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The Jeju language: Endangered yet very much aliveThe UNESCO-listed local vernacular is under threat but it is far from on its last legs
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승인 2014.03.06  08:47:56
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▲ The Jeju language flourishes among Jeju's elderly community. Photo by Douglas MacDonald


Normally those wanting to study a foreign language will reach for a grammar book. Sure, interaction and immersion are crucial, but a grammar book will also help set you straight on recurring mistakes. However, what if there is no grammar book? What if you are filming a documentary in a UNESCO-designated critically endangered language that has no formal education resources?

When I set out to film my full-length documentary, Spirits on the Island of Rocks, Wind and Women, an exploratory treatment of Jeju Island’s shamanistic folklore, I had no idea that my inter-viewees would be speaking strictly in Jeju dialect. I assumed since I was a foreigner they would speak standard Korean, not necessarily to adapt to my needs but due to an instinct that drove them to do so with outsiders.

I soon realized that the Jeju language was essential to the subject matter. Moreover, the memories, religious lives, dreams, social interactions and everyday lives of the interviewees were all through the medium of Jeju’s native language. Urban dwellers in Jeju City might perceive the Jeju language as rare, spoken by the elderly and encasing memories like a fluttering butterfly suffocating in a jar, but this is not the case: The Jeju language is very much still alive, and that’s an odd thing.

We often perceive of speakers of endangered languages as living seem-ingly half-fulfilled lives, unable to fully express themselves in society. Yet, the odd thing is, in Jeju I have found this not to be the case. Jeju’s markets, farmers' fields, town halls, streets, and shorelines are full of people speaking and inter-acting in the Jeju language. This is odd because, despite widespread use in the villages, it is still equally an endangered language.

The fact is, there are two cultures on Jeju Island: There is the elderly gener-ation and then there is everyone else. The elderly generation speaks a distinct language, practices a different religion (Jeju “musok,” or shamanism) and has a number of different customs. To be sure, there is sadness at the loss of Jeju’s native language, but there is an attitude that equates new ways with progress and reprieve from hardship. In other words, there is an attitude of acceptance.

The two cultures of Jeju Island live side by side and somehow successfully interact. They seem to just leave the parts of each other’s lifestyle that they don’t understand to the respective generation. Certainly, at times, problems and con-flicts arise.

During the filming of my documentary, I encountered many interesting situa-tions regarding the language. In Naedo Village, where I filmed extensively, my main subjects were four active women divers, the last in the village. Three of the four are able to dive, while the fourth was on doctor’s orders not to enter the water; she helps out with processing and selling the harvest.

Almost every day, you can find these octogenarians seated together on the patio speaking Jeju dialect as they always have. One of the women lives with her grandson of around 10 years old and the two are inseparable. The boy is a true “passive bilingual” of Jeju dialect, under-standing his grandmother’s words without a hitch, yet also attending an urban school where the culture is domi-nated by standard Korean.

I often attended card-game sessions at the local town hall and would intently listen to the elderly women speak. The grandchildren who dropped in would speak in standard Korean, but all understood their grandparents, albeit with intermittent levels of compre-hension and usage. The young kids everywhere are such, using various retained verb endings, although few speak Jeju language with any sort of fluency.

This brings me to an issue of wider importance: The language is an essential part of Jeju shamanistic practice, which – like the Euro-Asian shamanic culture-complex which spreads from Japan through Central Asia, Russia, on to Scandinavia and arguably right around the world – has myths at its center, which are recited orally.

After spending hundreds of hours translating interviews to English, I have a level of non-native passive compre-hension, the by-product of filming the documentary and learning Jeju’s many myths, such as that of the Door god myth, or the popularized story of Jacheongbi, the goddess of farming. As the language fades, it is likely so will our understand-ing of Jeju’s cultural essence.

My assistant, Kang Jae Hee, and I spent hours reading myths in the original Jeju language while editing the documentary. I can say so much is lost in translation. The tales are so humorous and beautiful, disgusting and enlightening, it seems much of the grit is lost in translation or erasure. This is my concern, but this hasn’t made my outlook entirely pessi-mistic.

I believe the Jeju language to be a valu-able cultural property. Its disappearance does seem in its current trajectory to be a certainty, but then again, anything can happen. I would be careful not to paint a portrait of it as an isolated, rare item, a curiosity, because I have observed it firsthand to be very much alive, a lan-guage in use.

Jeju’s native language should be appreciated and valued. Residents of the island are lucky to be present at a time when it is still spoken by thousands.

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