A Tale of Philosophers and Carrots
There is a Korean ‘idiom, dang-guen-i-ji (당근이지 – that’s the carrot, or absolutely!). Now, this isn’t directly borrowed from English but is apparently a development, by children, of dang-hyeon ha-ji (당연 하지 – absolutely!) If you say them repeatedly and alternatively, dang-guen-i-ji is definitely easier.
So, one day I am buying something in a shop and use my newly acquired idiom and proudly ‘joke, ‘ ‘dan-goon-i-chi ‘(단군이지). The old lady serving gives me a funny look, no doubt amazed at my ability to use colloquial Korean. That day, I use the phrase several times and not just overdo its use but probably use it in slightly odd situations and this, so I believe, accounts for the bemused faces it induces.
A week or so later, I use it after having my hair cut and then I discover, I’ve been confusing the Dan-goon Wang-geom (단군왕검), the revered emperor-philosopher with dang-guen (당근), the common carrot. In translation, I suppose Dan Goon-i-ji might be rendered, ‘that’s the Socrates,’ or ‘that’s the Wittgenstein,’ depending on your current taste in philosophical schools. I should have realised my mistake earlier as I have a long history of confusing the legendary founder of Korea with Bugs Bunny’s favourite crudité.
Part of the course in learning a language is that you make mistakes and some of them can be amusing even if they do cause embarrassment. I’m probably quite famous in the area in which I live for entertaining locals with my bumblings. One of the local Monday morning market vendors was very bemused when she realised that the ‘eagle jelly’ I was asking for, was in fact ‘acorn jelly’ and on more than one occasion I’ve asked for, ‘some thinking,’ rather than ‘some ‘ginger.’
In English the sounds ‘kan’ (간) and ‘kang’ (강) or ‘tan’ (탄) and ‘tang’ (탕) are very easy to distinguish but this is not the case in Korean. For years I’ve heard and read silly arguments between western taekwondo students quibbling about the transliteration of terminology into English without realizing that the relationship between many Korean letters and English ones is an approximation and that many simply cannot be effectively captured with a letter of the English alphabet. English script isn’t adequate enough to differentiate the sounds of its own language let alone those of another as is borne out by the discrepancies between the ‘a’ in ‘cat and ‘father’ which result in disagreements between those speaking northern and southern variations of British English. Koreans for example, finalise a word ending in ‘n’ with the tongue between their teeth and distinguishing between some sounds often necessitates watching the mouth closely. So, I often mispronounce ‘soy-sauce’ and end up asking for ‘liver sauce’ and confuse ‘soup’ with ‘briquette.’ ‘The reason I’ve spent so long mispronouncing Dan Goon (단군) is because it was one of the first 10 Korean words I learnt some 30 years ago when I began training in taekwon-do. Many non-Korean TKD teachers mispronounce the word because the transliteration often rendered it ‘Dan Gun.’ If you want to pronounce Korean accurately you have to learn the Korean script or at least study the systems of transliteration used closely so as to avoid simply producing ‘approximate’ pronunciations.
And then there’s ‘ddong’ ( 똥 – shit)! A westerner only has to attempt the combination ‘dong’ (동 – east) to elicit laughter and hence ‘dong-sa’ (동사 – verb) and ‘dong-wui-o’ (동의어 – synonym) have the potential to temporarily disrupt English lessons. Maybe it’s just my lack of ability, but it seems no matter how hard you try, Korean kids seem to choose to hear ‘dong’ (east) as ‘ddong’ (shit).
Some Koreans, can be quite cruel in their derision should you attempt to speak their language and even ‘sounding’ a word or phrase in a Korean manner, can elicit sniggers and subsequent mimickery. I’ve even known friends write my blunders down so they can narrate them to others but I don’t mind as I too have learnt such blunders, regardless of nationality, are cute and on occasion my pen comes out to record mistakes.
First, there are the obvious ones:
I’m fine – I’m pine
I like fish – I like pish.
Last week a new student appeared in a class and a student informed me, ‘there is a new pace in the class.’
‘I like crab’ usually always sounds like, ‘I like crap.’
And there is always the older boy who tries to impress you with his knowledge of ‘naughty English’ and proudly states, ‘puk-you! On the subject of four letter vulgarity, ‘vacuum cleaner’ becomes ‘pak-um creaner.’
How about, ‘make a mistake,’ which students often repeat as ‘make a steak’ or similarly, ‘be careful,’ which becomes ‘big apple.’ I hadn’t thought of combining the two but there’s a laugh when I want to exact some revenge; ‘be careful not to make a mistake’ – ‘big apple not to make a steak.’
However, the one I remember best was years ago when a colleague was teaching a class to sing, Queen’s, ‘We Will Rock You.’ The kids were thoroughly enjoying the sing along as they loudly sang, ‘we will, we will LOCK you.’
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.