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WHAT WITH the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and all, I thought it’s about time that I learn some Korean. And, wouldn’t you know, there’s a book on my shelf titled Speak Korean with Me, by M.E. Song, Songmoon-Kak Publ. Co., Seoul, 1966.

Its subtitle is “A Direct Approach to Immediate Conversation,” which reminds me of another book that proved useful, my Japanese in a Hurry, by Oreste Vaccari and Mrs. Enko Elisa Vaccari, Charles E. Tuttle, 1954.

These days, I admit there are other non-bookish means of achieving my goal, among them Google Translate and the Internet. But here I offer several tidbits from Song’s Speak Korean with Me resonating with my brief study of Japanese, combined with some Internet sleuthing.

PyeongChang is in eastern mountains of South Korea. Image from the Republic of Korea of its Alpensia Resort.

Names of countries. The word Korea comes from Goryeo, a kingdom on the peninsula established in 918. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) calls itself Hanguk, 한국. whereas the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) calls itself Chosŏn, 조선.

Hangul. The Korean character set, Hangul, is a 15th-century invention of King Sejong, who wanted to replace the existing means of writing, Classical Chinese alongside phonetic additions peculiar to Korean.

The 24 basic characters of Hangul and their combinations. Image from Speak Korean with Me.

Speak Korean with Me includes a chart of Hongul’s basic 24 characters together with their combinations. Notice, for instance, ㅏ, A, combines with ㄴ, N, to form another character 나, Na. Recognizing these pairings is part of the challenge/fun of a game that I devised working backwards from Hongul to Song’s phonetic renderings.

Intonation. Unlike Mandarin Chinese and like Japanese, spoken Korean has very little rise and fall in pitch. Song notes that, “… it may be spoken evenly with only slight accent on syllables.” This works well with Song’s phrases that are all written phonetically, with accompanying Korean characters.

The absolute basics. Let’s begin with three essentials: hello, please, and thank you.

Song offers “Hello” as Ǒ-ttǒ-sim-ni-kka? Google Translate says Yeoboseyo and even offers yeo-bo-se-yo through a click of its pronunciation icon. The Internet’s Rocket Languages prefers Anyoung haseyo, literally “Are you at peace?”

I like the sentiment of the Rocket Languages choice. It also mentions that Anyoung! is fine with pals, but not to elders.

However, Song has a similar An-nyŏng ha-sim-ni-kka? for “Good morning. (How are you?).”

This seems to be the danger of my book’s 52-year vintage. Might I be learning the Korean equivalent of Chaucer?

Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1343–1400, English poet of the Middle Ages, author of The Canterbury Tales, “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soute…”

“Please” is given two renderings. Song says that ”chom”, 촘, meaning “a little,” is similar to the English “please.” Google Translate prefers budi,부디.

“Thank you” is rendered in Speak Korean with Me as Ka-map-da. Google Translate prefers Gomabseubnida, with an informal “thanks” as simply Gamsa. Rocket Languages’ “thank you” sorta agrees with Google Translate’s: Gamsahamnida.

Both Google Translate and Rocket Languages note that Korean, like Japanese, has layers of politeness words depending on formality, circumstance, and social standing of those involved in the chat.

What is this? When I learned these three essentials in Japanese, my next Vaccari step turned out to be a great way to add to my vocabulary in that language: Point to something and say, “Kure wa nan desu ka? What is this?”

Japanese is particularly helpful in providing a straightforward response: Kure wa _____ desu. Fill in the blank with its Japanese name: “This is a _____.”

What about an equivalent phrase in Korean?

For “What is this?,” Song offers I-gǒt-sŭn mu-ŏt -sim-ni-kka? Hey, there’s the sim-ni-kka pattern again that appeared in “Hello.” I wonder if it’s typical of a question? (How ya’ doing?) Is it analogous to the interrogative ka in Japanese?

Language sure is fun.

Google Translate renders “What is this? as Ige mwoji? In Hangul, it’s 이게 뭐에요? Rocket Languages offers identical Hangul, but writes it Eege mawyeyo?, pronounced Ige-mo-ye-yo.”

Before we decide which to use, let’s see what a typical response would be. Speak Korean with Me has “It is a pen” as I-gǒt-sŭn pen im-ni-da.

I like this. I-gǒt-sŭn _____ im-ni-da is akin to the Japanese Kure wa ______ desu.

Google Translate simplifies the response even more: “This is a pen” is rendered Igeos-eun pen-ida. That is, Igeos-eun _____-ida; fill in the blank.

OK, I’m off to add to my Korean vocabulary. For starters, I’d point to the barbecued beef, ask Ige-mo-ye-yo?” and expect to hear something akin to Igeos-eun boolgogi-ida. That spicy pickled cabbage? I-gǒt-sŭn kimchi im-ni-da.

Gamsahamnida! 고맙습니다 Thank you! ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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