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Keeping the Jeju dialect aliveKim Soo Yang
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승인 2011.02.06  11:16:55
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Recently, UNESCO added Jeju dialect to its Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages. In a statement, the international body said, “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.” The following is the view of a young native Jeju Islander and Jeju Weekly staffer. — Ed.

▲ Art by Choi Myung Sun. Photo courtesy Jejudo Hangeul Calligraphy Society

There is a joke people rarely forget to say when they discover my identity as someone from Jeju. That is, I am lucky enough to be naturally bilingual in both the Korean and Jeju languages.
Korea is a small country, but Jeju is, from a mainlander’s point of view, still mysterious, and much of this stems from its linguistic uniqueness.

Before going further, let’s see the definition of standard Korean: the Seoul dialect, used by “cultured” people.
Who can blame me for not speaking Jeju dialect when hanging out with non-Jeju Islanders? I desire to “look cultured” as much as others do. Nevertheless, I feel very proud when people envy me because of my Jeju identity.

On the other hand, I enjoy their surprised reaction because I can intentionally remove all clues of my local identity when I speak. Ironically, this fact highlights the distinctiveness of the Jeju language, as most Koreans from other provinces find it difficult to conceal their accent. Also the Jeju language preserves many archaic words which other dialects have lost.

It’s no wonder though, that the Jeju dialect is designated a critically endangered language when even my mother (in her early 60’s) has lost much of the Jeju accent and words that people one generation earlier (including my grandmother) once used.

Looking at the wider linguistic picture, the Korean language is also losing ground on account of the dominance of English.
But looking at the problem more closely, one sees that much of the Jeju dialect is disappearing fast, partly because the capitalistic logic of “efficiency” has been an excuse for our indifferent attitude. During the rapid economic development in Korea which started in the 1960’s, preservation of cultural diversity was considered “inefficient” since it could deter fast decision making. This has since put the Jeju dialect on the list of critically endangered languages.

Even though the Jeju provincial government enacted a law to preserve the Jeju language in 2007, both government and private efforts have failed to arrest its path towards extinction.
If we just continue to look on with folded arms, we might have to go to Tsuruhashi in Osaka to find any trace of the living Jeju language. The Jeju dialect is in an excellent state of preservation there due to many Jeju people having been moved there during the colonial era of the Joseon dynasty.

Nevertheless, a crisis is also an opportunity. The UNESCO announcement is making more people aware of the serious effect of indifference on their native language. I believe current awareness could be a good starting point for a joint effort to keep the Jeju word active — and the culture alive.

You can find more about UNESCO’s latest addition of Jeju Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger here:

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