Friday, 02 July 2010

Shut up and nod, boy. Shut up and nod.

I’m sure few people would disagree with the idea that culture influences language, but not many people ever think about how language influences culture. Think about it for a second. If your language doesn’t even have a word for something, then how do you think about it? You likely won’t, unless you invest effort in to creating a mental picture. As an example, Koreans are not exactly knows for being very sarcastic, or even understanding sarcasm. How could they be if there isn’t even a word for it in their language? How can you be something that, in a way, does not exist? In the same what there are things that is really difficult to explain in English and hence we rarely think about it.

An interesting example that I recently learned about is the Propositive Sentence in Korean [-(으)ㅂ시다]. This is a grammatical structure that, in its formal form, should only be used by a senior towards a junior, or between equals.

My immediate reaction was to wonder how you would go about making suggestions to your seniors, or even asking questions. The answer, I have since learned, is that you don’t. You are expected to just nod your head, say yes and go do your best. You are younger, therefore you cannot be expected to think for yourself with an older more senior person to guide you.

How can I be sure? Well, I read it in a book, but more importantly, I went to a Korean and asked. She had to think about it, and yes, there are ways around it, but it is not easy and basically just not done. She said that because I am a foreigner I am not actually expected to follow custom that strictly, but the point is still that if you are the junior, then you are expected to just “Shut up and nod, boy. Shut up and nod.”

This would explain a lot about Korean culture, where people often follow what they have been told slavishly. Not only are you, the junior, not allowed to contradict, suggest or question, but the senior assumes that his word is law and therefore it is expected of you to just do what he says. What the juniors think things is not important because they are not even able to voice it. Chaebol CEO/Monarch, anyone?

I know I might be exaggerating here, but I hope that the point is made. We are very quick to ask how people can be they way they are, and why they don’t just open their eyes and change, but in this example, unless you have a decent grasp of English, or some other Western language in which you can naturally state the ideas that contradict Korea’s very un-Western ways, how then are you going to even know that you “should“ change?

The reverse is true for us English speakers. We, for example, are usually not even aware of most of the intricate relationships underlying Korean society, and even when we are, describing them is a complex matter because often we don’t have the language to do it.

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