November 8, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Cell Phone

Samsung Galaxy S5 smart phoneOur KDrama Word of the Day today is 핸드폰 or cell phone. This is one of my favorite Korean words, and a great example of how English words make their way into Korean.

The A sound in “hand” is one of those English sounds that Korean doesn’t really have, although occasionally ㅏ is pronounced that way. There is also no F sound in Korean, so they use ㅍ, a P-sounding letter, instead. You have heard the same substitution in “Paiting,” which we will get to eventually.

Furthermore, according to the rules of transformation I mentioned yesterday, when ㄷ (a D-ish letter) is at the end of a syllable, followed by ㅍ at the beginning of the next syllable, the D-ish sound transforms to a T-ish sound. So, if you ended the syllable 핸 (hen) with ㄷ, you would get hent-pone, instead of hend-pone, which is getting a little far afield from the English source. Instead, ㄷ gets a syllable of its own to preserve its softer sound, and a syllable must have a vowel. Voila! Hand phone becomes hend-deu-pone.

Despite the modifications, and the clever and cute substitution of “hand” for “cell,” this word is instantly recognizable to English speakers. For some reason, it tickles me no end.

Transformations are one reason many English words acquire extra syllables as they become Koreanized. 뉴스 (news) is another example. You might wonder why it isn’t 늇 instead. 늇 seems to have all of the right letters (n+you+s), but wait – a ㅅ at the end of the syllable becomes a T, so that word is actually closer to “newt” than “news.”

Note also the British English translation of the “ew” sound in “news,” which is more likely to be pronounced “oo” than “ew” in American English. The choice of English source is rather random, sometimes Brits, sometimes us. This explains why the very common Korean name 박 (pak) is Romanized as Park when in fact there is no R-ish letter in it in Korean. In British English, the R in “park” is dropped, so Park is pronounced pak, but here, the translation is puzzling, since we say an R when we see one.

If you would like to learn more about transformations, there is a nice chart here. It is the third chart on the page, under the heading “Running sounds together.” The labels are a little confusing, but the vertical column is the Hangeul letter at the end of the first syllable, and the horizontal row is the letter beginning the syllable that follows.

Getting back to phones, I’m always amused by the way drama characters who are so broke they are sleeping at the 찜질방 have the latest $650 smart phone. Yes, Samsung (삼성) phones are just as expensive in Korea as they are everywhere else. It’s been something of a scandal in Korea lately, in fact.

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