告王金蛙  내고왕금와  He informed King Geumwa [lit. 'golden frog'];
鐵網投湀湀  철망투규규  throwing an iron net deeply with a splash
引得坐石女  인득좌석녀  he pulled in the girl sitting on a rock.
姿貌甚堪畏  자모심감외  [Her] face was extremely frightening;
唇長不能言  진장불능언  with long lips she was unable to speak.
三截乃啓齒  삼절내계치  Cutting [them] three times her teeth could open.

A master fisherman, the mighty Buchu (强力扶鄒) said, “Recently there is something stealing the fish [but I] cannot tell what creature it is.”

The king had the fisherman catch it with a net. The net was shredded apart. Then using an iron net he was able to pull in a girl. Sitting on a rock she emerged. [Only] after [the king] ordered [her] lips cut three times [could] she speak.

王知慕潄妃  왕지모수비  The king discovered it was [Hae] Mosu’s queen;
仍以別宮置  잉이별궁치  he had a separate room [for her] prepared in the palace.
懷日生朱蒙  회일생주몽  Embracing the sunlight she gave birth to Jumong.
是歲歲在癸  시세세재계  The time was the Gye[hye] (癸亥) year.
骨表諒最奇  골표량최기  [His] physiognomy was truly the strangest;
啼聲亦甚偉  제성역심위  [his] crying, too, was extremely great.
初生卵如升  초생란여승  At first [just] an egg was born the size of a doe (升, a small cubic measuring container made of wood);
觀者皆驚悸  관자개경계  people who saw it were all astonished.
王以爲不詳  왕이위불상  The king considered it inauspicious,
此豈人之類  차개인지류  “What kind of person is this?!”
置之馬牧中  치지마목중  [He had] it left with the horses
群馬皆不履  군마개불이  [but] the herd would not trample it.
棄之深山中  기지심산중  He abandoned it deep in the mountains
百獸皆擁衛  백수개옹위  [but] a hundred animals protected it.

Discovering [she] was the queen of the imperial son of heaven, a separate room in the palace was set aside for [her]. The girl embraced the sunlight and so she became pregnant. In the 4th month [during] summer of the 4th year of Shenqiao (神雀), Gyehae (癸亥), Jumong was born. [His] crying was great, his physiognomy was outstandingly strange. When first born, [he] was born as a single egg [through] her left armpit/side (腋) and was as large as five doe. Thinking this strange the king said, “A person giving birth to a bird’s egg can be considered inauspicious.”

He had men leave it with the horses [but] the herd would not trample it. They abandoned it deep in the mountains [but] a hundred animals protected it. [Even] on days of cloud and rain the egg always had the sun shining on it. The king took the egg and sent it back to [its] mother who took care of it. Finally the egg hatched and there was a boy (男 lit. ‘man’). Within a month all his speech was accurate (實).

母姑擧而養  모고거이양  Taking [the baby] in her arms and rearing him,
經月言語始  경웡언어시  within a month he began to speak.
自言蠅噆目  자언승참목  By himself he said that flies had bitten (噆) his eyes
臥不能安睡  와불능안수  and [even] lying down he could not sleep peacefully.
母爲作弓矢  모위작궁시  His mother made him a boy and arrows;
其弓不虛掎  기궁불허기  this bow he did not wantonly pull.

[He] said to his mother, “A swarm of flies has bitten [my] eyes and I cannot sleep. Mother, make me a bow and arrows!”

His mother made a bow and arrows together using brier (蓽). By himself he shot at the flies above the spinning wheel (紡車); the arrows he released [all] hit their mark. In Buyeo a good archer was called a jumong (朱蒙).

年至漸長大  연지점장대  As his age gradually increased
才能日漸備  재능일점비  he gradually attained talents by the day.

夫餘王太子  부여왕태자  [As for] the crown prince of the Buyeo king,
其心生妬忌  기심생투기  envy grew in his heart.
乃言朱蒙者  내언주몽자  Whereupon he said of the jumong
此必非常士  차필비상사  that he definitely was not a normal man (士) [and that],
若不早自圖  약불조자도  “If [we] do not quickly devise a plan by ourselves
其患誠末已  기환성말이  this worry will have no end.”

Growing in age [the jumong] attained all skills. [King] Geumwa had seven sons who always went hunting together with Jumong. The princes were accompanied by more than forty men [but] would only catch one deer. Jumong [by himself] would shoot many deer. The princes resented [妬 lit. 'envied'] this and so, taking him, they tied him to a tree, stole his deer and left. [But] Jumong pulled up the tree and went back [too]. Crown Prince Daeso (帶素) said to the king, “The jumong is a divine and valiant man (士) and his countenance (瞻視) is extraordinary. If we do not quickly devise a plan we will certainly have worry later.”

王令往牧馬  왕령왕목마  The king ordered [Jumong] to go and look after the horses;
欲以試厥志  욕이시궐지  he meant to test his intentions.
自思天之孫  자사천지손  [Jumong] thought by himself that for the grandson of heaven
厮牧良可恥  시목양가치  being a horse herder was truly shameful.
捫心常竊導  문짐상절도  Caressing his heart he always reproached himself,
吾生不如死  오생불여사  “My life is no better than death.”
意將往南土  의장왕남토  He intended to go to lands south
入國入城市  입국입성시  [and] establish a country and citadel,
爲緣慈母在  위연자모재  [but because] the mother he loved was [here],
離別誠未易  이별성본역  it truly was not easy to separate.

