Monday, January 6, 2014

제주어 (Jeju-eo)

Map of Korea, Jeju Island in pink.
My friend Jessica recently brought to my attention the extremely interesting fact that there is an endangered language spoken in Korea! I used to think that Korean was essentially the only language spoken in this country. Then, I learned about 방언/사투리, the fairly dissimilar regional dialects that make it possible for a Korean to tell where you are from after a minute of conversation.

As it turns out, the local dialect spoken on the island province of Jeju (제주) is even more unique than the dialects of the peninsula. It is so different, in fact, that it is nearly mutually unintelligible with standard Korean. For example, Jeju-eo has retained a low-back vowel that standard Korean no longer uses, and its lexicon includes hundreds of words borrowed from Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese that don't all appear in standard Korean. In addition, standard verb endings, which are critical to Korean morphology, are completely different: compare Jeju-eo's 알앗수다 alassuda to standard Korean's 알았습니다 alasseumnida, both of which mean "I understand." Thus, a person from Seoul would not be able to understand most of what a Jeju Islander is saying if the latter is using Jeju-eo*.

Unfortunately, common use of Jeju-eo is slowly diminishing. Between 5,000-10,000 Jeju Islanders can speak it natively today, but the grand majority of them are senior citizens. Children are not being taught Jeju-eo at a rate fast enough to keep the language alive for the next generation. Consequently, a few years ago, Jeju-eo was classified as an endangered language by UNESCO.

This is exciting for me, because I want to become a linguistics researcher, and my passion is for endangered languages. Thanks to Jessica, I got a great idea for an independent research project for this upcoming semester. I will travel to Jeju Island, meet a professor at Jeju National University, and work on compiling an English-to-Jeju-eo online dictionary similar to the ones I worked on at Swarthmore. I received funding for my project from the Fulbright Korea Alumni Fund (also called the Castleberry Grant), and I'm thrilled that I can begin right away!

Here are some links to informative articles related to Jeju-eo:
- A professor at the University of Hawaii calls for the preservation and revitalization of Jeju-eo.
- A Jeju Islander reflects on the ongoing loss of Jeju-eo.
- A feature on a Jeju poet who writes only in Jeju-eo.

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*The "eo" (어/語) in Jeju-eo means "speech", which is normally translated as "language", as in 영어 ("English language"). It is also called 제주방언 ("Jeju dialect"), but it seems that native speakers prefer to consider it a language, as do I. This is more an issue of politics/semantics than linguistics, however.

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