Either Language

Raphael’s School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura, Papal Palace, Vatican / Credit: Steven Zucker

Either Language

By Jinna Han

 

What was that word again? It’s there just at the edge of my mind, hovering, waiting, expecting me to be able to grasp it while I’m still too busy stumbling over the other words that are falling out of my mouth in a room full of people who wait and listen. It’s a lot of pressure, getting these words just right. Every day is a performance, and not just in English, either. It’s a performance in formal language or that awkward friendly bantering language you speak with peers that are slightly cooler than you are.

I stutter until they stop listening.

Phew. That was kind of hard.

“So why are you interested in Classics and math? They seem like total opposites.”

Really, it’s such a boring question to have to answer across twelve different college applications and interviews. Sometimes, I wing it and just let the words pick themselves. Mostly, though, I recite the same thing over and over again until it seems true to me.

I’ve always been ridiculously proud of the Korean language. Not just the fact that I speak it, or that I learned to read and write it almost all on my own after years of suppressing it, I’m proud of the language itself – that kind of nationalistic pride that involves waving the American flag in front of your porch because everyone has patriotism, you know – it came free with the citizenship.

“That’s a great question! Math and Latin are actually incredibly similar, you see.”

And no, I won’t be talking about Pythagoras, or anything like that. Geometry sucks. I like algebra way better, and that was all thanks to the Persians. Maybe Euclid was kind of cool, but I didn’t know him well enough at the time.

What I should be talking about is how all of the Romans that really mattered were bilingual. You weren’t smart enough for knowing Latin, you had to be good at Greek, too. The only Greek I know is the first two lines of the Iliad. I think I speak the language of Achilles’s wrath well enough even so.

The Korean alphabet is really special. It was all made by one person, and is the only alphabet in the world that was created in such a way. There were no stone tablets with drawings of cows that morphed into capital As, or runes showing overly detailed drawings of mountains and doors that were simplified over time into the eight-stroke characters that exist today. One man, King Sejong the Great of the Joseon dynasty, sat down one day and decided, “I want all of my subjects to read.”

It’s crazy how much a simple decision managed to improve literacy rates. I can’t say I envy Thai people, even if they did get to keep their king.

“They’re both, in fact, dead languages.”

Also, nobody likes them. Except me, apparently. I don’t know why people bother to waste their breath telling me that they’re terrible at math or they think Latin would be so difficult to learn – I’m also terrible at math and had great difficulty learning Latin! That’s actually why I like it. It makes me seem really cool and smart as long as I keep my mouth shut about how much I struggled with it myself. Easier said than done, unless you only know dead languages.

Korean is classified as a “language isolate”. Further than that, it is the largest, most widely spoken language isolate on this planet. People who speak Korean are so, so special and unique, all alone and separated from the other branches of languages, and even more special in the fact that together they are so large and vast with seventy-seven million speakers compared to the other extinct and dying language isolates like Haida or Tiwi with merely a handful of speakers.

“Numbers and formulas string together the basis of a lot of our modern world today. Without math, there would be no technology as we know it. Similarly, without Latin, so many of the languages we are familiar with today would cease to exist. There would be no Spanish or Portugese, no hand-wagging Italian or romancing French, and most of all there’d be no English. Math and Latin make up the very cores of our societies, and that’s why I think it’s important to study them.”

In reality, I’m just really easily swayed by my teachers, and I just happened to have particularly cool math and Latin teachers in high school. But then again, didn’t they use their mastery of the language to seduce me into following that career path?

엄마! 저 아저씨 이상해!

It’s dangerous, sometimes, to play this game. What if they know what I’m saying? What if they turn around and hear me talk trash about them to my mom? What if their Korean is actually better than mine and they make fun of me for trying to make fun of them in a language I don’t even know?

It’s fine, though. That’s never happened to me yet.

(I still layer a heavy accent over my roommate’s names when I talk about them over the phone. Just in case.)

Is this good enough? Will you pick me now? Did my mastery of your English language, used to explain my passion for other languages, impress you enough?

I really hope so. It’d be embarrassing if after all these years I still didn’t know how to speak either language.

 

Jinna Han ‘21 is a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, with a major in Mathematical Economics and a minor in Classical Studies.

 

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