Language is a window into culture. Learn a bit of a language, and you start to see peculiarities in the way thoughts are structured — differences from how we speak and think in English. In Spanish, for example, the subjunctive mood takes on a weight and importance far beyond its English equivalent. Is it any surprise, then, that Spain gave us literature’s greatest dreamer, Don Quixote, or that its signal dramatic work is called La vida es sueño (Life’s a Dream)?
For a native speaker of English, Korean is a whole lot more alien than Spanish, and the conceptual differences arrive early. For example, I was startled to discover that there is no word for you in Korean. It simply doesn’t exist. To refer to someone standing in front of you, you have to call him or her by name or title: not “Who are you?” but “Who is sir?” For perfect strangers, you can always fall back on the ungendered seonsaengnim (선생님), which literally means teacher, but means roughly sir or ma’am. More commonly, though, you’ll use a family kinship term: grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle. In Korea, everyone is kin.
This concept goes even further when it comes to the first person. Instead of my house or my mother, it’s common to say our house, our mother. This is even true of husbands and wives: not my wife, but our wife. This is neither a royal we nor an invitation to swing. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of the collective nature of social organization. In a traditional family, the wife is indeed “our wife”: she plays the role of wife not just her husband, but for her children, her in-laws, etc. The house is “our house,” and so on. Today, that structure is less common than it used to be, leading to some quirky tendencies. Single people living alone in studio apartments will still refer to their dwellings as “our house.”
Anyone who has spent any time among Northeast Asians knows that this instinct to collectivism is more than a mere linguistic quirk. The construction of the entire community as kin, the linguistic standardization of common ownership, the linguistic impossibility of finding oneself face to face with an anonymous other are all reflections of deeply rooted cultural tendencies.
The way we speak is the way we think, and the way we think is who we are.