Book Review: Infected Korean Language: Purity Versus Hybridity From The Sinographic Cosmopolis To Japanese Colonialism To Global English by Koh Jongsok

Koh Jongsok, Infected Korean Language: Purity versus Hybridity from the Sinographic Cosmopolis to Japanese Colonialism to Global English. (Ross King, Trans.) (Amherst, NY, Cambria Press, 2014); pp. 312; tables, glossary, index. ISBN 978-1-60497-871-1. Hb. £75.99

Book review by Simon Barnes-Sadler, PhD student at SOAS, University of London.  


Ross King’s new translation of Koh Jongsok’s collection of linguistic essays is a timely and welcome addition to the growing body of work available in English questioning the dominant narrative of Korean linguistic homogeneity or “purity”.1 The author is a public intellectual whose strong track record of producing literary and journalistic works is matched by linguistic expertise; he received training in linguistics at Seoul National University and in Paris. Koh is considered the leading exponent of the uniquely Korean form of writing known as ŏnŏ pip’yŏng (language criticism), nine examples of which make up this book. They are translated into precise, readable prose by Ross King, an experienced translator of Korean linguistics and literature, currently Professor of Korean and Head of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. Due to this book’s structure as a collection of varied essays, we discuss the pieces thematically rather than in order of their appearance in the book.

The opening pair of ŏnŏ pip’yŏng serve as a personal introduction to Koh in which he reflects on his experience with languages and how his attitude towards Korean developed growing up in Pak Chŏnghŭi’s Korea, working as a journalist, and subsequently living in France. Koh asserts his love for Korean from the outset and links his criticism of the language with his rejection of nationalism. This philosophical stance is emphasised by his explicit comparison of linguistic purism and such absolutist political movements as the Third Reich and the regime in North Korea. This point introduces the divergence of national varieties of Korean, raising and then rejecting the possibility of policy-driven linguistic unification as a manifestation of ethno-nationalism.

Koh declares himself “fundamentally not a supporter of national language policy” (p. 40), and thus, while he reviles attitudes and policies behind North Korean linguistic purism, imposing a policy based solution to their linguistic outcome is out of the question. Instead, Koh suggests that rather than bringing about linguistic unity by attempting to change the extant varieties of Korean, the standard languages of North and South could be re-united by re-conceptualising any linguistic divergence between them, whatever its source, as part of the ongoing linguistic enrichment of Korean as a whole.

A piece discussing the “English as official language” (EOL) debate, started in 1998 and still showing no sign of abating, accounts for roughly half of the book’s length. Here the glossary is especially helpful in providing more detailed backgrounds to the principal contributors to the EOL debate as it was carried out in the pages of the Chosŏn Ilbo. Koh dismisses those who are opposed to English as an official language on the grounds that their arguments have no basis in linguistic reality, a contention that he backs up by demonstrating that non-autochthonous languages, namely those of the sinographic cultural sphere, have been used for official purposes throughout Korean history.

It is suggested that these earlier situations and the incorporations into the system of Sino-Korean which resulted from them—for example the numerous borrowed Sino-Japanese coinings of the early 20th century—were more acceptable and will prove to be more durable than contemporary Western loans due to their transmission through writing and their basis in common East Asian cultural heritage—a phenomenon which parallels that of Latinate neologisms in Europe.

After a comparison of German, English, and Japanese attitudes to language purity, Koh determines that “no policy is the best policy” (p. 178) and advocates letting the natural course of language change and shift occur. Koh’s conclusion is that English will ultimately retain and consolidate its position as the global language; consequently its adoption in Korea would simply be an official extension of a natural trend and official endorsement of English would enable the whole of Korean society to benefit from access to global Anglophone culture, rather than just a privileged few.

The discussion of the EOL debate is sandwiched between two chapters devoted to writing systems: the first addressing the conflation of Hangul with the Korean language, and the second whether Korean should be written purely in Hangul or in a mixed script which incorporates Chinese characters. While direct discussion of these issues forms the core of these sections, they are also used to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the discourse of linguistic purism whether the subject is spoken or written Korean.

One further unique approach to linguistic purism taken in a different section is an examination of toponyms, specifically countries’ names. While older, sinographic names for countries retain their charm for Koh, he argues for a nuanced official nomenclature in which the sinographic heritage of East Asia is taken into account along with countries’ native names and widely recognised names borrowed from English into Korean. In so doing, Koh makes the case for “correct” language use being determined by common usage which entails the rejection of prescriptive purism.

The two final sections verge on literary criticism focussing on the artistic value and semantic content of the hyanngga ‘Song for my Dead Sister’ (Che mangmae ka / 祭亡妹歌) and the kŏryo kayo ‘Song of the Western Capital’ (Sŏgyŏng pyŏlgok / 西京別曲) rather than their linguistic form. They differ starkly from the rest of the collection in tone and content, including an earlier section on Korean literature in which Koh discusses the distinction between Korean literature and Koreaphone literature, that is literature produced by Koreans and written in hanmun, say, and literature originally written in the Korean language.

The notion of continuity in Korean is deconstructed by comparing older and contemporary Koreaphone literature. Koh determines that they are mutually incomprehensible and thus wholly different languages; therefore relying on older forms of Korean as a source of “authentic” Korean brings the modern language under the influence of a language as foreign as any with origins outside of the Korean peninsula.

This collection is an excellent, if polarising, introduction to many of the more controversial issues in contemporary Korean language studies. Despite perhaps niche subject matter, Koh’s personal delivery and consistent focus on the bigger picture serves to make this accessible and relevant to those with any interest in contemporary Korean society and identity, particularly their interaction with language.


[1] See, amongst others: Ross Kin, “Globalization and the Future of the Korean Language: Some Preliminary Thoughts,” in Ŏnŏhak sanchaek, ed. Lee Sang Oak, Park Choong-Yon and James H. Yoon, (Seoul: Han’guk Munhwasa, 2007), 317–347, and David Silva “Death, Taxes and Language Change: The Inevitable Divergence of Korean Varieties as Spoken Worldwide,” in Contemporary Korean Linguistics: International Perspectives, ed. Lee Sang-Oak, (Paju: Thaehaksa, 2010), 300–319.