I Me Mine

Over breakfast today, thinking about what to write today, I noticed this article on the BBC website:

Why South Koreans Rarely Use the Word ‘Me’

Naturally intrigued, I had to read. In a nutshell, the author (an American English-language teacher in South Korea), is writing about the South Korean concept of uri. This is reflected in a tendency to use collective first-person plural pronouns and determiners (e.g. we, us, our) instead of first-person singular (I, me, my). This is apparently partly a result of the more collectivist culture in South Korea, often attributed to the influence of the teachings of Confucius.

Another possible reason for this is the fact that the Korean language was deliberately created in the 15th century. Until that point, Koreans had used Chinese characters, but King Sejong felt that the Chinese script was too complex to be used sufficiently by all people, and in 1443 therefore commissioned the invention of Hanguel, the Korean alphabet, to be a deliberately democratic, inclusive language.

Obviously there isn’t really an equivalent to this concept in English. Does this make English a selfish language? I don’t really think so. I like the  concept of uri, but most other languages are similar to English in using personal pronouns and determiners in a pretty straightforward way, so I don’t think there’s anything unusually selfish about any of them.

It would be interesting though to know if there’s a difference in frequency of I between American and British English. Considering that individualism was a key element of American identity from the country’s founding, we might expect to find I used more often in American English. I have compared the word’s frequency between the British- and American-English corpuses, and it’s actually the eleventh most-frequent word in American English, compared to tenth in British English. One place in difference isn’t highly significant though, and it’s interesting to see that English speakers seem fairly consistent in how we talk about ourselves.

In English in general though, I is very common, just making it into the top ten most-frequently used words. What’s interesting is how it compares to more collective words. We is 27th, one place behind they, suggesting we’re ever-so-slightly more likely to identify others as being part of a different group, than see ourselves as part of a group. Our is in 86th position, and us in 100th.

In contrast, my is 34th, and me 50th. So we do talk about ourselves as individuals more than as part of a group, but again, I don’t think that’s particularly surprising. No matter how considerate we are, we can’t help but see the world mainly from our own perspective. As long as we, our, and us remain in the top 100, I think we’re doing OK.

7 thoughts on “I Me Mine

  1. I read the article briefly a few days ago. I don’t recall that the author mentioned something else, which is the *omission* of I, me, my, mine. In Korean, it is acceptable to say “Computer is broken” when it’s clear that it’s ‘mine’.

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  2. There are two words for I, me, mine, etc. in Korean. One is used when speaking to a superior/elder, the other to a peer or subordinate. As you mentioned, this is Confucian in origin.

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  3. These are studies whose methods raise many questions,,, sometimes a text corpus is used, other times a pile of spoken language, and well, there may not be much rigor involved. Still, can be fun to compare. I looked up quickly the fave 100 lists for a few languages I studied back in the day. Considering the equivalent of English ‘I’, we get the following:

    Russian – ranked #4 (я)
    German – ranked #8 (ich)
    English – ranked #10 (I)
    French – ranked #22 (je)

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    • I’m surprised it’s so low in French, but then so are so many pecularities to each language that any results from a corpus have to be taken with a pinch of salt. I’m sure “io” is comparatively infrequent in Italian, for example, because you can skip subject pronouns, as the verb form is different for each person, and that alone can tell you who’s speaking.

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      • I agree, plus the corpus could be arbitrary. What seems more telling to me are the relative numbers of verbs, adverbs, nouns, pronouns, prepositions, etc within each langauge’s top 100 — that could be interesting to think about.

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