Monthly Archives: April 2013

The people of Korea: the people wearing white clothes

In the old days, the people of Korea were known for wearing white clothes, as it was thought to symbolise peace. This custom of wearing white clothes earned the Korean a nickname that can be described with a four characer word:
백의민족 ~ white clothes people

This in turn comes from a four character hanja word:

Let’s look more closely at the individual characters:
白 (meaning: 횐, pronunciation: 백) ~ white
衣 (meaning: 옷, pronunciation: 의) ~ clothes
民 (meaning: 백성, pronunciation: 민) ~ people. Literally “100 last names”
族 (meaning: 겨레, pronunciation: 족) ~ offspring of the same forefather, related by blood

The last two characters might seem a bit odd for most Westeners, but here comes my own, personal, home-made interpretation:

First let’s look at some statistics about Korean last names:
More than 1 in 5 is named Kim! More specifically 21.5% of the Korean population is named Kim.
The Lees follow suit with 14.7%
Park accounts for 8.4%
The Jungs count 4.8%
Closely followed by Choi at 4.7%
Last among the most popular last names we find Cho counting 2.9% of the population.
That means that only five last names account for some whopping 57 percent of the Korean population!

It also means that if you line up people with the top 100 last names you are likely to have accouted for pretty siginificant fraction of the population.
Considering that so many of people share last name, it makes sense that a Kim is not just a Kim, and not all Kims are related. There are different blood lines of Kims, Lees, and Jungs etc. Each line of Kim decending from a particular Kim is considered a “clan” of it’s own.
Some names have enjoyed higher status than others and like some British titles, family names have been traded among people in need of cash in return for status. Nevertheless, since a very large fraction of the Korean population shares last names, the total number of common last names really isn’t that big – especially considering the size of the country and its population.

Fun fact:
Until 1997 it was prohibited to marry someone from the same clan. Since each clan counts quite a few people, that ruled out quite a few potential couples that weren’t actually closely related. The particular legal article lost its effect in 1997, but it was only removed from the Korean civil code in 2005 when the law was revised. Nowadays the opportunity to marry someone sharing your clan name is based on how closely related you actually are rather than the fact that you shared an ancestor back in the ancient days.

To not get into the legal issues of marriage in present day Korea, let’s return to the hanja:
If you bring together all of the clans (all the last names), you have “a people”!

I don’t know if this has any relation to how the term actually came to exist, but this is how I made sense of it when I heard it 🙂 I hope it will also help you remember this four-character hanja 🙂

Post TOPIK thoughts

The exam is over so now what? Of course I haven’t yet received the score, but nevertheless I think it’s time to consider what should be my next milestone… The listening test is beginning to nag at my conscience, though.

Having some goal such as an official exam forces me to prioritise Korean in my daily life, and we all have so many things to do so I think it’s nice to have an “official” deadline.

That being said, learning more and more Korean and about Korean culture is still just something that I happen to enjoy, and I don’t have some overarching goal for my Korean proficiency such as “enter a Korean university by 2014”. That means I’m not officially in a hurry, but still I suppose my feelings towards my Korean journey could resemble those of marathon runners; even if running a marathon is a great achievement, who wants to finish two hours after the finish area has been packed up and everyone went home? I want to see some progress!

The next TOPIK will be in October which I think will be too soon for me. I am not going to have any summer holiday since I will be working full time throughout the summer so I will not have more time for Korean studies than I do during the university terms.
Also, regardless of the score I get in the beginner’s test, October will be too soon to sit the intermediate test, and I’m not sure, I want to go to London in October to sit the beginner’s test again just for the sake of comparison (disclaimer: I might feel differently when I see my score).
That means that I have a full year before the next exam.

As mentioned in the TOPIK post, I bought a book in London, and I plan to go through two chapters per week. That means I should be able to keep myself occupied for the next three months. Of course I’ll continue with the TTMIK lessons and Sogang.

Do you have any suggestions for another tangible goal that has nothing to do with a test?
Or should I just make a new study plan for the TOPIK in 2014?

First TOPIK test: done!

The night before the TOPIK I slept really badly and kept waking up because I was afraid of being late. And yet that’s what almost happened!

