The Continuing Story of Learning Korean—A Chinese Digression

Ah, to be a Korean yangban!

Etymology in English, aw-won (어원) in Korean—in neither language does the word snare most people as it snares me, but at this moment, in the final hours of the year 2010, I am preoccupied with a new discovery: a Chinese etymological dictionary, which is allowing me to probe in armchair amateur fashion the incredible strangeness of the Chinese written language, and trace its individual characters all the way back to their prehistoric roots, when they were first written (so far as we know) on the oracular turtle bones of the Shang Dynasty about three thousand years ago.

I think I will always be awed and astounded by the way the concrete is transformed over the millennia into the abstract, or the way in which meaning evolves, not just for Chinese but also for the writing system I’m using now, as when the letter W is discovered to be a descendant of the Egyptian hieroglyph for water, or the A an ox’s face, the K an open hand; in Chinese I have to say my favorite symbol at the moment is 明, Ming, or Myung in Korean—it means brilliant or luminous, bright, enlightened, to understand or be intelligent, and combines the symbols for the sun (日) and the moon (月), as though both were next to each other in the sky.

What does any of this have to do with learning Korean? The influence of Chinese on the language of the Korean peninsula is roughly equivalent to the influence of Latin, Greek, and French on the British isles; many words, but mostly higher level ones, are Chinese, and still utilized in their original calligraphic form in books and newspapers, so they’re useful to learn for serious learners.

I wonder if someone can tell me if they know of a language without this dual nature, this obvious mixture of high and low resonances from different linguistic sources; every language is just a mishmash of random sounds, whose meaningless barbaric origins are impossible to trace to our babbling Homo ergaster ancestors; still, it would be interesting to find a language where “garage” really is “car hole.”

The author in his classroom.

At any rate, this diversion, this digression, allows me to learn Chinese without sidestepping my way through the tonal landmine of that now-not-quite-so-far Eastern tongue; if I somehow manage to acquire the 4,000 or so characters most educated Chinese people know, I won’t be able to speak with them, but I will be able to have very simple “brush conversations”, where the meanings of each character remain the same in every language even if the syllables and consonants and tones are all totally different.

I say simple because apparently written Chinese functions more or less like an alphabet with about four thousand letters, with each letter representing a sound and an idea at the same time.

If I may start a new tangent without any kind of an appropriate segway or lead-in, like this one, I have to say that in ancient Korea it was the mark of an educated man to know how to write Hanja, or Chinese characters, and that this idea has persisted, perhaps, even today, in the person of my father-in-law, who (according to my fiancée) always placed a great deal of emphasis on learning how to read and write Chinese, and possesses at least some knowledge of this subject as well, even though he himself did not get further than middle school.

This fantasy appeals to me because I somehow picture the ancestors of this man envying or even being yangban, or Korean noblemen, and passing their days with very long pipes and primal ceramic teacups in the summer shade of their manors, pressing brush to paper in the exploration of the meaning of a line, the way its turns evolve into new thoughts and philosophies, as the peasants toil in the heat of the rice fields (田) outside.

Despite my new love for this latest discovery, the guy’s explanation for the origin of the word for the East, 東, Dong, as “A bag of something 柬 tied at both ends borrowed for sound” does not make nearly as much sense as Wikipedia‘s, which says 東 is a combination of the sun (日) rising through the trees (木).

P.P.S The pictures where shamelessly stolen from a great Flickr page, where you can find a lot more of the same stuff.

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