A good way to predict future changes in a language is to listen to young people because they usually carry patterns in language use with them as they age. In the South Korea, the language of young people differs greatly from older generations, which suggests sweeping changes in language use in the years to come.
Vocabulary changes most quickly as new words appear and spread in response to social trends. Trendy words also disappear as the trends that support them change or disappear. By contrast, pronunciation and particularly grammar are more resistant to change because speakers must do much more work for the changes to take root in the language. In the case of Korean, young people are driving changes in pronunciation and grammar that will upend conventional wisdom about Korean.
Changes in pronunciation and grammar are not new to South Korea. The Korean War and rapid urbanization from the 1960s to the 1980s brought Koreans from different regions together in new places. As Seoul deepened its position as the center of South Korea, people from other regions began to accommodate to the language of Seoul, which doubles as the official “standard” language in South Korea. To fit in, people dropped regional pronunciation and grammatical endings, and successful language accommodators ended up “passing” as speakers of standard Korean.
The most noticeable changes in pronunciation among young South Koreans is in vowels. Vowels in Korean are pure vowels that uses only a single configuration of the mouth when producing a sound. Complex vowels, or “diphthongs,” use two configurations of the mouth when producing a sound.
In Korean, the distinction has long been clear, but young people are starting to add other sounds to the end of vowels. The trend is easiest to noticeable in the pronunciation of the verb ending “-yo.” To soften their speech, young people have begun adding a slight “u” sound at the end of “-yo,” which makes it sounds like the English “o” as in “hello.” The origin of the change could be English, but it has spread because speakers think the is softens ending by dragging it out.
The idea of softening language, of course, is related to “genderization” of language in South Korea. Gender distinctions exist in all languages, but they have become stronger in South Korea as the country has urbanized and developed. This explains why gender differences correspond to youth, not age, in South Korea. The change has also corresponded with the rise of feminine beauty as a social idea. In language, this trend has manifested itself in pressure to speak in a “cute” feminine way by softening speech and using a high tone of voice.
Another pronunciation change is “palatalization,” or adding a “y” sound to a consonant or vowel. Among young South Korean women, this trend is most noticeable in the connective verb ending “-neunde.” The addition of a “y” sound creates “-neundye,” which softens the sound by lengthening the vowel and makes the language sound “cute.”
Compared to pronunciation, simplification, rather than gender has the greatest influence on grammar. South Korean has two speech levels that are used when politeness, distance, and formality are required. Verb ending “-yo” is defines the informal polite speech level that is most commonly used in cases where politeness and, to varying degrees, social distance is required. Verb ending “-mnida/-sumnida” is the most formal and is used in situations, such as TV news, public speaking, business meetings and public announcements.
Young people are increasingly dropping “-mnida/-sumnida” in favor of “-yo” because dealing with one form for the politeness needs of outside world of work and social life is easier than dealing with two. As young people age, social conventions will press some to become more comfortable with “-mnida/-sumnida,” but the trend toward “-yo” will continue and gather strength over time,
A related trend is the mixing of the informal polite “-yo” and the intimate “banmal” speech levels. The informal polite speech level creates appropriate social distance while the intimate speech level allows the speaker to emphasize points or create a friendly atmosphere. Combining this with softer pronunciation gives the informal speech level a friendly feeling that it would not otherwise have.
As today’s young people age, tomorrow’s young people will begin to make their own mark on Korean. Predictions are difficult, but the deep trend toward simplification suggests they may turn against “genderization” and make “-mnida/-sumnida” obsolete.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.