Jejueo: A Language Or Dialect

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The study of language has a unique history as modern linguistics began to develop in the 18th century, with work focused on reconstructing Indo-European studies. Current linguistics still practice reconstruction. However, further development has been issued on understanding why languages exist, and whether or not a certain form of speech is considered to be a dialect or a creole. Studies on language in Korean consist of comprehending the argument between dialects and language. The Korean language consists of 6 different dialects (Tranter, Nicolas. 2012). They consist of Seoul (Standard Korean), Gyeongsang, Chungcheong, Jeolla, Yeongseo, (which belong to their respected provinces), and Jejueo (Jeju being an island off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula). However, the majority of studies specifically target the dialect of Jejueo. Ongoing debates question the validity of Jejueo being its own separate language. Linguists are nonhomogeneous when deciding whether Jejueo should be classified as a dialect of mainland Korean, or its own language. Although substantial research has been done on Jejueo as to whether it should be considered as a dialect of Korean, the few studies of the language and its components prove otherwise.

Jejueo has been documented unlike other endangered languages since 1913. According to Dong-Ho Ko (Yang, Sejung. 2018), “ as of 2014, about 500 linguistic studies on Jejueo have been published.” This is surprising, considering that Jejueo itself is minute compared to the vast majority of dialects in the world. Analysis on the first PhD dissertation on Jejueo, provides a perspective on where linguists were focusing their attention to, when researching the morphology of the language. The Jejueo language uses 9 vowels. It maintains the arae-a vowel system which has been lost from standard Korean. Vowels such as, “ㅓ” [ə], are pronounced similarly, but with less opening at the back of the throat. The pragmatics of Jejueo also differ from Standard Korean, as speech formality or honorific form of language is missing. If we take for instance the phrase, “반갑습니다 ” (ban’ gapseumnida) in Standard Korean, which translates to, “Pleasure to meet you” in English, it ends with the suffix 습니다 (seumnida). The 습니다 here addresses a honorific speech pattern that implies to the person receiving the phrase, that the speaker is being polite. However, the same phrase in Jejueo has the 습니다 suffix missing in the speech pattern. A fluent Jejueo speaker would say, “반갑수다” (ban’gapsuda), which roughly translates to, “howdy”. The Standard Korean language itself is very strict on honorific forms in speech as there are different ways to address individuals based on their superiority. Children to adults would speak differently as children to their friends; and adults to their parents would speak differently as adults to their friends. In order to understand the argument between Jejueo as a language or dialect, we must first decipher the speech patterns provided by Jejueo and its superstrate. The obvious contrast we can observe is that Jejueo lacks formal morphemes. The speech pattern presents that Jejueo follows a casual form of communication when it comes to language, whilst Standard Korean has developed to be more sophisticated. This observation is considered to be one of the main reasons why linguists believe Jejueo should be considered a dialect, rather than its own language, as it seems Jejueo is “inferior” to Standard Korean. However, the same juxtaposition could be used in favor for the opposing linguists, as stated before, the missing honorific speech patterns provide evidence to suggest that Jejueo is completely different from Standard Korean. Dialects branch off from the original language, but keep the same roots. However, Jejueo has a different vowel system and speech pattern that is closer to the original Korean language, than Standard Korean.