The king had Jumong herd the horses. He meant to test his will. Inside himself Jumong harboured anguish (恨). He said to his mother, “I am the grandson of the Celestial Emperor, herding horses for someone else my life is hardly better than death. I want to go to the southern lands and establish a state (國家) [but because] you are [here] I dare not act as I wish (不敢自專).”

His mother spoke [to him].

其母聞此言  기모문차언  His mother hearing these words
潛然抆淸淚  잠연문청루  wiped the clean tears that engulfed [them].
汝幸勿爲念  여행물위염  “You should not think [of me];
我亦常痛痞  아역상통비  I also am constantly in pain.
士之涉長途  사지섭장도  For the long road of a great man
必須憑騃駬  필수빙애이  [you] definitely need a trustworthy steed.”
相將往馬閑  상장왕마한  Together they went to the horse stables;
卽以長鞭捶  즉이장편추  cracking a long whip
郡馬皆突走  군마개돌주  the herd all bolted off.
一馬騈色斐  일마병색비  One horse with a shining pattern
跳過二丈欄  도과이장란  jumped over a two jang (丈,1 jang is approximately 3 metres) high fence,
始覺是駿驥  시각시준기  [so] they could tell it was a superior junma steed.

According to the Dojeon (道典) the horses ridden by Jumong were all called gwaga (果下).

潛以針刺舌  잠이침자설  Secretly he pierced its tongue with needles,
酸通不受飼  산통불수사  the burning pain stopped it from receiving its feed.
不日形甚癯  불일형심구  In hardly a day its form became emaciated;
却與駑駘似  각여노태사  it resembled the most inferior horse.
爾後王巡觀  이후왕순관  Later the king came by
豫馬此卽是  예마차즉시  and as expected [gave] that horse [to Jumong].
得之始抽針  득지시추침  Having obtained it, [Jumong] pulled out the needles
日夜屢加餧  일야루가위  and day and night it gradually ate great amounts.

[His] mother said, “[Concerning] this, my heart [too] has been in torment [腐] day and night. I have heard that on the long road of a great man a reliable junma steed is definitely required. I am able to select a horse [for you].”

Going to the horse pastures (馬牧) [she] wildly cracked a long whip and the herd all bolted in surprise. One horse jumped a two jang fence [whereupon] Jumong knew it to be a junma steed in flight. Secretly he stuck needles in beneath its tongue. The horse’s tongue hurt and it could neither [drink] water nor eat grass and became severely emaciated. The king visited the horse pastures and seeing most of the horses were well fed was greatly pleased. He rewarded (錫) Jumong with the emaciated [one]. Having acquired it, Jumong pulled out the needles and increased its feed.

暗結三賢友  암결삼현우  He made a secret bond with three wise friends;
其人共多智  기인공다지  they all shared great wisdom.

There was O’i (烏伊), Mari (摩離) and Hapbu (陜父).

南行至淹滯  남행지엄체  Journeying south, they reached the Eomche [river].

Another name is the Gaesa-su (蓋斯水), it is to the northeast of the present day Amnok river (鴨綠江).

欲渡無舟艤  욕도무주의  They wanted to cross but there was no boat.

[They] wanted to cross but there was no boat. Fearful of pursuing soldiers suddenly arriving, [Jumong] pointed his whip towards the sky and in anguish lamented, “I am the grandson of the Celestial Emperor and the son of Habaek; [we] have arrived here in flight [from peril]. Emperor of Heaven and Empress of Earth, take pity on this fatherless child and quickly [provide] a boat [or] bridge!”

With these words he struck the water with his bow, whereupon fish and turtles floated up and, emerging from the water, formed a bridge. Jumong [and his friends] crossed. Shortly after the pursuing soldiers arrived.

秉策指彼蒼  병책지피창  Holding his whip, he pointed at the blue,
慨然發長喟  개연발장위  in anguish he let out a long sigh,
天孫河伯甥  천손하백생  “The Celestial Grandson, son of Habaek,
避難至於此  피난지어차  has fled from difficulty and reached here.
哀哀孤子心  애애고자심  With a heart pitying [this] fatherless child,
天地其忍棄  천지기인기  [can] heaven and earth bear to abandon it?”
操弓打河水  조궁타하수  Taking his bow, he struck the river water;
魚鼈騈首尾  어별병수미  fish and turtles aligned themselves head to tail,
屹然成橋梯  흘연성교제  a tall bridge formed [and]
始乃得渡矣  시내득도의  thereupon they were able to cross.
俄爾追兵至  아이추병지  Shortly after the pursuing soldiers arrived
上橋橋旋圮  상교교선비  [but] when they went up the bridge, it twisted and collapsed.

[When] the soldiers arrived at the river, the fish and turtle bridge disintegrated; those already on the bridge all plunged [into the water] and died.

雙鳩含麥飛  쌍구함맥비  A pair of pigeons flew with barley in their mouths;
來作神母使  내작신모사  they became messengers of the divine mother (神母).

Considering the prospect of leaving, Jumong could not bear to separate (睽違). At this his mother said, “You must not worry on account of one mother.”

She wrapped seeds of the five cereals and sent them. But Jumong’s heart had been earnest and fresh (自別之心) [at the thought of] parting [and so] he had forgotten the barley seeds. Resting under a large tree, pairs of pigeons came flocking. Jumong said, “[These] must be barley seeds my divine mother has had sent.” [or "seeds brought by my divine mother's emissaries" 神母使送麥子]

Whereupon he pulled his bow and fired. With one arrow he felled them all (一矢俱擧) and, opening their throats, obtained the barley seeds. Splashing water on the pigeons they came back to life and flew away, etc.

Continue to part 3..