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Review of  The History of English Loanwords in Korean

Reviewer: Sofia Rüdiger
Book Title: The History of English Loanwords in Korean
Book Author: Jieun Kiaer
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 26.3081

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Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Sara Couture


The monograph is divided into three parts which all illuminate different aspects of English loanwords in Korean. Part I, “The Import of the English Language,” provides the historical background, while Part II, “The Making of Anglo-Korean Words,” deals with structural considerations and word-formation processes, and Part III, “The Use of English Words in Korean,” completes the picture with an overview of usage patterns of and attitudes towards English loanwords in Korean. The book is aimed at researchers in the fields of language contact and change as well as Korean and East Asian studies.

The historical overview of the language contact situation between English and Korean is presented in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. The first chapter, entitled “What If Hamel Had Been Welcomed in 1653?”, recapitulates the first encounter between Korea (then called Choseon) and the West. Kiaer illuminates this historical event from different perspectives by comparing excerpts from the diary of a shipwrecked Dutch sailor, Hendrick Hamel, with writings from the King’s Royal Diary (1619-1659). She furthermore provides literary sources to introduce the moral code of ancient Korean society, which starting from the 19th century underwent a change from a rather secluded and conservative society to a more open and “Western-oriented” (p. 7) one. Kiaer also gives detailed information on the first English schools, such as their founders, staff and curriculums. The chapter closes with the beginning of the Japanese occupation, during which the discontinuation of English education was enforced starting from 1911.

Chapter 2 looks at the effect that the late opening of Korea to the West had on the Korean language in the time period between 1896-1910, especially when it comes to vocabulary. Kiaer identifies a phenomenon called “new word rush” (p. 15), which came about with the introduction of new concepts, objects and ideas. The oldest words borrowed from English into Korean include, for example, ‘alcohol,’ ‘necktie,’ ‘coffee,’ ‘chocolate’ and ‘ice cream’ (pp. 16-17). The rest of the chapter is mainly spent with detailed lists of loanwords from English categorized according to semantic domains, i.e. new civilization and new ideas (e.g. ‘romantic,’ ‘cement’), measurement units (e.g. ‘gram,’ ‘centimeter’), specialist vocabulary (e.g. ‘bacteria,’ ‘cholera’), religion (e.g. ‘bible,’ ‘Hebrew’) and names of animals, plants and clothes (e.g. ‘banana,’ ‘skirt’). Some of the examples are given in the context of a sentence. As Kiaer demonstrates, some of the English loanwords have native Korean or Sino-Korean counterparts, whereas others do not. In these lexical doublets, sometimes one word is prevalent or used more often than the other, and sometimes usage frequency seems to be similar, resulting in a “slight difference in meaning” (p.23). Kiaer also provides extensive tables of shared vocabulary between Korean, Chinese and Japanese and elucidates on the Chinese and Japanese influences on the Korean vocabulary in general.

Chapter 3, “Core Vocabulary,” shows the place English loanwords have found within the lexical system of the Korean language. Within the chapter, Kiaer reports the results of a short study in which participants of two different age groups (20-40 years old and 40-60 years old) were asked to provide any words they can think of regarding different lexical fields (i.e. fashion and clothes, food, health and housing). The younger group provided altogether more words in all fields than the older group of participants and the field of fashion and clothing received the highest proportion of English loanwords from both the younger and the older participant group. Kiaer uses these results to demonstrate that the “use of Anglo-Korean words is part of cultural practice” (p. 42). She also uses a method akin to linguistic landscaping in order to prove the pervasiveness of English terms in the names of Korean companies. Last but not least, a number of borrowed emotion words, particularly “cool,” are investigated as they are “at the heart of language as spoken” (p. 45) and therefore further demonstrate the Westernization of the Korean language.

Chapter 4 describes the linguistic characteristics of Korean words and starts with a section on word formation in Korean, focusing on compounding with both native Korean and Sino-Korean morphemes. According to Kiaer, the source language for borrowings has in the last thirty years shifted from Chinese to English, which she illustrates with the example of language use in Korean newspapers. Korean newspapers have changed considerably in the last decades. Not only has the direction of reading changed, but the use of Chinese characters (Hanja) has also been visibly and significantly reduced. Kiaer claims that many of these Chinese characters have been replaced with English loanwords, which she illustrates with the analysis of one issue of a Korean newspaper in terms of the amount of English loanwords used. Different adoption strategies can be found there, such as the use of English orthography, a transliteration or a transliteration plus English orthography. Another frequent occurrence are names of foreign persons and places. The rest of the chapter is devoted to an overview of the Korean sound inventory and syllable structure rules, especially highlighting the differences to English. It is then shown how these differences affect the spelling and pronunciation of Anglo-Korean words.

