Language, Politics

Although I’ve read some Korean history, and I’ve watched Korean soap operas when I was in Taiwan, I still know very little about Korea. I’ve always been curious why so many academic events related to Korean studies spell Korea with a C” instead of a K” (Corea). Now, thanks to a comment on a recent LanguageHat post, by T. Carter,of the blog Lifechanges … Delayed, I finally know the answer:

The name Corea” actually originated from the Goryo dynasty (10th to 14th Century, pronounced Gor-yuh”). That name was actually a shortened version of Gogoryu, which was an even earlier dynasty representing Corea. Through Mongolian and Western contact, the Corean peninsula gradually became known as Goryo which was pronounced as Goryuh” which was eventually written down in Latin and French as Corea” or Coree” (because that’s what it sounded like).

The K-spelling was adopted by English and Japanese translators by the early twentieth century, and solidified during the Japanese Occupation of Corea (1910 to 1945). During this occupation, the goal of Imperial Japan was to erase all signs of Corean culture (names, language, costume, tradition, temples, historic landmarks, and lineages were all outlawed and/or destroyed) and assimilate Coreans into Japanese citizens. This cultural annihilation was nearly complete until the Japanese left at the end of World War II. Most if not all of what was destroyed was rebuilt and remembered, proudly and stubbornly as usual in Corea history. (This is partially why there is still much political Corean-Japanese rivalry and why Coreans are so protective of their traditions.)

Exactly why this C-to-K spelling change has been a point of controversy (although there is good evidence that there was political intent, per the article in Part Two below).

But the fact remains that it was spelled with a C” prior to this period of unwelcome occupation, and still is by much of the world.

And, from the same LanguageHat post, we learned about an attempt to change the Chinese name of the Han’gang River which flows through Seoul.

Meanwhile, Bill Poser at LanguageLog explains how Japanese use Kanji to spell European loan words. This reminds me of a great discussion in John Defrancis’ book Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, about a panel that was assembled by the Japanese Imperial authorities during World War II, in order to plan how to impose the use of Chinese characters on to the English language. The idea being that if their entire empire used Chinese characters it would facilitate communication. The different methods suggested by the panel closely correspond to the methods described in Poser’s post.

In another post, Bill Poser also wonders why newscasters insist on pronouncing Beijing as Beizhing.” Something that has bothered me for a long time. I always thought it had something to do with the adoption of Pinyin by American newscasters. Before, they used to say Peking” and Mao Tse-tung” (instead of Mao Zedong) — then they were told to change everything. I couldn’t help but feel that they were simply overcompensating.