‘What is Seollal?’

Yesterday,  one of my classes was practicing past simple. At the end, for extended pair speaking, I wrote on the board:

What did you do last night?
What did you do last weekend?
What did you do for your birthday?
What did you do for Seollal?
What did you do for the winter vacation?
where? how long? who with?

The students started talking and after about five minutes one asked me ‘What is “Seollal”?’. I knew she knew perfectly well what Seollal is (every Korean over the age of 2 or 3 does); she just didn’t recognise it written in English. I had originally thought to write it in hangeul, but suddenly couldn’t remember whether it is 선랄 or 설날. (It’s the latter – I should have been able to figure that 랄 is a very unlikely syllable. In fact my mobile phone translator app doesn’t recognise it at all.)

Some Korean words are widely transliterated into English – food and drink like kimchi and soju, place names, and some brand names (Samsung’s official branding (at least for their mobile phones) is in English). But many (most) aren’t. ‘Seollal’ doesn’t appear in textbooks or on decorations, so unless students read a Korean English language newspaper (and I suspect that very few do), they probably won’t encounter it. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to figure it out when they do see it.

Seollal is lunar New Year’s Day, one of the two most important traditional holidays in Korea and many other Asian countries. The strict transliteration is seol-nal, but l-n and n-l are always assimilated to l-l, in the same way that in+legal became ‘illegal’ in Latin even before it was imported into English. By comparison, native English un+lawful remained ‘unlawful’.

 

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