My Language World

I was talking to Ms.Vaughan after school while waiting for one of the Middle School Socials to start when I caught myself pronouncing the Korean word 김치 as Kimchi. No matter how you look at it the Korean letter ㄱis pronounce “g” and not “k”. Everyone around me who wasn’t Korean pronounced it Kimchi though, and on that day I realized that while speaking English I’d started saying Kimchi too. That was probably the first time I really started thinking about how I speak. In the terms I’ve learned in English class. I suppose I would say that when speaking English I tend to speak Korean words in a way that is phonlogically English. That really got me thinking about what I now know is called my idiolect. How do I speak? Why do I speak that way?


The first thing I should probably mention is that I love speaking in a high register (Note: When I say speaking. I mean speaking. Thanks to the influence that Skype chat has played in my life in writing I gravitate towards a lower register). Some of my friends have said that it’s strange how I rarely swear, and I really like to use big words and complicate phrases. It’s a verbal representation of the higher standard I aspire to become. To be more of a scholar, an academic, one committed to higher things. I’ve been accused of speaking with a hint of arrogance before, and I suppose it could be interpreted that way but that’s really not the point. The words I use aren’t meant to be a way to show that I am better than everyone else, but rather a mental reminder of what I aspire to become. When I speak with a higher register it is a reminder to self to aspire to aspire to rise higher in all things. Goal setting using words if you will. It’s because of how that high register can be interpreted as arrogant though that I generally tone it down in class, so that I am not speaking in a higher register than the teacher, because I don’t want to imply through my words that I have a higher status than them.

With friends I have notice I employ a high degree of code shifting.  I often do speak in a lower register in casual speech, but I tend to switch to a higher register quite often and frequently. A lot of the time when talking about politics, school subjects etc. but other times just for fun. For example I’ve made a habit of asking my “most honourable friends” to “remove phrases of a vulgar nature from their lexicon” (the third person was intentional) when I feel that a conversation is drifting too much into topics that are too…explicit for my comfort. This is partially a serious request. I do feel uncomfortable when a conversation gets too explicit, but it’s also a joke where the higher register itself is the joke. The sheer absurdity of using a high register to make a comment like that is what makes it funny. On a more serious note  I  tend to code shift  to a higher register when talking about subjects like Science, History, DT or English for example or when talking about politics. Those are areas with a lot of specific technical language, and I feel that a higher register better complements the jargon used.

The one place that I have found myself speaking in a high register the most is in GC. It really is the perfect environment for using a higher register. In class with teachers and all I find it wrong to speak in a way that implies a higher status than the teacher, among friends I can get away with a bit of formal speech here and there when talking about matters like politics, History, English etc. or as a joke, but too much would get awkward. In GC though it’s an environment where we discuss serious issues, but for the most part with very little teacher involvement. I’ve found that in that sort of environment I speak in a higher register than anywhere except MUN (where it’s artificial and mandated by the rules). I like to speak in a higher register anyways (because of the reasons outlined above), and Global Concerns meetings are an environment that supports that, but there’s an added factor of wanting to impress. It’s about status to a large degree. I want to seem smarter, more knowledgable, gain recognition among my peers. GCs are their own social group of sorts and the use of a higher register to me is a means of trying to gain recognition in this small community.


As far as cultural background of my language goes I speak Korean at home, though English is by far the language I am more comfortable with. There was a time when I could speak both English and Korean equally as fluently. Korean was the language I spoke at home while English was the language I spoke at school, and I could speak both just as well. I suppose in a way that the fact that I am now far better at English shows how over the years school has become a far more important part of my life than home. I not only spend more time in school these days (infant school ends at 1:30 instead of 3:00, and I have more after school activities now), but school has increasingly become the place I am more emotionally invested in. It’s where all my friends are, and to a large degree it’s become the focal point of my life.

This change also reflects a shift in identity. I can no longer honestly say that I feel Korean in any meaningful way. Sure, that’s the country of which my passport is from, but beyond legality it really isn’t a country that has any real significance to me. The days when I could speak Korean as fluently as English were the days when I actually felt Korean. Now though I really don’t feel like I belong in any country anymore. Partially that shift in identity was what caused caused a decrease in my ability to speak Korean. Now that I no longer feel Korean I no longer place the same importance I once did on learning the language. However I also think that the decrease in my ability to speak Korean has also caused that shift in identity. It’s one less tie to my country of citizenship, and therefore one less reason to feel that I belong there. In that way I would say that my identity has both impacted my language, and been shaped by it.

Having English as my first language has also given me an identity in it’s own right. English in many ways is the international language. It is the language which unites everywhere from India to the UK. If you lived in Korea for example and you could only speak English I am pretty sure you would be able to make your way around to a certain degree (especially since these days a lot of parents in Korea are crazy about teaching their children English) whereas someone who could only speak Chinese, Thai, or German would probably struggle to communicate with anyone in the US or the UK. If I hadn’t learned English my life would have been very, very different. I wouldn’t have been able to come to UWCSEA, because I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with anyone there. In many ways it’s English that has opened that gateway through which has allowed me to experience a genuinely multicultural environment, and allowed me to communicate with so many people from all sorts of different cultures through this shared language. In that way English is the language that has shaped my identity by showing me that there’s more than just “my country” (I don’t even know what that means anymore), and “my culture”. Through English I have come to embrace a far more international identity. One based around not what I now see as arbitrary national boundaries, but instead the good of the entire world.

