Linguistic Differences & Connotations

For my latest writing exercise on the pantoum / villanelle, I wrote a piece called “I’m sorry”, around the recent passing of my grandfather and how over the course of the last few days (since the 11th), certain phrases in different languages are not only not interchangeable, but impossible to use across the same context.

In English or I suppose Western societies, saying “I’m sorry” conveys empathy and sympathy. At a funeral, or in the context of loss, you are saying that you are there for company, consolation. When my grandfather passed away, I was at a loss for words – not because I was not sure what to say, but when I automatically went to say “I’m sorry” to my parents, it made no sense in Korean. I could instantly hear their reply in Korean, in genuine confusion as they would ask me what I am sorry for or why I am apologising. Instead, I asked how their flight was and attempted to distract my mother from the loss of her father.

I think this shows the priorities in a culture/language, that in English we instantly attempt to show empathy whereas in Korean or other languages, we focus on the present and future, consoling and attempting to live for those still present.

Here is my poem;

“I’m sorry”


I woke up to a text,

last Wednesday.

It was 4 am,

and the one before said

“Grandpa is sick”, – Sis


the one that woke me,

was at 5 –

“He didn’t make to the hospital” – Sis


I woke up to a text,

last Wednesday.


how do you comfort?

console the ones who raised you,

about the loss of their parent?


“I’m sorry”

doesn’t carry the same weight

in Korean,


I woke up to a text,

last Wednesday.


what words could there possibly be?

to a grandmother you talk to once a year

and see even less,


to your parents thousands of miles away,

as I stutter away in awkward Korean,

wishing “I’m sorry”

carried the same weight in Korean,

as it did in English.


I woke up to a text,

last Wednesday.

One Reply to “Linguistic Differences & Connotations”

  1. Dongwon,

    My condolences for your loss, especially experienced with the disorientation of distance and time zones. I’m treating this poem as more autobiographical than I normally would, because of the way you’re framing it, but my overall comment is the same as it would have been without that: this is an effective fracture/reworking of the villanelle, and I hope you’ll continue working at it and revising it towards a workshop submission. The first half is stronger than the second, and I think it would benefit from bringing the awkwardness of language more into the poem: “How do you comfort?” is grammatically fine but feels odd, and that sort of thing could help; could you introduce some Korean equivalents, or even Hangul? Rather than repeating the “same weight” lines, I think this is a place where we need to see distance.

    That said, this is a really promising way of beginning, and a meaningful meditation on grief, separation, and language. Thank you for posting.


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