At 5:30 I just got up, got ready, and went to my brother’s place for breakfast.
I left so that I would have a good half hour to wait at SOAS in case of transportation problems. That turned out to be a good idea, because somehow I confused the address (even though I have been there last year) and ended up on the wrong campus! Cue rushing to the right address in a taxi (on the verge of tears) while a concerned driver was telling me to just take it easy since he would make sure I got there on time, adding that I shouldn’t be too stressed out before an exam or I wouldn’t do well. I am so grateful to that man!

In any case, I made it there. On time! Though not looking or feeling as relaxed as I had hoped.

The exam
Part 1:
The exam wasn’t as difficult as I had feared. There were some questions that I was a bit unsure of, but all in all I had a good gut feeling. I tried to vary my essay by including different grammar points such as -는데, 네요, 위 해서, and -(으)ㄹ수록. Let’s see if the people scoring it will like it or if I just came across as seriously confused…

The essay question this year was different from the other years. Basically there were three questions, and they were much broader than they have been previously. First they asked what we work with, then what we like to do – which I connected to the work question – and lastly why we are learning Korean.

Part 2:
Listening… Before the exam I didn’t do a single TOPIK listening exercise because it just never fit into my schedule! I’ve listened to plenty of dictations, audio books, and so on over the past year, but I hadn’t tried the TOPIK listening test format. In hindsight that wasn’t too smart, but it was not as bad as I had feared – although I did have a brief moment of panic when we got to the questions based on a longer discussion and each discussion covers several questions.
I can only hope for the best, I cannot change it now anyway.
The reading section was not as bad as I had feared. From my experience going over the past tests, reading was a hit or miss section for me. Either I understood most or there would be many questions where I really struggled. In this year’s exam, there were a few questions that I was really in doubt of and many that did not seem too difficult. I had about 20 min at the end of the exam to go over those that were causing me trouble, which was nice. Of course that doesn’t compare to the guy who finished so early that he found time to take a nap for the rest of the exam 😀

Overall impression
Aside for almost running late, it was a good experience and I’m definitely determined to sit the following levels. I was in doubt of a few questions, but of course that is no guarantee that everything else is correct so I’m awaiting the scores before opening the champagne.

One thing I would do differently next time is to write the essay with -ㅂ니다 endings rather than -요, but in the exam I felt much more comfortable with the latter so I went with that to avoid making too many mistakes simply because of differences in conjugations. There were already enough opportunities to write something wrong as it was…

After the exam
I met Matt at the test and it turned out he has been following the blog – though mostly for the count-down function it seems hahaha 😀
We went out for lunch at a Korean cafe called Bibimbab Cafe where his half-Danish friend joined us for a talk about languages and other stuff. (I got two bottles of soju to go for only £10!)

After lunch we went shopping for Korean books in Foyles (click here to be directed to the website and here for the details in the book section on this blog). I bought an intermediate reader about Korean language and culture, which I will introduce more thoroughly in an upcoming review 🙂

After that we went out for cocktails and then went out to yet another Korean restaurant – Naru – before ending up in a pub in Covent Garden.

After that I thought it was time to call it a night while Matt and his friend continued.

Thank you so much for introducing me to the book shop and some places I had never been to before in London, Matt 😀

I’m crossing fingers and toes for everybody’s scores! 화이팅!

Did you sit the TOPIK? Which level did you take and how did you think it went?

Did you know? To make or to bake?

In English you can use the verb “to bake” both for cakes and bread.
In Korean, the verb for baking, 굽다, is used for bread, while cakes are ‘made’.

My language partner said I could think of it this way:
When you bake bread, you mix some things together, but the oven will finish the job.
When you make a cake it can be rather elaborate work. Even if you need to bake some “elements” of the cake, that may just be preparation. Perhaps you still have to put the things together, decorate it and so on. This is something that we do, not the oven so therefore we make cakes, we don’t bake them.

빵을 굽다
케이크를 만들다

On Confidence

I have four nephews and as they grow up I get to see some of the funny things they do and say. For instance it’s very fascinating to see how confident they can be.

When my brother’s oldest was barely two years old, and he did something which he himself thought deserved praise (and he didn’t think we were sufficiently awed) he would make it clear by leaning back in his seat, giving himself an applause, and saying loudly “good boy!”. Absolutely hilarious!

