Australian Linguistic Society

English in South Korea

Jae Jung Song, Department of Linguistics, University of Otago, New Zealand,


In recent years linguists have examined the spread of English by studying its influence on a number of languages (Kachru 1982, 1983, 1986; Bokamba 1982; Cheng 1982; Stanlaw 1982). In a similar vein, Baik (1992, 1994), and Shim (1994) attempt to document a variety of changes that the Korean language has undergone as a direct result of its contact with English. English has since the conclusion of the Second World War had more impact on Korean than Chinese, Japanese, or any other language has. As with other Englishized languages of the world, the features of Englishization in Korean can be found in the realms of lexical borrowing, phonological, and morphosyntactic changes, semantic shifts, and so forth. In South Korea English has become not only the most important foreign language, but also 'an essential tool for education, power, and success' (Shim 1994: 225); thus, 'the ability to speak [it] well is often associated with higher (and therefore desired) social status' (Shim 1994: 238). Indeed, this situation is very intriguing, especially in view of the fact that in Korea English has never been institutionalized, nor has it been a(n intra)national or official language.

Shim (1994: 226) claims that Englishization of Korean has advanced so far that (i) existing native or Sino-Korean words have been replaced by English words, (ii) Korean phonology has acquired new phonemes, and phonological rules; and (iii) extensive Korean-English code-mixing and -switching can be found in both formal and informal discourse. But I do not concur fully with Baik, and Shim on the nature, and extent of Englishization of Korean.


In Korean an epenthetic vowel /U/ is required to break up consonant clusters in English words, e.g. school -> sUkhul, or to end English words that have a syllable-final fricative, e.g. bus -> pAsU (/U/ = unrounded high back vowel, /A/ = schwa). But Shim (1994: 233) claims that 'recently it can be observed that many people do not insert the epenthetic vowel in pronouncing many loanwords that originally have consonant clusters or syllable-final fricatives even though in writing they do have the epenthetic vowel.'

However, it is not possible to pronounce English loanwords with syllable-final fricatives without an epenthetic vowel, as is reflected in writing. This is because the morphology of case markers depends on whether the final segment of the noun is a consonant or a vowel. In subject position the English loanword for 'bus' is marked as nominative, for which a choice must be made between -i (for words ending in a consonant), and -ka (for words ending in a vowel) [NOM = nominative, IND = Indicative, PST = past]. If, as Shim claims, it were pronounced without recourse to an epenthetic vowel, the loanword should be able to co-occur with -i, not with -ka. But in the grammatical sentence in (1) the loanword appears with an epenthetic vowel, whereas in the ungrammatical sentence in (2) the same loanword is used without an epenthetic vowel.

(1) pAsU-ka  wa-tt-a                       (2)*pAs-i   wa-tt-a
    bus-NOM come-PST-IND                       bus-NOM come-PST-IND
    'The bus came.'                            'The bus came.'
Thus, it cannot be concluded that Korean phonology permits syllable-final fricatives in a move toward the original pronunciation of English loanwords.

Shim (1994: 233) also notes that 'more and more Koreans, especially the younger generation, can be observed to approximate [to] the original English pronunciation of loanwords.' For instance, in their speech the English phonemes /f/, and /v/ are represented as /F/, and /B/, respectively (/F/ = voiceless bilabial fricative; /B/ = voiced bilabial fricative), whereas in the speech of the older generation they appear as /ph/, and /p/, respectively (e.g. phaesyAn vs FaesyAn 'fashion', pitio vs Bitio 'video'). The occurrence of these phonemes in the speech of the younger generation is then taken to be evidence in support of acquisition of these new 'phonemes' in Korean phonology (Shim 1994: 225). But it remains to be seen whether this is a change in progress or an age-graded change (Labov 1972: 163-165; Chambers 1995: 185-206). In the absence of real or apparent-time studies, it is unjustifiably optimistic to interpret /F/, and /B/ as having been incorporated into Korean phonology.


Shim (1994: 228-230; cf. Baik 1992: 24) points out that there is a distinct Korean type of English loanwords. But some of her examples may well have been introduced into Korean not directly from English but via Japanese (also see Tranter 1997). Consider the following 'English' loanwords taken from Shim (1994: 228-229): suphA/syuphA 'super[market]', ssAngUlasU 'sunglass[es]', apathU 'apart[ment]', ppansU (<pants) 'underwear', thalentU (< talent) 'TV star', etc. These can readily be related to corresponding Japanized English loanwords documented in Stanlaw (1982). English loanwords such as ssAngUlasU, and ppansU illustrate an interesting case of English words imported into Korean through Japanese (Tranter 1997). When English nouns in the plural were borrowed into Japanese, some retained the plural marking (e.g. pantsu < pants), whereas others lost it (e.g. sangurasu < sunglasses). This finds an exact parallelism in Korean; the plural marking is retained in the word ppansU, and lost in ssAngUlasU. The meanings of loanwords such as ppansU, and thalentU also diverge from those of the original English words; these loanwords are also found in Japanese with exactly the same meanings as in Korean.

