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Review of  Jeju Language and Tales from the Edge of the Korean Peninsula

Reviewer: Soung-U S. Kim
Book Title: Jeju Language and Tales from the Edge of the Korean Peninsula
Book Author: Jieun Kiaer
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Ling & Literature
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 26.3009

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


‘Jeju Language and Tales from the Edge of the Korean Peninsula’ by Jieun Kiaer is a monograph on the local idiom of Jeju Province, South Korea. Containing folk tales and narratives in Jeju language (henceforth Jejuan) taken from Kim et al. (1985), this book may provide an opportunity for interested students to have a glimpse at how Jejuan was used 30 years ago. Although this book may indeed be “the first book to be written in English about the Jeju language” as praised on the cover, it contains so many problematic issues and errors that I cannot wholeheartedly vouch for the relevance of this publication for research on this language. (The romanisation used will be the McCune-Reischauer system as applied by Kiaer, using a version with initial consonant forms except for ㄹ <r/l>, and with the additional usage of ᆞ <ò> for a back, mid-low rounded vowel [ɒ] peculiar to Jejuan. Also note that because of missing Unicode representation, the syllables containing this vowels will be broken up linearly, instead of their typical encoding in blocks. The above practice does not apply to proper names such as ‘Jeju’. Transliterated Jejuan and Korean words will be put in angled brackets to facilitate identification. Thanks to Yŏng-Pong Kang, Sun-Cha Kim, Min-Ji Kim, Chi-Yŏn Hong and Hyŏng-Sŏk Pu, Jaehoon Yeon, Oliver Mayeux and Michael Franjieh for their invaluable support and comments.)

In her preface (page vi), Kiaer promises to provide an “English-language introduction to the Jeju language” that includes “morphological analysis and essential vocabulary provided together with modern Korean and English translations”, further elaborating that the “inclusion of linguistic analysis alongside modern translations makes this book accessible and of interest to those who wish to study Jeju language from the perspective of either linguistics or literature”. Curiously, one and the same preface announces 41 and, later on, 50 stories in total, although my counting of the titles in the table of contents resulted in a total of 42 stories printed in this book. It is also claimed that there is a “CD accompanying the book” (p. vi), although a look at the editorial catalogue or the blurb indicates no such CD.

The subsequent introductory part seems to be sort of a second preface, where Kiaer states that “[t]his book examines the unique features of the Jeju dialect [sic] with reference to standard Korean. Yet, rather than doing so in isolation, the approach this book adopts is to provide an extensive range of folklore tales [sic] relating to or from Jeju in order to exemplify Jeju dialect in use” (page vii), stating more clearly later on that “this book adopts a usage-focused examination of the Jeju dialect” (p. viii).

Chapter 1 (p. 1-6) consists of a further introduction into the sociohistorical and geographical context of Jeju Island with an exclusive focus on times before the twentieth century. As a very rough sketch, it contains a couple of problems that will be discussed in detail later.

Chapter 2 (p. 7-18) is a small sketch grammar of Jejuan that presents the language’s “phonology” (p. 7-8), “morphology” (p. 8-15) and “syntax” (p. 15-18). In the evaluation section, the structure of this chapter will be revealed to closely follow that of an unmentioned source, Kang (2007).

Chapter 3 (p. 19-310) is the central element of this publication, containing myths and folktales taken from Kim et al. (1985). Each Jejuan narrative is accompanied by Korean summaries and translations provided by the original source, as well as their translations into English. As I will discuss later, the Korean and English ‘translations’ are something between translations and summaries, and suffer from partial information loss.

Chapter 4 (p. 311-317) is a list of words selected from Kang et al. (2009) with lexemes that all contain the back, mid-low rounded vowel [ɒ] peculiar to Jejuan (called <arae a> ‘bottom a’) somewhere in a word. With a lot of typos and errors, its connection with other parts is dubious.

