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In Session: Music, Language, and the Politics of Sound
"Multi-Persona" Nation: Performing the Southeastern Dialect in New Millennium South Korea
Friday, March 26, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Goeun L. Minshall
The Graduate Center, CUNY, United States
In recent years, regional dialects (sat'uri) in South Korea have been revived through film, television and music performance. In a reversal of decades-long discriminatory practice against Korea’s non-standard speech forms, we are seeing the transformation of dialect, from regional index and symbol of periphery and provincial past, to a culturally powerful, nationally evocative nexus for Korea’s contemporary engagement with indigenous multiculturalism. Alongside the media’s educational and entertaining “sa’turi obsession,” Korean scholarship and municipal/regional entities have accelerated efforts to preserve regional ways of speaking, seen as a link to Korea’s past. In this paper, I examine the dialect-speaking voice in South Korea as a “phonosonic nexus” (Harkness 2014) which, in a period defined by global orientation and neoliberal fatigue, appeals to the nationally discerning ear. Positing the regional dialect as South Korea's authentic and subaltern voice, I follow the "measurable and symbolic dimensions" (Eidsheim 2019) of the southeastern Kyŏngsang dialect, focusing on tonality as its quitessential phonological feature. Drawing from scholarship on the voice, kugak, Korean sonic historiography and “local color” in late-colonial Korean literature, I illustrate tonal language as an excessive, off-kilter and deviant aesthetic in Korea’s otherwise modern sound universe. Examination of the repertoire of aesthetic particularities, I argue, seen as icons of Korean identity and sensibility, qualifies the sonicity of the southeastern dialect as a “traditional” Korean sound. Is the dialect's proliferation in Korean society part of hallyu activism in the classical sense, paralleling folk culture’s interpellation into meaningful contemporary expression? I argue that sa’turi is a performance of difference, geared toward a national intelligibility, a divergent response to Korea’s export-oriented cultural logic of global and visual sensibilities.