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[Hello Hangeul] Are slang terms and abbreviations degrading the Korean language?

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : May 21, 2023 - 13:25

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Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Plaza, central Seoul Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Plaza, central Seoul

When Cha Mi-joo asked about her 14-year-old son's opinion on his school lunch, he nonchalantly shrugged and gave a one-word response, "kebake."

She had to ask what he meant, because the term didn't align with her knowledge of the Korean language.

It was during this exchange that she discovered a new slang term derived from the English phrase "case by case." "Kebake," which according to her son, is “used widely” by young Koreans, is a combination of first syllables of the three English words.

The term is akin to the phrase "it depends” for situations where the response could differ depending on the circumstances, and it can be heard in Korean conversations and even on TV shows.

“Whenever I think I manage to keep up with the latest trend, (my son) brings up something different,” Cha told The Korea Herald on May 12.

“I fear that someday I won’t be able to understand more than half of what he says,” she added.

Slang words and abbreviations are not confined to the Korean language alone, and there are those who see them as a natural part of language evolution in general.

Others, however, express concern that it could lead to a potential erosion of the language’s richness and heritage, in which its more intricate and nuanced linguistic constructions are replaced with “simpler” ones.

Like “kebake,” many neologisms are borrowed from or influenced by English, reflecting Korea’s increased contact with the English-speaking world today.

“A language is used as a means of communication among people. It’s impossible to stop the development of language based on social interactions among people,” Baek Seung-joo, a Korean language professor at Chonnam National University, writes in his latest book “Slippery Words” published last year.

Role of internet, social media

Today, online and social media communication is the key factor behind the ever-growing list of slang words, neologisms and abbreviations.

At first, there emerged expressions like “kk,” where the Korean consonant "kieuk" is written several times without a vowel to emulate a laughing sound, widely used as the equivalent of English's “lol” or laugh out loud. Then there are words like “naeng-mu,” meaning "no content," which came from merging the words “naeyong,” meaning content, and “mu,” the Chinese character for nothing.

Nowadays, slang terms and abbreviations are habitually used among teens in spoken dialogue.

A survey conducted by the Korean school uniform brand Smart in 2021 involving 1,142 teenagers showed that 73.1 percent of respondents admitted to a habitual use of such terms.

To mundane questions like “What are you up to?” or “How’s the food?” these teens would give answers that older generations would need a translator to understand. For example, there is “beo-ka-chu” -- meaning to recharge a bus or transport card -- or “jon-mat-taeng,” meaning very tasty. There’s even an abbreviation for a typical response to the culture of abbreviating almost everything -- “byeol-da-jul” which could roughly be translated as “Why even shorten that?”

In the survey of teens, nearly half of the respondents said they use these words because it is convenient, while 24.5 percent answered that they use them because their friends do.

'Drawing a line'

Lately, linguists and Hangeul advocates have expressed concern over the “deterioration” of the Korean language, with young people confusing even basic homonyms and relying more on “uncertified” new words. A defining trait of the Korean language is that it has many homonyms.

“It’s not about completely preventing the use of slang and abbreviations, but about drawing the line,” Lee Keon-bum, the head of Hangul Culture Solidarity, a civic group dedicated to preventing the incorrect use of the Korean language, told The Herald.

Lee claimed that the adoption of slang terms and abbreviations is natural for every language, but the pace of their introduction in the internet age is “too fast.” The current pace could lead to a communication block among generations and ultimately discrimination against those who fail to catch up.

“Our group’s slogan is ‘Language is a basic right,’ which means that a language could be the cause of discrimination and isolation. We constantly have to think about what words to use to prevent discrimination in languages.”

The National Institute of Korean Language, a state-run language regulator, takes a similar approach to the increasing use of loanwords or abbreviations.

“At the beginning, our project to refine the Korean language was designed to remove Japanese influence following liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945. ... Given the historical background, many people were on board at that time,” said researcher Park Joo-hwa in an interview with The Herald last year.

But now, the institute’s goal has moved on from keeping the Korean language “pure” to tackling more practical issues such as breaking the language barriers between different generations and demographics, he said.