Korean Linguistic Purism and Shoddy Scholarship

Taegukgi Geyang

In March, the National Institute of the Korean Language (國立國語院, 국립국어원) (“National Institute”) posted a tweet claiming that the word “geyang” (揭揚, 게양), meaning “to hoist [a flag],” originated from Japanese and that Koreans should not use the word:

Gukeogukripweon Tweet

Since the word “Geyang” (揭揚, 게양) is from Japanese, we recommend everyone to use “Dam” (닮) or “Ollim” (올림).

Because August 15th was Korean Independence Day (光復節, 광복절), this tweet was retweeted again several times last week. As a result, there were many tweets asking other Korean twitterers to stop use the word, because it originated from Japanese. In response, someone (not this blogger) sent an inquiry and a request to the National Institute via Twitter:

NIKL Reply Tweet

I have seen the tweet that since the word “geyang” is from Japanese we should purify [that word out of the language]. The word “geyang” is a Hanja word that uses the characters “to raise on high” (揭, 게) and “to raise and flutter” (揚, 양). A correction is requested.

The tweet linked to an article on a Korean website called, Today’s Humor. In that article, the author (again, not this blogger) rebutted the National Institute’s claims that the word “geyang” is from Japanese. He noted that the National Institute had been wrong before on such claims, in particular the claim that the word “gamsa” (感謝, 감사), meaning “to thank,” originated from Japanese. The author also did a quick search in the Royal Annals of the Chosun Dynasty (朝鮮王朝實錄, 조선왕조실록) to see whether that word had been used prior to the start of the Japanese occupation in 1910. He found one instance from 1593, the 26th year of King Seonjo’s (宣祖, 선조, 1552-1608, r. 1567-1608). In this passage, the word “geyang” is used figuratively, referring to raising people on high for their merits:

Geyang - Chosun Royal Annals

上曰: “諸大人豊功偉烈, 小邦之人, 欲報無所, 用是揭揚爾”
상왈: “제대인풍공위렬, 소방지인, 욕보무소, 용시게양이”

This tweet caused somewhat of a controversy, so much so that there is a news article covering this topic. In it, a representative from the National Institute argued that because there is only a single instance of the word in the Royal Annals that evidence is too weak to counter their claim that the word “geyang” was not used by Koreans prior to the Japanese occupation. Furthermore, the representative stated that the use of the word is not in the context of “to hoist a flag” (국기를 게양하다).

True, the word is not used in the context of “to hoist a flag.” That is because the concept of national flags was not around when this text was written in 1593 — not even in Europe. National flags did not arise until the 18th century. China, Korea, and Japan did not adopt the current Western style national flags until the late 19th century. In fact, the first instance of the word “gukgi” (國旗, 국기), meaning “national flag,” in the Royal Annals of the Chosun Dynasty does not appear until 1876, during the reign of King Gojong (高宗, 고종, 1863-1907). It is therefore quite impossible that there would be any instances of the word “geyang” in the context of raising a flag before the late 19th century. 

As for whether this use of the word “geyang” is a single isolated incident, a quick search of the Database of Korean Classics revealed 23 more instances. Although these are in Classical Chinese texts, they are nevertheless suggestive of what words Koreans did know at the time. There is even at least one literal use of the word (i.e., to raise or lift something up), as seen in the excerpt from a poem written by Shin Heum (申欽, 신흠, 1566-1628) below:

混涇流之滉漾兮 疇揭揚夫淸瀾
혼경류지황양혜 주게양부청란

 Murky is the wideness and sloshing of the Jing River (涇, 경, Gyeong)!
Who will lift on high those clear waves?

This excerpt and other instances of the word show that Koreans knew of the word well before the Japanese occupation. This is contrary to the National Institute of the Korean Language’s claims that the word was not used prior to the Japanese occupation. Remember, no one is denying that the word containing the same characters as “geyang” is also found in Japanese, in which it is pronounced “keiyou.”  On that point, this blogger does not see an issue with this word, even if it has Japanese origins, as no Korean, if any, today is pronouncing the word “keiyou.” During the Japanese occupation, many Koreans pronounced Hanja words by their Japanese pronunciation. Furthermore, while the Japanese have defined some characters differently (e.g., 空 for sky and 御 as a prefix), this does not seem to be one of those words.

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