What is art?

Youtube is suggesting a documentary by NHK Japan titled Art is trash without social impact. I first read that as Art is [trash without social impact], but I think it’s meant to be Art without social impact is trash (or Without social impact, art is trash), but I’m not going to watch it to find out. (Or maybe I will later – I’m in the middle of enough videos already, partly because Youtube keeps suggesting more.)

NHK World is the international service of Japan’s national broadcaster, and I have watched a number of their travel videos.


너무너무, 정말 너무너무 and 정말정말

I noticed that one Korean hiking video blogger says 너무너무 (neo-mu neo-mu) a lot, the weather, the view or her feelings. In one video she clocked up three in the space of four sentences. I have also heard her say 정말 너무너무 (jeong-mal neo-mu neo-mu) and 정말정말 (jeong-mal jeong-mal). These are the equivalent of very very, really very very and really really in English, which are certainly encountered in informal speech. I pondered whether these are more typical of young women’s speech, but I have also heard a young male Korean hiking video blogger saying 너무너무, just not as much. I don’t know if I say them much. I probably do more than I realise. I have just searched my diary from my first residence in Korea, and found seven instances of very, very, modifying careful, lazy, soft, loud, cold x 2 and dark.

Now that I think about it, I have (probably) never encountered these in Korean or English textbooks, even though they are obviously very common in informal speech, probably in most or even all languages – I can also think of French très, très bon . I can’t remember hearing the Korean repetitions anywhere else, either in real life or on media. It’s just that I’ve been watching and listening to Korean hiking videos blogs recently. I will probably start noticing them much more now. 

PS soon after: in the next video I watched, she said 너무너무너무 행복.

PPS 17 March: in another video, she clocks up seven 너무 in a row, before 오기 잘했다 (approx “Coming here is very, very, very, very, very, very, very good”)

Slow, repeated listening in Korean

I had been struggling to find slow but mostly real spoken Korean to listen to repeatedly, but in the last few days I’ve found two resources which I will use a lot. 

The first is by Paul Shin, a Korean-American living in Incheon. One of his playlists is Learning Korean while you sleep. I can’t promise the “while you sleep” part, but he presents a large number of reasonably realistic sentences at full sleep, then slowly, then word-by-word, then a literal translation, then a more-or-less idiomatic translation. Some of his videos are only aural and others have the sentence written as well.  

Korean Class 101 is a major site for learning Korean. Their Slow listening for absolute beginners uses a totally different understanding of “absolute beginners” than mine, but they also have videos of repeated slow listening which work in the same way. They don’t have a playlist (at least, that I can find), but here is their main page and here is one slow listening video, from which you can link to others.

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A very famous wall

Another well-done travel and tourism resource is a Youtube channel called Seoul Walker, which consists of someone’s video of himself walking mainly silently around various parts of Seoul and nearby places (eg, Hwaseong Fortress, Suwon). Yesterday and today, I watched the one of Deoksugung Palace, Seoul this autumn. At one point my wife came into the room I was in, so I paused the video (it just happened to be along the outside front wall, opposite City Hall), explained in general terms what it was about, then showed it to her saying “Where is this?”. She instantly identified it.

This is a perfectly ordinary Korean wall, with some perfectly ordinary trees. There must be many almost identical walls. It wasn’t even the very famous side wall of Deoksugung, with its narrow, bending street and overhanging trees. In fact, I instantly identified that in a Korean tv program she was watching, and I just happened to glance over.


A travel documentary features Tongdosa temple (통도사) near Ulsan. According to Wikipedia, the name means Salvation of the World through Mastery of Truth. –sa means temple, so I can only assume that tong means ‘salvation of the world’ and do means ‘mastery of truth’, which is a lot of meaning in one syllable each. 

The first problem is that Wikipedia, as an open-source encyclopedia, is only as authoritative as the sources its editors cite. The citation for this particular piece of information is a perfectly ordinary travel guide. The temple’s own site doesn’t mention the meaning of the name (at least the English version and Google’s translation of the history of the temple in Korean don’t), and the only other similar reference I can find (a perfectly ordinary travel website) says “The name ‘Tongdosa’ was named after the belief that mankind can be saved through Buddhism”.

Assuming that that meaning is, in fact, true, the second problem is that no online or paper dictionary I have consulted has entries anything like this. But, just as Koreans turn 디지털 카메라 (digital camera) into 디카 (di-ka), it is possible that the name is a shortening of longer words tong(something) do(something), the equivalent of sal(vation) and mast(ery) making salmast  temple. In fact, compare 통일 (tong-il, unification) and the 통일교 (Unification movement, Unification church, ‘the Moonies’). 

As a general rule, throughout all languages, simple syllables and words have simple meanings, and complex meanings are represented by complex words. Unless I actually go there and ask someone, I will probably never know what the name actually means.

[PS Wikipedia also records the Chinese character name 通度寺. Google Translate translates 通 as, probably most relevantly, through, and 度 as degree, extent, measure, so the name is probably Sino-Korean rather than Korean.]

English for international communication

After watching many amateur travel videos, mainly of South Korea but some of other countries, I found a series of hiking videos by a South Korean tv station. The difference in production values is immediately apparent: the amateur videos range from almost unwatchable to almost professional, but the professional videos are just in another league.

