Saturday, August 18, 2007

Holy 시옷!

Last week, my Korean ability was kicked hard in the proverbial nuts. I've been told on more than a few occassions that I talk fast to the point of being unintelligible. I've been making a conscious effort to slow down and enunciate, but I still slip into warp speed on occassion. On one of those occassions, I was speaking with a native speaker who said I needed to slow down. I slowed down and said with a little sarcasm, 'is this slow enough?'. Imagine my shock and awe when she said my Korean still sounded wrong. 15 years of study vanished in an instant. The earth opened up beneath me spewing fire and brimstone. My world was caving in on itself. My ego smashed into a bloody pulp like That Yellow Bastard's last meeting with Hartigan, but red.

Hiding my sudden desire to kill cute and fluffy bunnies, I said, "Oh? What's wrong with it?". I came to find out there are two unique features of Korean that I had been completely unaware of.

The first one is that the first syllable of every word is drawn out just the tiniest bit more than the following syllables. If Korean was morse code, it would be dash dot dot dot. All this time, I had been speaking it dot dot dot dot. I guess that first elongated syllable gives the listener that extra beat to register the word.

The second point regarding my Korean inadequacy was a little harder to nail down. We were using the word 고맙다 as an example. No matter how I said it, she said it sounded like 꼬맙다. It was seriously driving me crazy because I couldn't hear a damn bit of difference between how she said it and how I said it. I asked her that if my 고맙다 sounded like 꼬맙다, then how does my 꼬맙다 sound. She said it sounded like it was a hard 꼬. What the hell? This is basic Korean 99 (even easier than 101). If I got even the differences of ㄱ, ㄲ, and ㅋ wrong, then my Hangeul house of cards was crashing down hard. Of course she couldn't tell me what I was doing wrong. As a native speaker, it just comes naturally to her so she never had to think about the why's and the how's. After some infuriating practice, I had an epiphany. In the beginning, I learned that ㄱ was like the english G, ㄲ was sharp and unaspirated, and ㅋ was aspirated. It turns out that in Korean, the regular ㄱ is mildly aspirated, almost as if you are sighing lightly while pronouncing the syllable, giving it a more 'fuller' sound.

I practiced with various words and syllables to make sure I had it correct until she gave every word I tried a 'perfect' or 'great' and that my American accent had considerably become less noticible. The skies cleared, the angels began singing, and all was right with the world again.

But thinking back to the 'American accent' comment, I can understand the first point since, in English, my natural reaction is to speak fast and it does seem that the syllables are spoken pretty quickly in the first place. But regarding the second point, I thought about it a lot and it does seem that my hard consonants tend to be clipped and unaspirated, but since I don't know any native English speakers in HK, I don't know if that is just me or consistent with all native English speakers. Oh well, I'll keep that in mind so that I can ask around during my next visit to the States.

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