The last chapter of part II, chapter 5, explores the ways of forming new words with lexical material from English. Kiaer identifies five productive patterns of compounding: native Korean + English, English + native Korean, Sino-Korean + English, English + Sino-Korean, and English + English (p. 64). Regarding derivation, it seems that Sino-Korean affixes are still very popular and extensive lists of frequent Sino-Korean prefixes and suffixes are given. The third word-formation pattern examined is blending, which is illustrated with the productive pattern of adding –ting (from ‘meeting’) to Korean words (e.g. “sogaeting,” ‘blind date,’ from Korean “sogae” ‘introduction’ + -ting or “saiboting,” ‘online dating,’ from the English loan ‘cyber’ + -ting). This process has become so productive, that –ting can be regarded a new suffix in Korean. Kiaer also provides a list of other Anglo-Korean suffixes which are productive in the Korean context, such as –peul from either “play” or “reply,” -toon from “cartoon,” -tel from “hotel,” -pil from “village” and -ka from “camera”. For each suffix a number of examples are given. The rest of the chapter considers the lifespan of English loanwords in Korean. Some English loanwords fall out of use whereas others have “survived and thrived” (p. 73). According to Kiaer, this can be related to prosodic efficiency; words with fewer syllables are more successful than words with a high amount of syllables.

The third part of the monograph starts with a chapter entitled “Korean English.” As Kiaer emphasizes, Anglo-Korean words are hard to classify either as Korean or as English, due to their hybrid status in the lexical system. Kiaer tentatively distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate English loanwords in Korean. The legitimacy of a word seems to be related to the question whether the word does or does not make “any sense” (p. 82) in an Anglophone context. The resulting question is how the legitimacy of English loanwords in Korean can be reliably judged. To this end, Kiaer asked students at Oxford University to judge the legitimacy of Anglo-Korean words formed with a –web or –net affix, for example ‘web-toon,’ ‘web-office,’ ‘net-folder’ and ‘edu-net.’ Most of the English participants regarded those words as illegitimate or were at least doubtful about their legitimacy. As a counterpart to borrowing processes from English to Korean, Kiaer additionally identified several words successfully borrowed from Korean to English (exemplified by their use in The New York Times). The chapter concludes with a report of the results from another study in which Korean students had to name Anglo-Korean false-friends, i.e. loanwords which have changed their meaning in the borrowing process to such a degree that they have become hard or even impossible for English speakers to understand in their Koreanized version. As can be seen in the list provided on pages 90-91, many loanwords show semantic changes.

Chapter 7 deals with the meanings of and the attitudes towards English loanwords. Considering four pairs of lexical doublets (one native/Sino-Korean term and one Anglo-Korean term), Kiaer shows that the terms have become differentiated in meaning. Usually the English loanword refers to a more modern or westernized sense whereas the Korean word is used for more traditional meanings. Kiaer provides a list of terms which show the differences in the connotation of these word pairs. For example, ‘nori’ is used for traditional games whereas the English loanword ‘geim’ is used for computer and mobile phone games, as well as drinking games. In order to illustrate Korean attitudes towards English words, Kiaer quotes the results of a survey conducted by the National Institute of the Korean Language (NIKL) in 2007 with more than 2,000 participants. Firstly, using common loanwords is generally approved of whereas the use of uncommon loanwords is frowned upon as ‘showing off’. Secondly, using loanwords as an individual is more accepted than the use of loanwords by institutions or companies. Finally, generally the English as well as the Korean language are evaluated positively.

The last chapter of the book explores the intersection between new words and new cultural artifacts. The word ‘wellbeing’ has been introduced into the Korean language in the early 2000s and has since then been appropriated by the health industry as a modifier for all kind of health products and services, e.g. ‘wellbeing food,’ ‘wellbeing fashion,’ ‘wellbeing diet’. Kiaer again resorts to a small linguistic landscape study to show the prevalence of English terminology on signboards in Seoul, focusing on the designations for cafes, hairdressers and supermarkets, which can be either referred to by a Korean or an Anglo-Korean word (or additionally a mixture of both). In the last pages of the book, further results from the NIKL survey in 2007 are reproduced, in which the understanding of English loanwords related to technology and the internet was investigated. As the results show, the general public is aware of the loanwords, even though reported understanding and usage are lower for older generations.


