Love without borders
How language and love are uniting Koreans
With Valentine’s Day upon us, what can the language of love tell us about the character of a nation?
The Korean language reveals the quixotic passion of its people. “Sarang-eui himuro” translates as “the strength of love”, a belief that love can inspire triumph over any obstacle. In addition to romantic love, the concepts of affection and generosity are central to South Koreans’ views of themselves and others. Rural dwellers often offer complete strangers a meal and a place to sleep. When serving rice, a Korean host will be expected to serve at least two scoops per plate. The spirit of giving with an open hand is considered more important than gauging how much a guest may want to eat. How tragic, then, that these people should live their lives in a divided land on one of the world’s great political and cultural fault lines. However, this month has brought welcome news, with North and South Korea speaking the language, not of confrontation but reconciliation.
A joint Korean dictionary is planned to include local dialects spoken in both the North and South. Sixty years of isolation following the war of 1950-53 have inevitably made North Korea more insular, culturally and linguistically. This move, together with the decision to hold reunions for separated families, is making February 2014 a landmark month.
This week, 90 year old Ri Jong was one of 436 South Koreans who crossed the border to meet estranged loved ones. Embracing his 61 year old son, who was just three months old when they were separated by war, Ri Jong tearfully assured him “I did not forget you for a single day in the past 60 years”.
The rift between North and South Korea has made friendly conversation notoriously problematic. Even if we accept the Korean belief that any obstacle can be overcome, it’s asking a lot for these two sides to reconcile. Nevertheless, the shared language is alive, and with communication we can remember the past and hope for the future.
In our best moments, our language allows us to define ourselves by the things we love, not the things we hate. North and South Korea’s shared language may never bring complete reconciliation, but this year it has at least brought a reminder of what once united them. That’s a positive message for this February 14th, for Korea and for all of us.