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Thursday, December 09, 2004

Korean numerals

When learning more than 10 years ago that the Korean language had two sets of numerals, it was at first of course a bit confusing, but as the use of the pure Korean and Sino-Korean sets seemed to make some sense, it was just another part of learning the language. Then in Korea there was the practical use of the language which was not surprisingly different from the principles I learned in the class - yet another necessary part of the language learning - for example that not only pure Korean numerals are used for person's age (55 years, osip tasôt sal) or that Sino-Korean and pure Korean is mixed elsewhere as well (146th, paek mahûn yôsôtche).

An important part of the language learning was also the realization that the use of Sino-Korean set of numerals doesn't really help the Korean language as a means of communication. They are not clear and unambiguous when numbers need to be conveyed with precision, but what can I say when Koreans have chosen to use that set of numbers in so many contexts. Except that I understand that in some instances like in military radio or telephone communications (read it somewhere) Koreans do use the pure Korean number vocabulary to minimize the risk of misunderstanding. Or in a noisy chicken kalbi restaurant I could hear the waiters use the pure Korean numerals for table numbers instead of Sino-Korea ones, which would have been the norm.

I speak mostly Korean with my wife, but when we need to communicate with precision, we always use the Finnish numerals: kaksi-yhdeksän-kuusi-kaksi-yksi-kuusi-viisi for 2962165 leaves much less space for misunderstanding between us than il-gu-ryug-il-yi-ryug-o.

On the other hand, the Sino-Korean numerals are a good memorizing device for their compactness. I have memorized most of my number passcodes as Sino-Korean rhymes, and I've even decided finally to learn the cellphone number of my wife with the help of Sino-Korean numbers... (One doesn't learn to memorize telephone numbers anymore with the cellphones.)

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