If you know me well, you know that I have a strange love for language – not just living language or specific languages, but also language as an abstraction. When I was still quite young, this interest in language as an abstraction showed itself in the form of a past time of inventing made-up languages – by the time I was nine I had invented some rather elaborate ones, no doubt under the influence of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others.
One in particular, which I recall I called Urka, included complex and very un-English grammatical rules, intentionally obscure irregular word forms, carefully crafted lists of vocabulary purged of anything that might appear cognate to English, and its own writing system. I had attributed this language to an imaginary race of fuzzy, toothy beings for whom I also invented strange cultural practices and to whom I granted a broad commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution. I was such an idealist.
Anyway, I was reminded of Urka recently, as I came to one of those eerie, deja-vu realizations. I was studying my Korean, a bit, and it suddenly struck me – perhaps my weird interest and fascination with Korean lies in the fact that it is the real world language that most closely resembles old Urka, with its conflation of adjective/verb, plethora of grammatical particles, emminently logical and strictly phonological writing system.
Not everything is the same, of course – in particular, the Urka writing system was more like one of the semitic abjads (i.e. a system that relegates vowels to optional diacritics, like Arabic or Hebrew) than the hangeul syllabary. And visually of a style like, say, Sanskrit. Nevertheless, in retrospect I now remember such a thought (i.e. the striking resemblances between Urka and Korean) occurring to me almost 20 years ago, sitting in a comparative grammar class as a linguistics major in college, when I was first exposed some of the delicious oddities of Korean grammar, if only at an abstract level – which is to say that, like many linguists, I have known for 20 years about the conflation of verbs and adjectives in Korean, yet I only actually bothered to learn an actual verb or adjective about a year and a half ago.
Anyway, as I walked back to the subway from the bookstore I found yesterday, I was suddenly struck by this weird insight: Korean is my Urka. I hadn’t thought of that, last year as I studied in college, but I must have realized it at some level, as I began obsessing about wanting to try to learn the language.
I was surfing the web last night, and found a strange list some guy had put together, in which he would give “difficulty ratings” to various languages, with regard to how easy or hard they are to learn for English speakers. These ratings were in the form of a number, one to five, of “cacti” – kind of like granting stars to restaurants. And he said something to the effect that Korean was definitely a five cacti language. And another thought this provoked in me, that perhaps my interest in trying to learn Korean lies more in my sheer perverse interest for trying deliberately difficult things, at least intellectually.
Note that above, I have been careful to say “try to learn” rather than “to learn” – I’ve been feeling discouraged about my potential for success, lately: feeling overwhelmed by the difficulties of pronunciation, of sorting out the wacky vowels when listening, the inevitable infinite lists of new words.