What will you drink? Spirits or hard liquor?
In the food section of an upmarket department store in Seoul recently, I came across something which caught my interest. While noticing signs on the wall for ``fine wines’’ and ``cognac,’’ I came across a sign for ``hard liquor.’’
In department stores and supermarkets in the U.S. and U.K. (and perhaps other English-speaking countries), we might expect to see a sign for ``spirits’’ or just ``liquor’’ instead. Semantically, (hard) liquor and spirits refer to the same thing: alcoholic beverages that are distilled, rather than fermented.
However, the use of these words is part of a pragmatic issue, dealing with how language is used in a variety of communicative situations. Ideally, we want words to be used at the right time, in the right place and in the right way. Such competence in language is generally instinctive to a native speaker (regardless of the language) or a non-native speaker who has developed native competence over time.
The issue here is that hard liquor arguably conjures up images of something that, worst case, a drunk on skid row might imbibe or at least a drink used by those who want to get drunk fast. The term spirits, or just liquor, is more neutral. Of course, I’m not suggesting that use of the term hard liquor is tied to such narrow and negative contexts. Indeed, we might sometimes be asked at parties by close friends if we want a shot of hard liquor; in this case, the term is being used playfully. This is another example of a contextual factor which determines the appropriate use of language. However, in the context of a formal setting such as a well to do department store, hard liquor could conjure up the wrong idea. By removing the adjective ``hard’’ or using the term spirits instead, we can help to create a use of language perhaps more suitable to the setting in which it is being used.
My purpose is not to criticize Koreans’ use of English. Pragmatic errors ― which are broadly related to style within a given language ― can be hard to teach. We can’t necessarily teach natural uses of language in the same way, for example, that we can teach grammar. Often, knowing which word(s) to use in a given communicative situation is tied to cultural knowledge regarding the language being used.
A clear example was seen in the recent ad (in English) for Korean Air’s flights to Nairobi, in which Kenyans were described as having ``primitive energy.’’ Further, it is not being suggested that native speakers of English, who make up a minority in Korea, need be further catered for with regard to the myriad uses of English in Korea; such a suggestion would indeed be arrogant. Instead, rather than sound overly prescriptive, my purpose was to discuss an authentic use of language using an example plucked from the real world.
Alex Baratta Professor, Ph.D.
Language, Literacy and Communication School of Education, the University of Manchester