Another determining factor between language and dialect is the level of comprehension that fluent speakers face when introduced to the other’s form of speech. A study conducted by the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, challenged this inquiry by analyzing comprehension levels between four closely related Korean “dialects” (O’Grady, William. 2015). These dialects include Jejueo Native Speakers, Seoul (Standard Korean), South Jeollado, and South Gyeongsangdo. These dialects were chosen, as Jejueo represented the control, questions in the “dialect” of Jejueo as the independent variables, and the other three dialects as the dependent variables. The experiment focused on the central thesis, “to determine whether residents of mainland Korea who had not previously been exposed to Jejueo could understand it.” The study had 10 individuals per dialect, with a total population size of 40. Participants first listened to the test without interruption, then repeated the study as the recordings were replayed in segments, varying from one to three clauses. The results noted the accuracy each speaker had on the comprehension questions. As expected, Jejueo Native Speakers scored the highest at 89.21% accuracy, whilst Seoul followed second at 12.03%, South Jeollado at 6.00%, and South Gyeongsangdo at 5.26%. If we compare the comprehensibility scores produced with this study and other studies conducted on language comprehension (e.g. Polish and Russian, or Spanish and French), the scores fall within the average range presented by the previous studies. The variety of accuracy presented by the study, not only demonstrates that Jejueo is not systematically comprehensible to the other dialects of Korean, but also supports the clear conclusion that Jejueo is a distinct language, not a dialect of Korean.

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An important aspect of language is the idea of endangerment. An endangered language is a language that is most likely to be extinct in the future due to circumstances that inhibit its ability to thrive. Compared to western society, which focus on independence and individualism, East Asian countries such as Korea, focus on collectivism (Cortina, Kai S. 2017). This is important in understanding why Jejueo became an endangered language. Similarly to Hawaiian Pidgin, strong stigma was placed on those who used Jejueo in the public domain and in the school system for the past several decades. Why learn a language that is considered inferior by society? This led to an obvious distaste to learn Jejueo as people would rather learn Standard Korean in order to fit in with the norm. Without context, it is easy to judge how unethical societal standards obstructs Jejueo’s ability to thrive. However, we must understand the circumstances of the situation. To the people of Korea, they don’t see themselves as being unethical when they consider a certain dialect as inferior. They are considering that individuals should learn Standard Korean, as that is what the majority of society is speaking. To them, Jejueo is inferior because it lacks a form of speech that Standard Korean had implemented (honorific form). It doesn’t help either that this stigma of Jejueo being inferior has been repetitively conditioned by societal pressures to younger individuals. East Asia’s reliance on collectivism supported this stigma indirectly because as more people learned Standard Korean, more societal pressure was given to those who spoke the “inferior” language.

Despite all of these issues affecting Jejueo and its ability to thrive, language revitalization efforts on Jejueo has been active for some time. The Jeju Ministry of Education established “The General Plan for Jejueo Education” (GPJE). The primary objective of GPJE is to integrate Jejueo based education into public schools. Two public schools were used as test subjects for the program, where they were taught the Jejueo language. The program reported positive outcomes in attitudes towards Jejueo and the ability to speak it. According to the report by the first public school, Udo Middle School, 55% of their students increased their vocabulary in Jejueo. The second school, Gwangryeong Elementary School, reported that 91.1% of the students scored less than 60 out of 100 on the vocabulary test before the program, then 87.3% after the program. However, as of 2018, Jejueo is not being taught as specific subject, rather, an extracurricular activity (Yang, Sejung 2018). Although these percentages are isolated to a smaller population than expected for revitalization research, positive conclusions provide evidence to suggest that the efforts being made to restore Jejueo is not in vain.

Obviously, more research needs to be done to definitively describe Jejueo as its own language. The problem with research is that it requires motivation. The need for declaration or revitalization is not a priority for the Republic of Korea. Until then, we can only infer with the data we have that Jejueo is in the process of independence.

Work Cited

  1. Cortina, Kai S., et al. “School Belonging in Different Cultures: The Effects of Individualism and Power Distance.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 5 Oct. 2017.
  2. O’Grady, William. 'Jejueo: Korea’s other language.' World Congress Of Korean Studies. 2015.
  3. Seals, Corinne A., and Sheena Shah. Heritage Language Policies around the World. London : Taylor and Francis, 2017.
  4. Tranter, Nicolas. The Languages of Japan and Korea. Routledge Ltd - M.U.A., 2012.
  5. Yang, Changyong, et al. “Toward a Linguistically Realistic Assessment of Language Vitality: The Case of Jejueo.” Language Documentation & Conservation, vol. 11, 2017, pp. 103–113.
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