What’s in a name? 할망 vs. 할머니

A popular adage describes how the unique dialect spoken on Jeju Island evolved so that fishermen could call out to each other over the wind and waves and be still be heard, and if you were to hear a native speaker you would believe it.  The language of Jeju is an exuberant, nasal, phonologically reductive tongue, like an improvised jazz riff on standard Korean.
 

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In true islander fashion, it also does away with much of the stuffy hierarchy and overbearing politeness which is baked into the very structure of the language spoken in Seoul. For example, in Jeju the Korean greeting of 안녕하세요 (annyeong-haseyo) — an onion-layered construction of respect and honorifics — is rendered simply as 반갑수다 (bangapsuda), which translates roughly as ‘howdy’. This casual manner of speaking reflects the relatively egalitarian nature of traditional Jeju society.Jeju clothing studies.

 
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But this isn’t to say terms of respect are unknown on Jeju. They are simply expressed differently. The ‘Halmang’ in Seolmundae Halmang is the Jeju word for ‘grandmother’ (할머니). But it is also a way of signifying Seolmundae’s status as a goddess and progenitor. In the informal paradigm of the Jeju language, ‘Halmang’ is the closest thing there is to a title of respect. But many artists interpret her title in only the literal sense, and end up with a rendition of an wrinkly old crone.
 
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So, Seolmundae ‘Grandmother’ is not necessarily an old lady. But she’s not necessarily NOT an old woman either. From tale to tale, her visage changes with her personality. She is depicted variously as a nurturing mother, a fertility symbol, a fickle giant and as a wise old lady.
 
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In designing the character of Seolmundae Halmang, I spent a long time bouncing back-and-forth between the ‘young’ and ‘old’ Seolmundae. Looking at other artists’ renditions, old Seolmundae always seemed a bumbling old crone, while young Seolmundae lacked presence and just faded into the backround with the frailty of a Confucian maiden.
 
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I collected as much artwork and writing of Seolmundae (and Jeju myths in general) as possible, from children’s storybooks, to textbook illustrations, to the shamanist paintings of Naewatdang. I even tried emulating my favorite Korean cartoonists:
 

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I even tried my hand at some 박광수.

Eventually it grew clear that, as a caracature, the qualities of seolmundae that were important to me — the flavour that had first inspired me to tackle the story — were the ones that were best manifested in the old lady Seolmundae: strength, stubbornness, wisdom, permanence, generosity, fickleness and her role as the penultimate matriarch of Jeju.

 

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Bottom right corner: finally nailed it!

Once I realized that I ought to be drawing a personality, not a ‘character’, everything started to fall into place. 

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