“We don’t inhabit a country; we inhabit a language,” says a priest in “Confessions” by Catalan novelist Jaume Cabré. What does that mean? Catalonia, which is famous for FC Barcelona, is part of Spain but has different culture and language. The dictatorship of Francisco Franco, however, banned the use of the Catalan language and forced Catalans to use Castilian, punishing those who violate the ban. The Catalan language was what all Catalans had to depend on. This is the meaning of “We inhabit a language.” Catalans have failed to declare independence from Spain.
We, Koreans, have a similar past. To our ancestors, the Korean language was their country during the Japanese occupation. Therefore, preserving a language meant protecting a country. This is why our ancestors did their best to preserve the Korean language. Even when they wandered abroad, they carried Korean language Hangul, or their country. Like French philosopher Jacques Derrida said, mother tongue was a sort of “mobile home.”
Unfortunately, the Korean language is being destroyed. We habitually use English. Some even think using some words in English sounds stylish. Unsurprisingly, this has been the way we have been treating the Korean language. Created in the early 15th century, Hangul was called Eonmun, meaning vulgar characters, and Amgeul, meaning it was only for women. The yangban, who were of noble birth, insisted on using Chinese characters and thought in Chinese characters. They lived like that for 500 years. Now English has replaced the Chinese characters. We forget too easily about our history, where we lost our country and lived in our language. Think about the tragic history of Catalans, who are yet to be separated from Spain, inhabiting a language instead of a country. We need to think seriously about why Jaume Cabré writes novels in the Catalan language instead of Spanish. A mother tongue that comes out of one’s heart is a country. But that mother tongue is being destroyed, very seriously.