Then this week I heard a little anecdote about my sister’s oldest son. He just turned 8 and is in first grade.
Earlier this week they had a test in maths. No problem, he did it. The thing is that in his grade they are not yet allowed to hand in tests written with a pen – only pencil – in case they need to erase something. Apparently that didn’t deter him. He wrote his answers in pen and drew three smileys at the bottom of the page when he was done.

In the Danish school system children do not get numerical grades for the first couple of years, but some teachers still like to somehow mark their homework so the children can get motivated to do better – his teacher gives up to three smileys!

When my sister heard she told him to not write in pen and to let the teacher do the marking.
He scoffed. He doesn’t always write with a pen. He only does it if he thinks it’s so easy that it’s impossible to get it wrong.
My sister changed tactics: “but what if you mean to write 2 and accidently write 5?”
He wasn’t convinced that this could even be a problem.
And about grading his own work, he knew all was correct, so why not?

Eventually he accepted that he shouldn’t grade his own work and write in pencil if the teacher asks him to, but he still thinks it’s a bit stupid.

While we probably shouldn’t adopt their ways completely, perhaps it’s not a bad idea if we as adults could say to ourselves “well done!” more often.

Happy studies everyone and remember to feel proud of your own progress sometimes 🙂

Did you know? “Being afraid” in Korean

Today I met my speaking partner and I learned so many new words and expressions.
We spoke about dramas! More specifically 최고다 이순신 and 구가의 서.
In the latter drama, “being afraid” is a recurring theme for the characters in the first two episodes that have aired so far so I found myself needing the words to say this. My language partner said the following:

겁을 먹다 ~ to be seized with fear, to be afraid

I looked confused at her. Did she really say 먹다? Yep! Literally, you “eat fear” to become afraid.

Without revealing too much about the plot of 구가의 서:
구미호는 무서웠는데 여자가 겁을 먹었어요 ~ because the gumiho was scary, the woman was afraid.

Word of the day: 반인반수

반인반수 ~ half man half beast

The word is composed of the following hanja:
반 (半) ~ half
인 (人) ~ man/ human/ person
수 (獸) ~ beast/ animal

Those of you who watch “Gu Family Book” will know that Lee Seung Gi’s character is half human and half gumiho. He can therefore be described as a 반인반수.

The “no-name finger”

No, this is not a post about “giving someone the finger”. Rather it is about the names Koreans have assigned to each finger on the hand.
Each of the fingers has a name in Korean just like they do in English and many other languages.
The Korean word for ‘finger’ is 손가락 and the individual names are composit names including 손가락. However, there are also names based on the Chinese character 지 (指) which means ‘finger’.

엄지손가락 / 대지 ~ thumb
집게손가락 / 장지 ~ index finger
가운뎃손가락 / 중지 ~ middle finger
약손가락 / 무명지 ~ ring finger
새끼손가락 / 소지~ little finger

Let’s try to look more closely at the different names and their underlying 한자:

The thumb ~ 대지
대 (大) ~ big
지 (指) ~ finger
That makes sense…

Index finger ~ 장지
장 (長) ~ long
지 (指) ~ finger
This one surprised me a little since it’s not the longest of the fingers.

Middle finger ~ 중지
중 (中) ~ middle, center. This is the same 중 that you find in 중국 (中國) ~ China (the Middle Kingdom)
지 (指) ~ finger
This is not a too surprising name considering the finger’s position on the hand.

Ring finger ~ 무명지
무 (無) ~ nothing, absent, no, none
명 (名) ~ name
지 (指) ~ finger
It’s a no-name-finger!
These are also the 한자 characters that the word 무명 ~ anonymous, unnamed are based on.
I did not see this one coming…

Little finger ~ 소지
소 (小) ~ little
지 (指) ~ finger
Again one that makes sense.

It’s a bit of a curiosity, but for some reason the ring finger got passed over when the others got named back in the days. Nowadays it’s mostly known as the 약손가락, which I thought was related to the fact that you usually make a promise to someone by wearing a ring on that finger. But now that we’re already puzzled by the ring finger, notice that the 약- in 약손가락 is not the 약- you find in 약속 (約束) ~ promise, engagement. Actually, it’s the 약- you find in 약 (藥) ~ medicine. So the ring finger is also a “medicine finger”. I still haven’t figured out why this is the case, but I am on it! If one of you knows, please share!