This part is followed by the bibliography which is a list of twenty-two recommended readings (p. 318-319). The last section of the book (p. 320-329) is a list of Jejuan words which is sorted by semantic domains.

The coherence of the book’s sections is limited. For example, there is no obvious connection between the bibliography and the previous sections, other than that it contains a handful of seemingly random references to research on Jejuan. For example, it is not explained for what reason Ch’angmyŏng O’s (1997) source on ‘The comprehensive study of toponyms of Jeju villages and mountains’ has been included in the bibliography, alongside Ki-Mwun Yi’s (1980) study on ‘the Peculiarities of the dialect of Gapa Island’. Although mentioned on page 311, Kang et al.’s (2009) ‘Dictionary of Jeju Language’ did not find its way into the bibliography. Additionally, it would have been nice to see a general list of vocabulary items found in the texts in order to be able to find them again later.


To begin with an orthographic issue, it is unclear to me why the low, back, rounded vowel [ɒ] of Jejuan, (the <ò> mentioned above, written as <ᆞ> in Jejuan orthography) has been consistently transliterated as <a>, which makes it impossible to distinguish this vowel grapheme from that of the vowel [a], for which the same grapheme is used. As a result, one constantly has to refer to the Korean script examples of Jejuan, reducing accessibility to those who are acquainted with neither of those languages. Furthermore, transliteration is sometimes inconsistent and provides ground for confusion: For example, place names such as Aeweol district in Jeju City have been translated as “Ye-Wol city” (e.g., p. 54) or “Aewŏrŭp Ilbu” (p. vi), with the element ‘-ŭp’ being the name of an administrative division that is lower in rank than a ‘city’ (‘-si’ in Korean), and ‘Ilbu’ probably needing translation as it just means ‘a part of’.

Strangely, there is no discussion of the Jejuan linguistic ecology. Speaker numbers and their geographic distribution, language attitudes (see Long and Yim 2002, Kim 2013 or Yi 1981) and language policies (cf. Song 2012 as a general account) and the language’s relationship to Korean are not discussed. After all, it is important to mention that Jejuan is spoken not only on Jeju Island, but on surrounding islands as well as among emigrants in Osaka. Sociohistorical explanations do not go beyond the Chosŏn period that ended in 1910, although there are crucial events and contextualisations, such as the devastating sociopolitical effects of the so-called April-Third massacres in the 1940s and 1950s (cf. Park 2010), which have greatly contributed to the language’s marginalisation. With only about 5,000 to 10,000 elderly speakers left, UNESCO classifies Jejuan as ‘critically endangered’ in 2010 (see Moseley 2010; note that Kiaer indicates the year 2011 for this (p. vi), which is not correct, cf. UNESCO 2010).

Furthermore, it is mentioned that “Jeju is a volcanic island” (p. 1), yet detailed information on the geography of the Island Province - Jeju Island lies at roughly 150km southwest of the Korean peninsula and not at the “Edge” (cf. title) of it - is not provided. For example, the omnipresent Hallaksan (Hallasan in Korean), an extinct volcano of about 2,000m in height with its immense importance for Jeju topography, dialectology, agriculture and mythology, is not mentioned anywhere.

The section on “Environment and Folklore” (page 2 to 4) abounds with inadequately exoticising statements, suggesting that “[t]he islanders still maintain a traditional way of life that follows the environmental and historic conditions of the island” (page 3), and that “Jeju people view typhoons as the anger of gods and thus put a lot of effort into pleasing the gods” (page 3), accompanied by cloudy formulations that mention that “[t]he folk customs that exist also trace their roots back to historical conditions” (page 3). To everyone who visits the islands of Jeju Province with an interest in current affairs however, it will be clearly visible that the above “traditional way of life” is transforming towards patterns and values that approximate Western cultures, and together with its disappearing language, the way of life is an object of manifold cultural conservation efforts (cf. UNESCO 2009).

