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The importance of the unique Jeju dialectEfforts to save the endangered language stymied by prejudice
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승인 2011.02.12  05:10:00
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A primary “bone,” or underpinning, of Jeju’s culture is the local dialect. Sadly, it is fast disappearing.

▲ JNU Linguistics Professor Ko Young-lim Photo courtesy Ko Young-lim
The island’s indigenous language is distinct from those of mainland Korea in several ways. Most notably, a significant percentage of the vocabulary differs completely from the lexis of the peninsula. In addition, both its morphology (structure) and phonetics are markedly unique, so much so that Korean tourists find it impossible to understand.

While not a separate language entirely, the mother tongue of locals floats somewhere between a language and a dialect.

The pure form of Jeju’s indigenous language, from the period when the island was a distinct sovereign kingdom, is long gone. In its place is a fusion of many languages, a result of multiple invasions and 1,000 years of Korean cultural dominance.

Ko Young-lim, a Jeju native and linguistics professor at Jeju National University, is a scholar of the local language.

Dr. Ko conducted a 3-year study of the Jeju dialect for which she recorded the narratives of scores of Jeju elders, all of them over 70 years of age. She specifically analyzed the language’s phonetics.

In her study, she included many elderly members of the Jeju diaspora in Osaka, Japan. These displaced Jeju natives, having lived abroad, had not experienced the “Koreanization” of Jeju dialect that occurred over the past 40 to 50 years. Thus they have continued to speak an earlier form of the dialect.

A local prejudice against the dialect, directly influenced by the mainland’s historically negative Jeju stereotype, is forming.

The opinion is spreading that the dialect is spoken only by “country folk,” who are perceived as less sophisticated, less educated. Young people speak the dialect among peers and within their families, liberally sprinkling in words and vocal mannerisms from the standard form of Korean language. When speaking to a professor or other superior, however, they quickly switch to the Seoul dialect, stating that the local form is “disrespectful.”

According to Oh Seung-cheol, director of Jeju government’s Culture and Art division, UNESCO included Jeju dialect in its list of “critically endangered languages” issued in December 2010, deeming it “in immediate danger of extinction.”

As a result, the provincial government is planning several events to encourage the use of the local dialect. Already in place is an association for preservation of the dialect, which sponsors an annual speech competition. Additionally, a dialect singing event is held during the Tamna Festival each autumn. A few elementary and middle schools have small language programs in Jeju dialect as well, though these amount more to clubs than to educational efforts.

The government encourages local schools to include Jeju dialect in their regular curriculum, but this has not yet proven successful. The only way to truly preserve the language, according to Dr. Ko, would be to make it mandatory in all schools. Even then, unless it is also spoken in homes and communities, she fears that it will go the way of Latin — able to be read but not used.

“Much of our tradition, especially our mythology and legends, is an oral tradition, handed down through our ancestors,” Dr. Ko said. “It’s not only a language that’s at stake; we stand to lose a large portion of our heritage.”

A culture’s identity is closely intertwined with its use of a common language. The same can be said of community bonding. The fear is ultimately one of lost identity, said Koh Hee-bum, representative of Jeju Forum C (NGO concerned with Jeju culture), former president of Hankyoreh newspaper and 2010 candidate for Jeju governor.

“This amounts to an identity crisis,” he expressed, “and unless Jeju people realize the value of their culture, they will lose it. The community will be broken.” This, he concluded, “would be a tragedy.”

Dr. Hilty is a cultural psychologist and amateur linguist, having studied 8 languages.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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