gugak and gagaku

Many years ago, possibly before I went to Korean the first time, I came across a reference to gugak, or Korean traditional music. In the Korea the first time, I saw and heard various performances of traditional music, but did not encounter the word. In Korea the second time, I wandered around the regional city I was living in on various occasions. One day, I saw a museum of traditional arts and crafts. I had always thought that gugak was gu+gak, but the hangeul at the museum read 국악 or gukak. (One advantage of hangeul is that it tells you where the syllables are.) Guk by itself means (among other things) nation (most often found in words like 대한민국 (dae-han-min-guk, the official name of the Republic of Korea), 한국 (han-guk, the short name) and 외국 (oi-guk [way-guk], any foreign country). Ak by itself is related to 음악 (eum-ak, the general word for music) (which I incorporated into my Korean name, which I rarely use). So gugak is literally “national music” (국가 음악).

Last night I came across a reference to gagaku, or the classical music of Japan. Are the words gugak and gagaku related? Possibly, but after some research this morning, it’s impossible to be sure, working across Chinese characters, Japanese kanji, hangeul, pronunciation, transliteration and translation of all three language into English, and dictionary and encyclopedia entries. Gagaku is 雅楽, literally “elegant music”. The syllabification seems to be ga+gaku, because there is a related word bugaku, or “dance music”. Gugak includes court music, folk music, poetic songs, and religious music used in shamanistic and Buddhist traditions. Gagaku is primarily court music and dances, but also Shinto religious music and folk songs and dance. Continue reading

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