In Korean linguistics, Jejuan is classified as one of the major dialect groups of the Korean language (Pangŏnyŏnguhoe 2001, King 2006, Yeon 2012) and generally called “<chechwu(to) pangŏn>, ‘Jeju dialect’” (cf. Yi 1978), although recent years have seen a change in naming by some to “<chechwuŏ>, ‘Jeju language’” (see Kang 2007, Kang et al. 2009, Yang and Kim 2013; cf. Cho 2013 for a discussion of naming policies). Therefore, elucidating the re-classification of Korean and Jejuan in the form of examining linguistic differences between these two idioms (as is ongoing in the case of Japonic, cf. Heinrich 2012 or Pellard 2009; 2011) and making people aware of language endangerment in so-called “monolingual” South Korea (cf. Sohn 1999: 12 or Song 2012: 10) could have been a good way to promote linguistic diversity (cf. Bobalijk et al. 1996) across the Korean-speaking realm. Instead of contributing to this very important language-ideological debate (cf. Duchêne and Heller 2007, Irvine and Gal 2000, Kroskrity 2000, Rumsey 1990, Silverstein 1979), the sole remark on this behalf is such that “[t]he Jeju language can be compared with the Korean language in a similar way to Jeju Island and the Korean peninsula: distinct, isolated and differentiated. A sizeable proportion of Korean speakers have difficulty in understanding spoken Jeju language. What makes the language so special? There are three aspects: the phonology, syntax and culture of Jeju itself” (p. 6). Curiously enough, these words seem to have been copied from page vii earlier on, where ‘Jeju language’ is consistently labeled as ‘Jeju dialect’. As a matter of fact, the issue of language vs. dialect in the Jejuan context is not considered here.

Apart from this, the book is full of typos and errors in all of its parts, both in English (“sweatinga lot”, p.13 or “Where are going?”, p. 14, “dear” instead of ‘near’, p. 91), as well as in Korean and Jejuan words (“Yŏngdŏng deity” instead of “Yŏngdŭng deity” (cf. UNESCO 2009) on p. 3; “ㄱᆞ없이
<kadŏpsi>” [sic], p. 15, instead of “ㄱᆞㅂ엇이 <kòpŏsi>”, ‘without differentiation/endlessly’ in Kang (2007: 79, also in Kang et al. 2009: 131); “<kakki>” instead of “<kaksi>”, ‘bride’ and “<pungpu>” instead of “<p’ungpu>”, ‘wealth’; “<tulsŭisssik>” instead of “<tulsŭisssŏk>”, ‘two or three each’ in Kim et al. (10985: 111), all of which are from p. 40; and ” <kukkarŭl>”, nation.ACC, p. 41, instead of “<kukkaŭi>”, nation.GEN in Kim et al. (1985: 112)).

Translation errors either from Jejuan into Korean, or into English greatly reduce the reliability of this book’s contents as an information source. For example, <gobŭl> on p. 168, was translated into <sumŭl> in Korean and ‘breath’ in English on p. 182, although it is an adnominalised form meaning ‘where one will hide’; and “<hòyŏ nekkita>” (p. 316/317) has been translated into English as “A collocation conveying the meaning of the phrase “if you’re going to do it, do it right”, or the phrase “make sure you finish”, although the Korean equivalent given on p. 316 states that this Jejuan word simply means ‘do something and throw it away’ or ‘finish/get rid of sth.’ (p. 316).

In-text referencing is generally not applied, and books mentioned as sources for certain parts are not listed in the bibliography. Thus although it is explicitly stated in the preface (p. vi) that the narratives and folktales have been taken from the “Compendium of Jeju Folk Tales” (Kim et al. 1985), the source itself is cited nowhere in this book.

