Call Me on My Handepone: The Joys of Konglish


Amonduh Huleikuh, Almond Flakes.

Konglish is the entrance of an English word into the Korean vernacular. Because Korean and English don’t share all the same sounds, and thus missing English sounds are hard to reproduce in Korean, the words get reprocessed through the Korea-grinder, getting broken down and spat out with Hanguk phonemes and pronunciation patterns. Konglish (and the incursions of other languages upon one another) is practical, an acceptance that hey, there’s a good word for this already, and we could just take it. The results are fascinating, bewildering, adorable, and often an excellent inroad to understanding certain rules about the language.

Korean does not use the sounds for f, z, th, or v, and they use a letter sound somewhere in between l and r, though closer to l. Typically, those first four sounds get with their closest phonetic cousins used in Korean: p for f, j for z, b for v, and often an s or a t sound for th. Thus pizza becomes pijja, television becomes telebijeon, and coffee emerges as keopi. Fork and frying pan are pokeu and peurai pan. StarCraft sounds a lot like StarCrapt. The r/l thing causes some difficulties, but clever Korean linguaphiles often avoid it by cutting the r’s out when they can (terminal becomes tominal, and I learned that Peter Pan is Pitoh Pan).

Additionally, Korean is structured so that certain sounds typically don’t appear at the end of a syllable alone, only starting new ones (ch, j, s, etc.), and every syllable must have at least one consonant and one vowel (the consonant might be a silent, but you don’t get lots of clustered consonant sounds). If the characters for those sounds appear at the end of a syllable (if your batchim are ㅊ, ㅈ, ㅅ, say), they indicate a different ending sound. Thus, English words take on a few extra syllables, and words ending in a soft /g/ and a /ch/ get an /ee/ ending, syllables ending with s and d typically get a bonus “uh” to break things up. Bus becomes bosuh, and handphone (one Korean name for a cell phone) becomes handepone. As well, when certain vowel sounds follow s, it turns into sh.

When I first arrived in Korea, I was new to the alphabet, and everything I managed to read was an achievement. What I soon discovered, of course, is that many of the things I was reading, in menus, airports, and stores, was Konglish, essentially English words in the Korean context. It was a bonus point, an actual thing I could understand, because it was a word I knew, just in different clothing. At the airports McDonalds, as we ate our greasy and dilapidated breakfasts, I read that Egg McMuffin is egguh maek-mopin. When we needed a taxi, we realized, oh, we’re calling for a tak-shi. The air-conditioning, my best friend in that first month, is the eh-o-kon.

Iliom Matuh, Iliom Mart.

In western-style restaurants, or ones from a foreign milieu with a language too bewildering and thus just processed through English first, many of the menu items will be Konglish. If you can read Hangul, the Korean alphabet, you can get by in a number of restaurants simply on “That’s familiar!” reactions to the food. For the first week or so, any time I read “cutuh-let” (cutlet), I ordered it, as it was safe and comprehensible. And like English.

I got to my neighbourhood and discovered it had a high density of stores and restaurants, many with foreign names and accoutrements. On first blush, I assumed that the Hangul underneath detailed the real name, the Korean name, the secret held for the actual citizens, and that the English was, as it often is, ornamental and exotic. As I discovered, the Korean matched the English, shoving English place-names and idiosyncracies into Korean to create their awesome Frankensteinian monikers. Near my apartment is 시카고 (shikago, “Chicago Bar,” which actually translates into Korean sounds almost perfectly). Just down the street is 달라스 (Dallasuh, Dallas Bar), itself across the street from Ga-ten Biyeo (Garten Bier). Brand names go through a similar process. For breakfast, I have some Posutuh cereal, and drink a glass of Balencia orange juice. I brush my teeth with some Arm and Hammer 와이트 스파클 (Wa-ituh Suhpakul, White Sparkle). At school, I write on the board with Maejik Makeo (magic marker) brand markers.

Awesomely, even western media and celebrities get filtered through the Konglish machine. There is a movie theatre in my neighbourhood, where I regularly go to take a number of free movie posters. Most are Korean, but there are usually two Western films playing each week, with accompanying posters. The recent line-up has included Reseedentuh Ebil 4, Shyupo Baduh (“Super Bad,” the Korean title for Despicable Me), Apto Lipuh (After.Life), Paranomal Ahkteebeetee, and the upcoming Reduh (RED). Behold my poster for Reduh, starring Burusuh Weelisuh (브루스 위리스), Mogan Puhriman (모간 프리만), and Jon Malkobichi (전 말코비치; Helen Mirren appears mostly unscathed).

Reduh, coming soon.

It’s useful to know, because when in doubt (or, more likely, when I am flustered by my lack of fluency and I revert to stumbling about in my boorish English), shoving your words through the Konglish machine can get you a little bit of understanding. At our orientation, someone mentioned asking for their chaneji (change) at a restaurant when they were shorted. Before leaving, I was told I could walk into a barber, say cutuh, and begin the miming process and leave with my hair mostly as I desired. Many Koreans have some degree of English and can usually understand what you try to communicate, but if you stumble into an area without any English speakers, Konglish is a useful tool. It isn’t perfect, and it often reflects hilarious misuses of the English in the first place, but it’s frequently an ingenious way of sucking up words from other languages and repurposing them in Korea, and allows for language defaulting when you just can’t think of the right Korean words.

Konglish has a few closely related cousins. Walking around the Bupyeong area of Incheon, I noticed a few French titled establishments, and I looked to the Hangul underneath. The store Merci Beaucoup was, in Korean, “Mes-si Bo-ku.” Popular bakery chain Tous Les Jours is “Tyu Leh Juruh.” A boutique near my house comes up with a pretty good approximation of Chatelaine, as “Shya-toe-lae-nuh”. My friend, in a stroke of genius, dubbed this “Frangul.”

If you manage to track down the few Mexican, German, or Italian restaurants seeping in the touristy areas of Seoul, you can also see some perfect examples of Spangul and Germean. Again, without a real need to find whole new words for the food Koreans began to import from these countries, they just get ground up and rearranged with Korean sounds to make it easier for the locals to pronounce. Mexican food actually translates over fairly easily (taco = 타코; enchilada is 엔치라다), as does Italian. Foods from Germany or any places with even more sounds not used in Korean tend to get garbled up a little more.

The Korean classes that I’ve taken or been forced to receive were often inept at communicating a number of facets about the language. They couldn’t express what was meant to follow what, or why, or how a syllable got made up, and where certain letters should or shouldn’t go (I am positive that there are good Korean language teachers out there, it’s just that I have not encountered them yet). Through Konglish, I’ve been able to pick up more of the rules. These are words that are integrated into the Korean context and reprocessed in a way for Koreans to grasp quickly when the Roman alphabet seems clunky and unmanageable, and thus it often betrays phonetic and morphemic rules. With any given Konglish, if I can decipher what the English origins are, I have another door into Korean language itself.

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2 thoughts on “Call Me on My Handepone: The Joys of Konglish

  1. Michael:

    I really enjoyed reading this excerp which will go a long way to help me understand my friend’s wife who is Japanese as there is a strong similarity in the “missing” letters and pronunciation.

    Cheers,

    Glenn

    • Yeah, I don’t know as much about Japanese or the phonemes used in that language, although I believe each syllable there requires the consonant + vowel base construction, thus you don’t get the clustered consonants like in English.

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