On an Unsystematic System: Fluctuating Pronominal Reference in Korean

Author: Seongha Rhee (Department of English Linguistics, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, South Korea)
Speaker: Seongha Rhee
Topic: Cognitive Anthropology and Language
CALA 2020 General Session


The system of personal pronouns in Korean seems to be a highly unstable paradigm, and historical investigation of the system reveals interesting aspects of grammaticalization of certain lexical expressions into personal pronouns and fluctuation within the paradigm.

This presentation addresses four questions that bear theoretical significance: (i) Why is the pronominal system not well developed? (ii) Why does the pronominal system become increasingly complex with new forms? (iii) Why does the pronominal system fluctuate in reference and honorific level? and (iv) Why is 2SG often not explicitly expressed?

An investigation into a historical corpus reveals, with reference to the instability of pronominal reference system, that early data show a simple/crude pronominal system, one for each person, and that vocatives (often using pseudo-kinship terms) are frequently used. This obviates the use of pronouns. Furthermore, honorification marking, which is strongly grammaticalized in the grammar of Korean, is a serious contributor for instability and renewal. Honorific forms have undergone frequent rise and fall. Among prominent strategies is the Place-for-Person metonymic reference, and physical-psychological metaphorical distancing High/Far-is-for-Superior (e.g. ‘that place’ for ‘you:HON’). Intra-systemic fluctuation or shift involves multiple contributing factors, i.e., presenting self as a third party, borrowing Chinese lexemes, using indirect reference strategies, continuous weakening of the honorification effect, and avoidance of the use of 2nd person referential forms.

In particular, the avoidance strategy for 2nd person reference is frequently employed, as ‘positioning’ is highly complex in Korean, along such variables as age, occupation, year of college matriculation, year of initiation/affiliation with an organization, gender, etc., many of which are not immediately identifiable. Thus, speakers initiating an interaction are in a quandary when the relative status of the addressee is not yet established, since honorification and politeness are highly grammaticalized along 4 to 6 different speech levels in Korean. In order to play safe, speakers either do not use personal reference forms at all, or recruit new lexical forms that inherently denote honorification and politeness, which leads to devaluation of existing forms. Thus, most instances of innovation involve the upward modification for second person pronouns, and downward modification for first person pronouns in terms of honorification hierarchy. This research shows that Korean pronominal system remains ‘unsystematic’ for a long time, due to social factors (e.g. meticulous attention to honorification and politeness) and the idiosyncratic traits of the language (e.g. extensive use of regular nouns and title as vocatives).

Keywords: Korean, pronoun, shift, instability, grammaticalization