Shim (1994: 230-232) also claims that some Sino-Korean words have now been replaced by English loanwords, e.g. AtUpaisU (< advice) for chung-ko. But it is correct to say that they are used along with the corresponding English loanwords. The choice between chung-ko, and AtUpaisU 'advice' may depend on style or other sociolinguistic variables. Thus, Shim seems to 'oversimplify a highly complex interaction between the social-situational, the symbolic, and the cognitive levels of the use of English loanwords by [Korean] speakers' (Stanlaw 1982: 183).


Baik (1992, 1994) discusses morphosyntactic features which he believes Korean has acquired owing to its contact with English. Take the use of the plural marking, which is not always obligatory in Korean. Baik (1994: 158), however, claims that 'it has become quite common to hear or read sentences that have nouns with the [plural] suffix -tul even when the noun phrase itself clearly signals plurality.'

However, not all instances of plural marking in Korean are "intrinsic", that is used to signal plurality. Plural marking of the subject nominal may optionally be copied to other constituents of the clause, functioning as a marker of distribution, and focus (see Song 1997). Therefore, unless a careful investigation is carried out, it is not clear whether the intrinsic use of plural marking is more common than it was. Furthermore, Lee (1990: 79-80) reports that in Pyongyang Speech or PS (i.e. the Standard Korean in North Korea) plural marking is far more extensively used than in Seoul Speech or SS (i.e. the Standard Korean in South Korea). One cannot claim that PS is influenced by English, which has been shunned by North Koreans as an imperialistic language. Nor can one claim that the extensive use of plural marking in PS is caused by the influence of Chinese or Russian, which PS has been in closer contact with than any other language. In Chinese plural marking is not as excessive as in PS; plural marking in Russian is very different typologically.[1] Even if it turns out that in Korean plural marking is as common as Baik claims, one cannot rule out the possibility that it may be an independent internal development.

Another morphosyntactic feature that Baik (1994: 159) thinks is introduced into Korean from English is the use of han 'one' as an indefinite marker. This, according to Baik, was not the case with Korean. However, a thorough investigation is called for, because the development of an indefinite marker from the numeral 'one' is very common typologically (for detailed discussion see Givon 1981).


It seems to be generally accepted that a conceptual distinction must be drawn between borrowing, and code-mixing, because '[t]he consequences for a theory of bilingualism of systematically mistaking [code-mixing] for borrowing or vice-versa are ... serious' (Poplack, et al. 1988: 53), and because 'failure to separate data on the two phenomena for analytical purposes can only lead to confusing results' (Sankoff, et al. 1990: 74). Breaking with this view, however, Shim (1994) (and also Baik (1992: 27)) accepts without reservation the use of English loanwords as a manifestation of code-mixing in both formal and informal discourse, when she (1994: 234) says: '[t]he increase in the number of English loanwords in Korean naturally resulted in code-mixed sentences in discourse.' The validity and the reliability of Shim's claim about the common occurrence of code-mixing and -switching in Korean are highly questionable because the distinction between borrowing and code-mixing was not maintained in her analysis.[2] Even if the use of English words, and expressions in Korean is considered code-mixing in such a laissez-faire manner, her claim is but an overstatement.

Shim's and Baik's evidence for code-mixing and -switching only comes from the mass media, and academic writing. Baik (1992), and Shim (1994) both interpret the occurrence of English loanwords in advertising to be evidence for code-mixing in Korean discourse. Shim (1994: 235) is aware of the fact that the mass media are her main source of evidence. But she (1994: 235) insists that '[i]t is important to note ... that the same phenomenon can be observed in more conservative types of media such as daily newspapers, and academic writing, thus making a stronger case that English is becoming an inseparable part of Korean.'

The 'code-mixing and -switching' that Baik, and Shim have observed in the Korean mass media are, in fact, not uncommon in other countries where English is not a(n intra)national or official language. For instance, Takashi (1990) carries out a sociolinguistic study of English borrowings in Japanese advertising; 45 % of the 5,556 loanwords in her study are "special-effect-givers", the function of which is to 'convey a modernity, and sophistication about the subject matter under discussion.' Haarmann (1986: 243-244) explains that '[e]specially in commercials, many [foreign] texts and expressions are used which an ordinary Japanese cannot understand ... [and] the Japanese tv watcher or magazine reader does not expect to understand all the foreign elements, but it is the subjective impression of "modern fashionable style" which makes him accept such a usage, and it is the prestige values of the foreign languages which make him feel like a member of a modern "cosmopolitan" society.' Similarly, the use of English words in Korean advertising 'is primarily meant for appealing to the public's [positive] feelings [toward modernity, internationalization, etc.] and not for practical communication' (Haarmann 1984: 110).