Overall, the monograph is very concise; a high amount of information on English loanwords used in Korea is presented on just 126 pages. Even though the title promises a predominantly historical account, other related fields such as loanword use and attitudes are also incorporated in the book. Due to the highly specialized content, this monograph will be of interest for the experienced researcher rather than undergraduate students.

The strong point of the book is definitely the historical overview in Part I. Numerous long quotes from sources produced in the respective periods provide the reader with an insightful access to and vivid picture of the historical aspects of the development of the language contact situation in Korea.

Kiaer reports the results of diverse studies to support the claims she makes in writing. Unfortunately, information regarding the methodology of each study is often insufficient. For example, she reports a survey of food, clothing and shelter vocabulary (p. 40ff), in which participants were asked to list a number of words for each lexical field. However, the only demographic information given was that ten participants were aged between 20 and 40 and ten participants were between 40 and 60 years old. Furthermore, the reader is not provided with the sex, occupation or any other information about the participants, even though demographic factors could indeed have influenced the results (e.g. someone working in fashion might give more fashion-related lexical items; a student of health education might have a more specialized vocabulary in this field). The missing information makes the comparison of the two groups difficult and the interpretation of the results irreproducible. The reflection on other studies (for example conducted by NIKL) is also problematic as again insufficient demographic information is given and the reported numbers of participants are faulty. For instance, on page 103 it is stated that 2,039 adults participated in a survey: 982 males and 1,052 females (spelled with a typo as 10,52). These numbers add up to 2,034 though, and not to 2,039. The same problem applies to the number of participants given for each age range which also does not add up to the total number of participants. Similarly, on page 118, 1,948 participants are broken down into 1,597 Koreans and 399 foreigners. Further questions arise regarding the mentioned foreigners: e.g. which countries are they from and are they currently living in Korea? No information is provided concerning these points.

Kiaer neglects incorporating results from previous research on English loanwords in Korean and fails to mention publications on the language contact situation or the linguistic landscape of Korean cities. The monograph would have highly benefited from references to works such as Lawrence’s (2012) study on the linguistic landscapes of Seoul and other Korean cities. Previous research on English loanwords in Korean, especially the creative type including semantic shift, is also ignored (see for example Lee 1996, Kent 1999 and Kim 2012). This process is often connected with the concept of Konglish (a blend of the words ‘Korean’ and ‘English’), a term which, surprisingly, is not used in the book.

The book provides ample visual materials in the form of pictures, graphs and figures. However, many of the graphs and figures are hard to read or even illegible, as they use different grayscales to differentiate between categories. On p. 89 for example, the reader theoretically should be able to discern ten different grays in partially overlapping lines. The pie charts on p. 52 are equally hard to read as they also employ grayscales. Additionally, many of the sources mentioned in the text cannot be found in the bibliography (e.g. Odell 2013, Potts 2005 and 2007, Chaehaek et al. 2010). Names of figures are sometimes in the wrong place and the design of the figure on p. 59 has been deformed.

In conclusion, the monograph does provide a wealth of information in form of lists and a high amount of useful examples is given. However, the interpretation of some of the study results is difficult, especially due to the missing methodological information. Therefore, the monograph is more likely to be of use to more advanced researchers who can deal with the aforementioned problems.


Kent, David B. 1999. “Speaking in Tongues: Chinglish, Japlish and Konglish.” KOTESOL
Proceedings of PAC2 (The Second Pan Asian Conference, 1999, Seoul). 197–209.

Kim, Eun-Young J. 2012 “Creative adoption: trends in Anglicisms in Korea.” English Today 28 (2). 15–17.

Lawrence, Bruce C. 2012. “The Korean English linguistic landscape.” World Englishes 31 (1). 70–92.

Lee, Sun-Hwa. 1996. “Language Change in Korean with Special Emphasis on Semantic Change of English Loanwords.” Doctoral Thesis (Universität zu Köln).
Sofia Rüdiger obtained her M.A. in Intercultural Anglophone Studies from the University of Bayreuth in Germany, where she is also currently employed as a research assistant at the English Linguistics department. At the moment she is working on a PhD project on ELF use by Korean speakers. Her research interests include varieties of English, ELF, English in the Korean context, corpus linguistics and computer-mediated communication.