Similarly, a look at Kang (2007: 83ff.) reveals that this publication must have been a source for Kiaer’s Jejuan grammar sketch: Kiaer’s ‘syntax’ section (p. 15-18) covers “tense” (p. 16), “aspect” (p. 16), “causative and passive” (p. 17), as well as (almost exclusively verbal) “negation” (p. 17) and “honorific” [sic] (p. 18). For an English-language linguistics publication, it is odd to see all these sections subsumed under ‘syntax’, since these cover a range of linguistic domains at the intersection of semantics, socio-pragmatics, syntax and morphology. In fact, this sub-structure of the syntax section arises from the structure of its source, Kang (2007), where one finds a section called <t’ongsa> in Korean linguistic terminology, where one will find a section on the expression of tense (Kang 2007: 85f.), aspect and Aktionsart (Kang 2007: 88f.), causative and passive (Kang 2007: 90ff.), negation (Kang 2007: 92f.), prohibition (Kang 2007: 94), politeness and verbal honorifics (Kang 2007: 95), and a discussion of the complex system of sentence-final markers that denote a range of modal and illocutionary force meanings (Kang 2007: 98-102). As mentioned above, these sections can be found in Kiaer’s book (p. 15-18) in the same order, with the content being an extremely dense and shortened translation of the original. For example, the section on Jejuan phonology is only a rough summary of Kang (2007: 23-29), leaving out most of the original examples. Kang is explicitly acknowledged at the beginning of the book, yet a citation of Kang (2007) is given nowhere.

Kiaer’s grammar section occasionally attempts to comment on Kang’s findings and to interpret Jejuan data, although it does so in quite an inaccurate way. For example, with respect to recent vowel changes that have occurred among Jeju inhabitants due to the sudden twentieth-century shift from Jejuan to the development of a local variant of Korean, Kiaer concludes that “the vowel change from /ㅐ/ to /ㅔ/ has been driven by a similar change from /ᆞ/ to /ㅗ/(o) [sic] in back vowels so that they constitute a systematic vowel system” (p. 7). Such a comment seems a bit odd, given that every language possesses a systematic phonology of some sort. More gravely, the grammar section contains some strange comments on Jejuan data, where for example, Kiaer states that “Interestingly, in the Jeju writing system, ‘ㅆ’ (ss) in the coda position is written as ‘ㅅ’ (s). (e.g. ‘poatsuda(보앗수다, saw), mŏgŏtkona(먹엇고나, ate)’, not 보았수다, 먹었구나’)“ (p. 7), without explaining why these orthographical matters regarding Jeju language should be relevant for phonological analysis - in fact, in this context, writing <s> or <ss> would not have an effect on pronunciation.

For all those people who do not know Korean, this book’s content is hardly accessible, for many reasons. First of all, transliterations of Jejuan utterances can be found only in the grammar section, but not in the main story part of the book and subsequent parts. Moreover, there is no interlinear glossing given for examples, and knowledge of Korean seems to be presupposed when presenting morphological analyses. For example, the analysis of the Jejuan demonstrative “야의/야이 < yaŭi/yai>, ‘this child, this person’ ” is given as “yaŭi, yai(야의, 야이, 이+아이; this kid)” on p. 10, which is based on Kang (2007: 47). For somebody who does not know Korean, an explanation such as ‘이+아이’ is not of much use, which is why a more adequate presentation would have been such that “야의/야이 <yaŭi/yai>, ‘this child, this person’ ” could be analysed as 이-아의/이-아이 <i-aŭi/i-ai>, DEM.PROX-child, ‘this child/person’, which is different from Korean in a way that the demonstrative <i> and the noun <ai>, ‘child’ are fused to one word, in a tighter morphological bond than in Korean.

