The Korean peninsula is one of the most linguistically homogenous regions in the world, with around 75 million people, almost all of whom speak Korean. Korean’s status as a language isolate, unrelated to almost any other language currently spoken in the world, depends on who you ask. Korean is part of its own language family, Koreanic, encompassing arguably two languages currently in use. This is the story about Jejueo, Korea’s other language.
Jeju Island is a volcanic island just off the Korean Peninsula, with almost 700,000 people living on it. But among them all, only a few thousand speak the fading tongue. With the lack of educational support for this language, it has been classified critically endangered by UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages, estimating its extinction to come in less than 50 years. Standard Korean dominates the island’s linguistic landscape today, but it was not always this way. Jeju is an island, geographically isolated from the rest of Korea. It provided an interesting study on the effects of isolation on language, how it diverged from modern Korean over its thousand-year history. Back then, the Koreanic languages existed as various dialects, like Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. It was a dialect continuum, although dialects at opposite ends of this spectrum were not mutually intelligible. It was unclear when Korean spread to Jeju Island, but what we do know, is that some degree of divergence occurred along the way. Jejueo and Korean, they are no longer mutually intelligible.
While Jejueo diverged, the Koreanic languages on the peninsula went through a process of dialect levelling, where variation or diversity of features in multiple dialects were reduced. Gone were the days of Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla, standard Korean was the, well, standard. Unlike standard Korean, Jejueo retains a long lost vowel, the ‘arae-a‘ vowel. This difference in the vowel system is just one of the many aspects that mark Jejueo’s mutual un-intelligibility with standard Korean.
Along the path of Jejueo’s divergence, the language preserved many archaic forms of Korean words, not found anywhere in modern standard Korean. Loanwords are aplenty, coming from Manchu, Japanese, Chinese and Mongolian, ranging from ‘songki‘ (송키), vegetable, from Manchu, to ‘oreum‘ (오름), mountain or hill, from Manchu or Mongolian, we can see several examples where Jejueo differed from Korean in vocabulary. Many cognates with standard Korean can still be found, though, driving some to consider Jejueo as just another dialect. For instance, the Jeju word for person, ‘sarom‘ (사롬), sounds fairly similar to Korean ‘saram’ (사람).
What Korean had, and Jejueo lacked, were some of the pragmatics featured in the Koreanic languages. Jejueo had historically been snubbed as inferior due to the lack of formal morphemes, and its casual tone. A Jejueo speaker might say ‘ban’gapsuda’ (반갑수다), which might be considered rude to a Korean speaker, who would prefer to say ‘ban’gapseumnida‘ (반갑습니다), to mean ‘nice to meet you’. However, it should not be overlooked, that Jejueo has its own speech levels, albeit more fluid, blurred or simpler in distinction with its strict standard Korean counterpart. Some academics say there are three levels of speech, polite, casual and impolite, with casual being normally spoken.
While there are domestic attempts at revitalisation, the widening cultural and generation gap between the speakers and youth presents additional challenges in increasing interest in Korea’s other language. One can play their part in this effort by consulting various resources, far and few between, about this lesser-known language.
2014. Cheng, Andrew and K. David Harrison. Jeju-eo Talking Dictionary. Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. http://www.talkingdictionary.org/jeju
I visited South Korea in 2006, but had never come across any mention of this language during my trip. It was only through searching through the Koreanic languages when I realised Korean was not the only language spoken in South Korea, and that there was some degree of linguistic diversity that eventually got reduced over time. I chose to write this short piece to hopefully, create awareness of such an endangered language which many have not heard of. I hope Jejueo’s revitalisation efforts bear fruit in time to come, despite the many factors that threaten its existence.