Most of them are of destinations in South Korea, and all of the talking is in Korean (which I don’t understand enough of). But one is of the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne. The South Korean tourist/hiker met a local guide and they spoke together in English. And another is of Croatia. Two other South Korean tourists/hikers met a local guide and they spoke together in Croatian.

Um, no. They spoke English. I guess that the number of Koreans who speak Croatian and the number of Croatians who speak Korean is very close to not many.

Mental maps

One travel video blogger documented himself travelling from Tokyo to Sapporo then on to Cape Sōya, the northernmost point of Japan. I knew that Sapporo is opposite Vladivostok, Russia, which I have always used as an example of somewhere impossibly remote. But the two of them lie at 43 degrees north, closer to the equator than to the north pole. And that’s the same latitude as southern France and Toronto, Canada. Even Cape Sōya, at 45 degrees, lies at the same latitude as Milan and Montreal (and is slightly closer to the equator, due to the earth’s equatorial bulge). In Seoul, there is a direction and distance pointer showing that Vladivostok is only 740 km away. You could easily drive there in a day if you didn’t have to cross two of the most heavily fortified borders in the world along the way.

One website listing cities by latitude shows that Kathmandu, Nepal and Brisbane, Australia lie at equivalent latitudes, 27 degrees north and south respectively (Brisbane is a few tenths of a degree closer to the equator). But Kathmandu is inland, 1400 metres above sea level and 160 km from the Himalayas, and Brisbane is on the coast between the Australian desert and the Pacific Ocean. 

Koh Fee Fee

One professionally produced and presented travel video talks about a resort island in Thailand named Koh Fee Fee. My entire travel experience of Thailand amounts to spending one hour in the middle of the night at Bangkok airport, but I know there’s no island named Koh Fee Fee any more than there’s a country named Thighland. Thai has a /f/ sound, but phi is pronounced identically to English pea

English has two relevant phonemes: /b/, which is voiced and unaspirated, and /p/, which unvoiced and unaspirated. But at the start of a syllable, /p/ becomes aspirated – there’s a little puff of air immediately after the sound. Thai has three relevant phonemes: /b/, /p/, which is always unvoiced and unaspirated, and /ph/, which is always unvoiced and aspirated. Thai speakers can make a distinction between pi pi and phi phi (I don’t know if pi pi is actually a word in Thai, but they can say it), but English people can’t. (It’s more complicated than that, but I’ll stop there.)

Calling the island Koh Fee Fee seriously brings into question whether anyone connected with the production of the video has actually ever been there, and whether the information they give comes from their own experience or is copied from someone else.

If you’re lucky, your first thought when you hear /phiphi/ is an Australian clam or a New Zealand mollusc. Mine isn’t. Some years ago, a colleague’s student was showing my colleague and her other students her photos of Koh Phi Phi on a computer in the college’s common room. I heard her ask my colleague “Teacher go pee-pee?”. With admirable restraint, my colleague said “No, I haven’t”. I quietly said “You should see a urologist about that”.

If you’re making travel videos, either professional or amateur, please check pronunciations. At least they weren’t talking about Phuket.

Crash Course Linguistics

I have mentioned the Crash Course Youtube channel a few times. I knew they were considering (or had been asked by many people to make) a course in linguistics. I had put it out of my mind until another blog mentioned it.

Here it is, now complete at 16 episodes. It covers most of the things most of the ideas that underpin what I write about here, with the bonus of audio, video and actual organisation of ideas rather than random thoughts.


Taking a break from watching travel videos of South Korea, I was watching travel videos of Japan. One presenter for a professional series of videos said something formulaic before enough of his meals that I noticed it, but he said it so fast that I had no chance of catching it. The internet to the rescue. It’s itadakimasu, which is variously explained by various people on the internet, and I won’t attempt to get to the bottom of it. Clearly, it is very different from Korean 잘 먹겠습니다 (jal meok-kess-seum-ni-da, I will eat well). 

Before drinking, he said something which I caught as kampai or gampai, which the internet tells me is kanpai, which is clearly related to the Korean which I remembered and searched for as geombae, but which the internet tells me is geonbae. So who borrowed the expression from whom? Neither – they both borrowed it from the Chinese, who say ganbei. Either way, it means empty cup, but does not necessarily require that all the contents should be drunk immediately. First up in the meal, it probably has that result, but later, after some consumption, I for one would take a sip rather than down the lot. Koreans now also say 원샷! (one shot). It is also more associated with soju and beer rather than makgeolli or wine.

My hearing the Japanese word as kampai and remembering the Korean word as geombae is another example of assimilation. Once you are pronouncing /n/, then close your lips for the beginning of /b/, the /n/ turns into an /m/. If you say it fast enough, the /n/ disappears completely. The same process happens in Latin/English in + bibere > imbibe (seeing that we’re talking about drinking). But the Latin/English spelling changed to reflect the pronunciation, while the Korean spelling 건배 retains the original form.

While English-speaking cooks/hosts can say ‘Enjoy your meal’ (most formally – there are also a number of less formal things to say), there is nothing really for the rest of us to say. It would sound strange to say ‘I will enjoy my meal’ before a meal, while ’Thank you/Thanks for the meal’ is more usually said after the meal. Saying a prayer doesn’t overcome the problem, because praying is talking to God, not to the cook/host, even if we add thanks for the cook/host’s time and effort after our thanks for the food.