There are, of course, Koreans who may have no difficulty in understanding the amount of English used in the mass media, but still the 'code-mixing and -switching' in the mass media simply are not reflected in the daily interaction of the Korean speech community. Evidence from other domains is required to ascertain whether code-mixing and -switching really are as frequent as Baik (1992: 27), and Shim (1994: 225) claim. In the absence of such evidence the widespread use of English words in the mass media in Korea must be characterized as "impersonal bilingualism" (Haarmann 1984: 121, 1986: 254).

Moreover, it is more sensible to look upon the use of English words in academic writing as being a matter of registers, rather than as code-mixing and -switching as such. Most of the loanwords used in one academic discipline may be unintelligible to those who work in other disciplines, let alone the general public. I would like to go so far as to suggest that English loanwords used in the mass media can also be better understood as being part of different registers (cf. Ono 1992: 30, 37). Takashi (1990: 336), for example, discovers that in Japanese advertising there is a significant correlation between the frequency and distribution of loan functions (or types of loanword), and the occupation/background of the audience.


If code-mixing is as extensive as Baik, and Shim claim, there are expected to be a sizeable number of Korean-English bilinguals in Korea. Shim (1994: 237-238) cites as one of the major factors for the influence of English on Korean 'the emergence of the Korean-English bilingual community' (Shim 1994: 227), especially after the Asian Games [1986], and the Olympic Games [1988]. She also notes that there has in the past few years been a sudden surge of Koreans learning English in Korea, and abroad. But '[n]ormal foreign language instruction and tourism clearly lead neither to stable bilingualism nor to diglossia' (Fishman 1980: 9). It simply is difficult to believe that the hosting of the Asian Games, and the Olympic Games 'brought about a totally new trend of linguistic change in Korean' (Shim 1994: 227).[3]

Shim (1994: 237) estimates that at least half of the younger generation (aged 15-40) are Korean-English bilinguals, since 'all Korean children are exposed to at least three years of formal English education during the mandatory education period, and since more than 60 percent of middle school graduates also finish high school education.' She thus adopts a minimal definition of bilingualism, under which a considerable number of Korean speakers, who may only be able to recognize a few English words, would have to be regarded as bilinguals. But the question arises as to whether or not such a minimal definition of bilingualism ties in well with code-mixing and -switching. The majority of Koreans are unable to 'carry out even simple communicative functions such as ordering food or exchanging greetings in English' (Morrow 1987: 55). If it is extended to those who are exposed to English (as a foreign language at school), but never use it for communicative purposes, the concept of bilingualism is rendered vacuous. While not denying that a cline of bilingualism is involved here (Kachru 1965, 1983), I think that one needs to address the practical question of what Morrow (1987: 55) refers to as "a threshold of bilingualism": the minimum proficiency in English that qualifies one as bilingual.


Shim (1994: 227) makes reference to 'the phenomena of language shift in Korean'. If she refers to what is commonly understood as language shift in the literature, her use of the term is inappropriate. This seems to be the case, because she believes that the existence of 'the Korean-English bilingual speech community' has 'met the criteria of language contact from which ... language shift [from Korean to English] would arise' (Shim 1994: 227). She justifies her position on the strength of Weinreich's (1968: 108) warning that 'language shift, like interference, can and ought to be studied carefully against time.' Language shift is indeed 'the long-term, collective results of language choice' (Fasold 1984: 213). But there is no viable Korean-English bilingual speech community in Korea, or societal bilingualism, which is perhaps regarded as the most basic condition for language shift. Even if such a bilingual community existed in Korea, it would simply be premature to describe the Korean speech community as undergoing a language shift, because bilingualism does not necessarily give rise to language shift (Romaine 1995: 40).

To conclude, the status of English in non-native contexts can only be correctly understood on the basis of rigorous empirical investigation, especially in countries such as Korea, where English, albeit a foreign language, plays so prominent a role that one may easily be led to overestimate the nature, and extent of its influence.


[1] Russian nominal morphology is inflectional. Thus, a single formative encodes not only number but also case.

[2] Code-mixing and code-switching are not defined at all in Shim (1994), but it can be inferred from her examples that code-mixing is intra-sentential switching (involving switches within the clause or sentence boundary), whereas code-switching is inter-sentential switching (involving switches at a clause or sentence boundary).

[3] I am not aware of any other countries where such 'a totally new trend of linguistic change' was reported to have taken place as a direct consequence of the hosting of these Games.


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