As another issue, a lot of content from the Jejuan original is lost through the translation from Jejuan into Korean and finally into English: A closer look at a story such as “Kang Kam Ch’an’s Magic” (p. 38f., Kim et al. 1985: 108f.) reveals that the Korean ‘translations’ following the Jejuan versions are partially copied from the summary, with large bits of the original either shortened radically, or simply left out. To illustrate, the first two sentences of the Korean ‘translation’ are minimally modified sentences taken from the summary. What makes this so problematic is the fact that neither the Korean nor the English translation actually follows the original in structure and wording, for example leaving out questions that the speaker is asking the recording person (e.g., “<kŏ dŭrŏbaschii?>”, ‘You’ve heard of that, right?’ on page 39 does not appear in the Korean version), or shortening the description of a ghost the speaker gives (p. 39) to the Sino-Korean word “역신(疫神) <yŏksin>” (p. 46). This might be a practice understandable in a summary, but not in a translation. On top of that, the Korean version often contains additions that the Jejuan version does not. For example, on p. 46 one will find the sentence “<kŭ sasildo morŭko ch’ŏkaschipesŏ hŭnk’waehi kyŏlhonŭl sŭngnakhaessta>” in the Korean version of the above story, with the English translation stating “Ignorant of this fact, Kang Kam Ch’an’s in-laws welcomed the marriage” (p. 49), although this sentence does not appear in the Jejuan version on p. 40. Similarly, portions of the Jejuan original are radically shortened in the Korean version. For example, the first eleven lines in Jejuan on page 40 contain descriptions and quotations, although all these get shortened into two short Korean sentences on page 46, with the English translation only translating these two sentences on page 49.

As mentioned, the book also has a section on Jejuan vocabulary that is sorted by semantic domains, with translations given into Korean and English. Its contents can be confusing, as for example, the section on ‘Wild animals and winged animals’ (p. 327) does not list any winged animals. Moreover, the content in the Jejuan column matches the Korean and English translations in a confusing many-to-many correspondence. So for example, whereas the Korean and English columns in the “Side dishes and special dishes” section on page 321 contain the items “<twoenchang>” and “soybean sauce”, the Jejuan column contains a sequence of clauses that says “<tenchange tchikŏng mŏkŏra, twenchange tchikŏng mŏkŭra>” which are examples for ‘eat it dipping it in soybean paste’. A consultation with experts at Jeju National University revealed that these vocabulary items probably stem from a language survey issued by the National Institute of the Korean Language, of which an example citation has been given in the references section (cf. Kang et al. 2008; Soon-Ja Kim at JNU, p.c.). It seems that the utterances surrounding the equivalent of the Korean vocabulary items have been cut out from the transcriptions of the elicitation sessions and put into the present list format, without carefully sorting out which item is the wanted Jejuan item. On top of that, one will frequently find that the Jejuan counterpart is simply missing (examples on all pages of this section, except for p. 321).

To sum up this review, the lack of accuracy in the presentation of sociocultural, historical and geographical facts, the low accountability of statements made in the book, various inconsistencies of its content, a multiplicity of errors and typos, uncritical representation of linguistic analyses and issues of inaccurate Korean-Jejuan, or Korean-English translations, as well as the lack of proper referencing practice, are all issues that make reading this book a frustrating, rather than joyful experience. As it turns out that this book would only be accessible to very proficient speakers of Korean, I would really recommend consulting the excellent sources this book has been based on (cf. Kim et al. 1985 for folk tales, Kang 2007 for a grammatical discussion, and Kang et al. 2009 as a comprehensive dictionary; with Yi 1978 as an additional, morphological description), as well as other quite recent publications such as Kim (2008) as a collection of narratives, and Kang and Hyŏn (2011), which is a fairly exhaustive bound-morpheme dictionary of Jejuan.


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Soung-U Kim is currently working on his PhD thesis on the morphosyntax of multiverb constructions in Jejuan at SOAS London, alongside his ELDP-funded project, ''A multi-modal documentation of Jeju conversations''. His research interests include morphosyntactic typology, prosody-morphosyntax interface, language documentation, language revitalisation, language ideology, Korean sociolinguistics, the sociolinguistics-grammar-writing interface as well as the study of lesser-known European languages. His favourite languages as objects of linguistic enquiry include a wide range from Catalan via Bernese Alemannic (Swiss German) to Ordos Mongolian, Ayacucho Chanka Quechua, Persian, Miyako, Korean and of course, Jejuan.