Before I moved to Korea, I don’t think I ever really said the word “delicious.” I guess I always considered it a sort of cumbersome 10-cent word more easily replaced by its three cent cousins, by either more or less specific terms of taste and flavour. It was just an unnecessary word that existed in my lexicon, one just vague enough to be completely useless in regular conversation, and thus one I didn’t really use or care about. It could be stricken from my brain—incredibly particular and futuristic microsurgery used to scrape it from my very neurons—and I could have gotten by in the English world with little difficulty.
Now? Now, I say it at least once every day, and usually several times. Spending this far away from the English-speaking world has come to completely mutate how I speak and think about the language.
Not that Korea is some sort of wasteland of English. It is not a sort of post-apocalyptic dystopia, a scarred and blackened linguistic deathpit where articles wander around, dripping from their wounded, dropped limbs; where verbs confusedly stumble around in the wrong tense, soaked in gore and poor syntax; where punctuation is more valuable than water, and just as scarce. People in Korea do speak English, more or less. But how they speak it is altered by Korean grammar, by Korean words.
Delicious (맛있다) is said almost constantly in Korean, and in order to convey their opinions about food, most people learn the most direct equivalent in English. Koreans talk constantly about deliciousness, and will ask others, and me, about its presence or absence, its relative levels, where it might be found in the greatest abundance. And despite my brain physically reacting against this word with the kind of violence approaching it simply blasting out the back of my skull and riding away in a leather coat on a motorcycle, I use the word in everyday conversation, because it’s just easier.
And I do this for other things, too. I omit articles, and switch around my words, and simplify my sentences. I put away all of the five syllable words in my vocabulary, like toys from a long-forgotten childhood. I make it so that other people can understand me, and in turn my English has begun to simply become the edited form. My personal idiosyncracies atrophy, my wit willows down to the barest nub, and I manage English the way I manage on a pair of ice-skates (which is to say: the way a gorilla does).
More than that, though, my English has become the bizarro Korean Educational English which I am encouraged to teach, despite that no one actually speaks it. I’ve taught my kids stupid things that no one says so many times that I’ve come to start saying them myself, almost as a way to boil away the cognitive dissonance of convincing my charges that the things I teach them are worthwhile. When I’m with my friends, I’ll hand them something, and report, loudly and to their faces, “Here you are,” as though without my announcement of intent, they would have never known. Or, more horrifically, “This is for you.” I’ll ask them if they want dinner, but not like a person. Instead I’ll inquire, “How about going to eat food?” Where once saying “That’s too bad” came off as snarky and douchebaggy, it is now part of my regular vernacular, a genuine way to express regret. All of my irony has been drained out, as though by sarcasm vampires.
It’s a kind of English by way of a weird Korean robot. I now sometimes speak as though my own English thoughts pass through a few Korea-produced English language textbooks before leaving my articulators. To others it carries the nascent structure of English, a perfectly acceptable grammar–but the lingering hint of artificiality. I speak like maybe I learned English third-hand while underground on Mars, or like maybe I don’t actually possess vocal cords and lips, but simply clanking bronze orifices and space-age vibrating polymers.
One day, a coworker approached me about helping her develop some promotional phrases to go along with some educational art programs. If we constructed the best turn of phrase, she reported, we would get a prize. She wanted to consult with me to make sure the English made sense, as once you branch into the fluffier world of inspirational catch phrasing, English can very quickly go off the rails and simply shred itself into Jabberwockian nonsense.
While I was able to talk her down from a few flights of fancy (“Fly to your imagination with the Art!”), there were times when the things I came up with were barely any better. Articles didn’t seem to fit into their places, like suddenly warped and water-stained jigsaw pieces. Words screamed to be pluralized, but then didn’t look right afterwards. Every time I reassembled the clauses into a different sentence, they became each more glaring. Who wrote this crap? I could recognize that they were off, but I didn’t know how, and more importantly, I had no idea how they emerged from my own brain. Do I even know how to speak the language anymore?
There are times when I feel like I don’t. There are times when the entire language begins to feel alien on my tongue, like bizarre honking noises I make with my food-intake valves that are a base approximation of human speech. You know when you say a word one hundred times over and it stops sounding like a word? For me, that’s what all of English becomes in those times: bizarre monkey words that hoot and leap from my mouth, bleats and screams I hope that someone, somewhere, will interpret as being meaningful communication.
But luckily enough, it’s happened to most of the people I know, as well. They can barely speak anymore themselves, and even when they are aware of how obtuse and formal we are starting to sound, they can only look at me with frustration. We know we’re not speaking actual English anymore, but damned if we can remember what English sounds like.