Episode 8: What we talk about when we talk about talking (and writing)

In this episode, Eugene and Amy pull back the curtain (the page?) to discuss the historical and political implications of how we communicate.

Podcast Free Asia

Ever wonder why English words like “knife” are spelled the way they are? Eugene explains that spelling serves as a sort of snapshot in time, reflecting how words once were pronounced. The task of updating English spellings today would require picking a standard pronunciation – a daunting prospect considering the many English-speaking countries and populations across the world.

But what about standardizing a language isolated to a single region, or better yet, in a single region containing rival ruling parties?

The Rundown

Amy explains that since the early 20th century, groups of Chinese intellectuals have argued that the traditional Chinese writing system stood in the way of the country’s modernization. These language reforms were finally enacted by the People’s Republic in the 1950s, and simplified Chinese characters arrived on the scene. Nowadays, traditional Chinese characters are used exclusively in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, a practice that contributes to shaping the unique cultural identities of those areas.

In our discussion of how Chinese characters work, Amy referenced this overly complex character, the name of a type of noodle dish. (FanNihongo via Wikimedia Commons)

Moving to the Korean language, Eugene recounts how the North and South varieties of Korean had organically diverged before the country’s split; the standardization efforts and international policies implemented by each respective government only furthered an already existing divide.

Eugene alluded to the Korean peninsula being divided into various dialectal regions, suggesting that there are reasons for the divide along these lines (at least in the South) due to rival kingdoms competing for control over the peninsula in ages past. (Kanguole via Wikimedia Commons)

While the vocabulary of the North and South differ greatly due to North Korea’s isolationism, Eugene, who is most comfortable with how people speak in Seoul shares that for him the Pyongyang accent is easier to comprehend compared to the accent of the South Korean city of Busan, which is further away from the two capitals… but native speakers all over South Korea might get tripped up when hearing North Koreans speak or reading what North Koreans write because of different vocabulary and spellings.  Some of the differences are political. Even the name for “Korea” is a loaded one, with South Korea preferring the prefix “Han” and North Korea the prefix “Choson.”

How It’s Made

Lao Service Deputy Director Max Avary joins to explain RFA Lao’s transition from publishing in the old Lao language to modern Lao. The decision was not an light one for the Service and remains imperceptible to non-Lao speakers, so Max offers a comprehensive overview of the differences between the two writing systems, the history and politics behind the formation of modern Lao and his personal experiences communicating using these two systems in journalism and inside the country of Laos.


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