The Cúpla Focail: words, translation, creation.

I’m no linguist, but I love language. I love how language has formed into a universal description of a particular aspect of the world that surrounds you. It’s amazing. But, I’m no expert, and I couldn’t sit here and describe why this is the case and how it happened. I don’t understand it well enough. In fact the only language I could arguably claim to understand is English. And even that level of understanding is rudimentary. But, a bit like watching science happen, this is why I love language.

Just seeing language happen and seeing it function, and then having particular aspects explained, especially things like idioms, really wets my pants with excitement. Irish people, for reasons I won’t go into now, are known for their use of language, be it the gift of the gab, poetry, or basically telling some poor misfortunate what you think of them in sixteen different ways, and none of them being either pleasant, complimentary, or suitable for young ears.

I grew up in a relatively fluent Irish speaking family, and to express the cúpla focail at times was very much the done thing.Cúpla focail means, in Irish, a few words or as we would say in Ireland, the few words. The Cúpla Focail is quite popular; often you’d hear people throw out a few words here and there, a hello, or a saying, or word, or whatever. Often this would be mixed in with an English sentence, and generally speaking most people would understand it.

Now if you started a full conversation in Irish there’s a fair few people who would duck their heads and make for the hills as fast as possible. Fortunately (or unfortunately might be the more appropriate term here) not that many people in Ireland speak our first language well enough so heading for the hills is not that frequent an activity, except for people who are actually going hill-walking, which is actually the Irish equivalent of hiking in Korea (with a lot less national enthusiasm and a lot less steep mountain trails to scale).

In the Korea language is a big deal too, and the locals, commonly referred to as Korean people, do take it very seriously. There’s much talk of Hangeul, the Korean script, which was allegedly invented by King Sejong. I say allegedly because I doubt the king sat down and came up with every aspect of it. I’d say it’s more likely he had an idea and then directed a few eunuchs to go off and put his notions to work, which they obviously did. Regardless of whether or not I’m right or wrong, if there’s a legacy to be left, the written script of an entire people isn’t a bad place to start in making yourself part of every person in the country’s life.

That’s the most obvious thing to talk about in terms of the Korea and language. The most cliché thing to talk about in terms of theKorea and language is the current obsession in the Korea with learning foreign languages, but most specifically, English. That’s the reason I’ve lived in the Korea for over five years, although I like to think that my current job puts me outside of the spectrum of the current English language learning infatuation. Still, the vast majority of ‘young’, English speaking Caucasians you will find wandering the streets of many built up areas in Korea will teach, or will have taught English in some capacity in the Korea. In many areas there are a lot of these people, and this would imply that there’s a high demand there. Not every neighbourhood is as enthusiastic as the next.

Still, if you look at a tall and brightly lit building in a prominent position in an urban neighbourhood, somewhere in that building there’s a very strong chance that there is a private English language school that specialises in teaching to primary and secondary school students, the so-called hagwon (note: hagwon does not specifically apply to English language schools, and there are hagwon for everything in the Korea, and not all keep children under the age of eighteen studying well past ten o’clock at night). The English hagwon carry a stereotype among Koreans and among the teachers who teach and have taught there, both of which are not synonymous. English language teaching is a growth industry in Korea, and provided you’re willing to work hard at it, you can do alright in the business, but that goes without saying for all industry, right?

Back to the point.

You’d have to be living here quite a while and have some control of understanding Hangeul before you really started to realise and understand the preponderance of English hagwon. But there’s more than just Hagwon using English in their company name. The longer I stay in the Korea the more I start to not notice how much English script is used by Korean businesses to name themselves. If I clear my head for a moment I find it baffling when I even read some of the businesses that have English names written in Hangeul. It frustrates me a little to think, and maybe I’m wrong about this, that the Korean language isn’t viewed in the same light as it is broadcast by those employed to promote the prominence of all things wonderful in the Korea.

What just struck me is that perhaps it is something more than this, and that perhaps it’s the normality of the Korean script and language that doesn’t appear attractive, and using an exotic language like English is more sophisticated. To get an idea about what I’m talking about, take a look at the restaurant business in any western country, and especially when it is a restaurant that serves what I can only describe reasonably as non-native food. Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Mexican, French, and even Irish (I suppose pubs would be a better idea) all use different, or even foreign words to create an exotic image which would imply that the place in question is authentic. Now how this applies to a shop that sells designer sunglasses or hardware supplies is beyond me, but you get the idea.

Since this realisation, these things don’t bother me as much anymore. In fact, I’ve grown to appreciate the wordiness of many Korean business names. I can compare it with my own hybrid Irish-English-Korean-French-German tongue that use when in my own company, or to the annoyance of herself.

Mixing languages so that they can be understood in context, to me, sounds great. There is a cleverness to it that requires further examination by the listener or the reader, and the fun in using this is presenting people with a moment where they must question the language they already know, then reallocate it in a different sphere of understanding. Sure I’m probably just a tease about doing this, but then again language is merely what you make of it and how we understand things differs from one person to the next. There’s nothing wrong with messing with people’s heads a little and giving the a little linguistic puzzle to deliberate over. In terms of using it as a company name, it’s distinct, attractive, and often memorable.

Take a favoured expression of mine, ‘ce qui c’est le craic?’, which I have kind of self-translated from the Irish expression in English into French, ‘what’s the craic?’, which basically means is there any fun, or anything good happening? Craic means fun, and is distinguishable from the English word crack, which is either a fissure in a solid piece of material, or a highly addictive class A drug. I’ve been saying this for years, and it has been understood mostly by those who understand the meaning of ‘craic’. When I said this to some French co-workers recently it took me around fifteen minutes to explain that I was not asking if they could get me some crack, and then another fifteen minutes or so to explain what ‘what’s the craic?’ actually meant. We parted on good terms. They still ask me about it, so it’s safe to say it’s a memorable expression.

In the Korea you see this kind of word play with English all the time, and you see it been taken even further sometimes. I used to drive me crazy. But because I now realise that I do it myself, and have been doing it for as long as I’ve been able to speak even a snippet of a second language, I can appreciate and admire it more.

Words that sound like Korean words, or words that can be confused with Korean meanings, or words that have been, thanks to an odd translation plucked from the obscurity of wherever it was in some archaic English usage book, are creations. This creation of words is not a phenomenon exclusive to Korean, and you can see it everywhere, and most of the time the examples are really clever. You just can’t help but enjoy them.

Words are there to be used to communicate, even if it is an obscure interpretation of something you have interpreted completely independent of any outside rational thinking. This is why words appeal to me so much. Words are as much image makers as paint brushes and cameras, and the way we use them is the way we craft our artworks, be they blog posts, tweets, novels, essays or poems. Reagarless of how poorly it is written, each construction of words is an image can be as descriptive as a photograph.

3 thoughts on “The Cúpla Focail: words, translation, creation.

  1. Actually Conor, “craic” is an attempted gaelicization of an old english word of the same pronunciation. In peripheral areas archaic language usage is common and there are some common examples used in rural Ireland. Mereings and slang are commonly used around Dunboyne, or did you ever notice?


    • Well, sure that only serves to strengthen my point I think.

      And in my own humble opinion I would argue that the language of Dunboyne, especially that used by me, while admittedly is not without its faults is the most perfect language in the whole world.


  2. Pingback: The A – Z of Korea | If I had a minute to spare…

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