English is also the language that has shaped my political views. As can be inferred from my previous comments I have come to reject both nationalism and patriotism as obstructions to a more united world. A united world being what I wish for due to the international perspective given to me by being able to communicate with people from different cultures through this shared language of English. Also when it comes to political views there’s that added aspect that, because English is my first language, my politics have been far more influenced by the ideas of English speaking politicians such as those in the UK, US, and Singapore than those politicians in Korea (whom I can barely understand). It’s largely that since I can understand them better I spend more time listening to there ideas. This has caused my politics to be more influenced by the ideas and issues discussed in these English speaking countries than by whatever issue currently dominates Korean politics.


There was a time when I kept adding “lah” to the end of my sentences. It was an unconscious influence from living in Singapore for so long. Then, one day one of my friends pointed out to me that “lah” was a very Singlish thing to say. From that day on I immediately stopped saying “lah” at the end of my sentences, and now I speak almost entirely in Standard English. I was young then, and didn’t truly understand all of this, but I do think that it was the implicit biases that had imprinted itself into my mind that influenced my reaction. When I heard that I spoke something that sounded Singlish my first response was horror. That really shows how even at that young age those ideas of prestige had already imprinted themselves into my mind without me even knowing it. Singlish just seems inherently not prestigious. It seems the language of commoners in a way. No one speaks it in a business meeting or in Parliament. You would never write a formal academic essay in Singlish. That just isn’t done. Singlish lacks any overt prestige.

Overt prestige is what comes with the language of the powerful. It’s the language that many politicians speak (to the best of my knowledge I’ve never seen anyone in the Singaporean Parliament speaking Singlish), the language of countries that are more powerful (Both historically and currently: British English is so prestigious to a large degree because of Britain’s past as a colonial power, American English is so prestigious because of the USA’s place as the most powerful country in the world today), and the language of education (Harvard, Oxford, Stamford, and Cambridge are all either in the USA or the UK). It’s that lack of overt prestige that caused me to turn away from Singlish. In my mind their’s a bias that associate Singlish with a lack of education since it isn’t a form of English that would be used in academic settings.

Their’s another type of prestige of course and that’s covert prestige. It’s the prestige that comes with language used amongst a small group. It has it’s own sort of prestige because it creates a sense of inclusion within an exclusive group. Almost everyone wants to belong, and use of language with covert prestige helps create that sense of inclusion within a small community. However, this sort of language also excludes. Since covert prestige is the language used within a certain community (for example Singlish is used among Singaporeans) it creates a sense of inclusion within that particular community while at the same time excluding the speaker from everyone else. You are including yourself within a certain group while excluding and being excluded by those outside that group. People often seem to dislike those who are different from them and speaking in a way associated with a certain group of people to those outside that group may lead to being excluded by others, because of perceived difference.

Another interesting thing to note is that none overtly prestigious language has been used as a sign of rebellion or defiance against a perceived elite. Their’s a reason that populists like Donald Trump use covertly prestigious language instead of a overtly prestigious language. As I said before overtly prestigious language is often associated with this elite. By intentionally avoiding overtly prestigious language people like Donald Trump and the alt right are showing that they will not follow “the establishment” by using language that is different from those they perceive as the establishment.


Lastly, it is interesting to note the somewhat unique method through which the Korean alphabet came about. With English for the most part it’s a process of gradual evolution. Language changed as time went on. Words from other languages were incorporated into English. Geographical separation between English speaking countries led to each countries version of English developing in a slightly different direction. The point is that it’s more or less organic: language changing because of circumstance and the passage of time.

With the Korean language on the other hand their was an instance of massive “top down” change caused by less organic means. Korean started off much as Cantonese is now. A seperate language though one written in Chinese script with about 70% of the words Chinese derived. However it did have quite a few unique words, and different pronunciations (even at times different meanings) for the Chinese derived words. Up until 1443 it would have been quite fair to call Korean just another Chinese dialect. Then, King Sejong came along, and decreed that his court come up with an easier writing system. Thus the script that we now call 한글 in South Korea and 조선글 in North Korea was born. (Back then it was called 훈민정음). The differences in the present day words for the Korean alphabet is because in North Korea the word for Korea is 조선 (which is actually the original name before the split), and the South Korean word for Korea is 한국. The interesting thing about this is that the entire Korean alphabet was brought into existence, from scratch, by royal decree. Unlike the English alphabet which gradually evolved over time, the Korean alphabet for the most part was created within at most a few years.

Of course Korean does have it’s own share of gradual change. The writing system as originally created isn’t exactly the same as it is now. Some letters are no longer used for example, and certain things such as full stops and commas have been appropriated from English. Additionally the separation between North and South Korea have already started to create differences in the language used by the two countries. However, I nevertheless find it quite fascinating that such an extreme change in the Korean language (they developed an entire writing system!) was brought into existence by the power of a single absolute monarch. Of course their was widespread resistance at first. People didn’t want to change their way of writing, and the aristocracy saw the keeping of the Chinese writing system as beneficial for their continued survival (the Chinese script being harder only the upper class had time to learn it), but now in the present day Chinese characters in Korean have now been almost completely replaced by an alphabet created through the decree of one man.


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