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(Yonhap Feature) Distinct dialect of Jeju threatened with extinction

All News 09:00 October 14, 2011

By Anne Hilty
Contributing writer

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, Oct. 14 (Yonhap) -- A favored destination for honeymooners and vacationers, the island of Jeju, off the southern tip of Korea, is most welcoming to outsiders but can be difficult to navigate due to its language.

A non-Jeju man isn't likely to realize people are talking about him because they call him "sona-i," quite different from standard Korean for a man, "namja." See a beautiful maiden? Jeju people call her "bibari." People from the mainland will call her "cheonyeo."

Adding to the confusion is the nuanced distinction in meaning between these words, depending on context,

Technically a dialect of Korean language, the mother tongue of Jeju has loan words from the languages of Japan, Mongolia and China, according to experts. It also includes words thought to be indigenous language of the Tamna Kingdom that once occupied Jeju and retains several archaic letters abandoned by other regions. The grammar structure often differs from that of the mainland standard, and the usage overall is far less formal.

But the Jeju dialect is fading, and the fear of its extinction has caught the attention of UNESCO, which in December last year added it to its Atlas of the World's Endangered Languages.

"It is a critically endangered language spoken by no more than 10,000 people on Jeju Island in the Republic of Korea. Its intergenerational transmission has been disrupted, as it is spoken fluently today only by people who are more than 70 years old," according to UNESCO.

The island's population as of the end of last year was slightly over 571,000, according to the provincial government. While there are no official statistics on the dialect-speaking population, locals say the dialect is often the only language used among the diving women. Suh Sun-sil, a shaman, says she, too, uses the Jeju dialect exclusively, as do many of those who follow traditional occupations such as farming or fishing.

Unlike the elderly generation of Jeju, for whom the language is a means of deep bonding among natives, the younger generation seems less interested in its preservation.

In a recent linguistics class at Jeju National University, fewer than a dozen of the approximately 100 students indicated they use the local dialect.

"It isn't respectful enough to use with professors," one student said. "The Seoul dialect is more sophisticated."

Some say the dialect is a "countryside" language.

There are reasons other than an inflated value of urbanity for the decline of Jeju's unique language.

During Korea's "New Village Movement," an economic initiative carried out in the 1960s and 70s, regional linguistic differences were considered detrimental to quick decision-making and rapid economic growth. As Jeju transformed into a primary tour destination for mainlanders, use of the standard Korean language became a business necessity for residents relying on the tourist industry.

"We are part of Korea and we should use the same language," said 53-year-old Yang Hwang-il.

The purest form of Jeju dialect today can actually be found in Osaka, Japan, where the Korean community includes the largest Jeju diaspora. Islanders immigrated in large numbers during the early 20th century Japanese occupation of Korea and again during the 1950-53 Korean War. There, the absence of mainland influence coupled with the zeal for cultural preservation typically found in any diaspora has resulted in the retention of vocabulary and phonetics.

UNESCO's designation has led to an aggressive educational campaign by the provincial government of Jeju to highlight the language's value and impending loss. The government is working on a 43 million won budget for 2011, which includes 10 million won for an annual speech contest using the dialect, 8 million won for educating teachers and 25 million won for Internet broadcasting. The speech contest is part of the annual Tamna Cultural Festival, which marked its 50th anniversary this year from Oct. 7-11.

The UNESCO designation "means that the world has recognized the value of our unique language. ... Korea is obligated to do everything it can to keep the dialect from disappearing, said Oh Seung-cheol, assistant director of cultural policy division at the local government.

Kim Duck-sam, Oh's colleague, blamed Jeju's "loss of identity" for the disappearing language. "Despite our best efforts, the dialect will be gone within 30 to 50 years," he said.

Jeju government's policy for language preservation was established in 2007 and modified last April. A language preservation committee was also formed in April, comprised of 16 members, including Jeju linguistics scholars, a poet and representatives of local cultural organizations. A second committee was later formed for research and publication.

The Jeju Language Preservation Society, a private organization of scholars and concerned citizens, is making efforts at a civilian level. Earlier this year, university students developed an iPhone application for a dictionary of Jeju dialect, available for free for iPhone users.

But the most effective means of keeping the language alive -- teaching it at public schools -- has not been adopted. Kim said his division was encouraging schools to do so, but the budget for such an endeavor simply does not exist.


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