[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]How long will 'hangeul' be around?

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]How long will 'hangeul' be around?

Sometime eons hence when archaeologists go digging about in the rubbish heaps of the 20th century in hopes of finding out what we were like, they'll discover lots of well-preserved plastic food packaging, cosmetic containers, boom-box carcasses and on and on -- an unending list of revealing artifacts of a century that threw away more stuff than all the previous ones combined. Just seeing what sorts of things we regarded as trash will tell those archaeologists a lot about our cultures and peoples. But what in particular will the diggings on the Korean Peninsula reveal about Korean culture?

If someone found my old combination radio/double-deck cassette tape recorder and that was the only piece of evidence available to him, he would see from the words "Made in Korea" embossed on the back that it was indeed a local product, but examining the entire case carefully, he would come to the conclusion that the language used in 20th-century Korea was English ?not a word of Korean appears on the case anywhere.

If he was lucky enough to dig in exactly the right place, he would find my video cassette recorder buried nearby, and he would probably pat himself on the back for his original conclusion as he noted that it too was covered with English. "But wait! What's this little metal plaque stuck on one corner in the back?" he'd shout when his fingers happened to slide across the tiny raised letters.

"Hmmm. Strange little blocklike characters . . ." That's when he'd realize that Korea had had another, apparently secondary, language written with an entirely different alphabet from the Latin one so commonly found all over the globe.

As he dug up more and more articles and arranged them in order from high-end electronic goods down to torn-open instant-noodle bags, a pattern would reveal itself: Here we have a society in which two entirely different languages and writing systems were used, their respective predominance depending in many cases on the value of the product they were on.

The direct correlation with product price breaks down in the case of clothing, footwear and school supplies. In these cases, even the cheap stuff is covered with what appears to be English. A closer examination, however, shows that the inscriptions on these items make little or no sense when read as ordinary English, so scientists finally throw up their hands in despair of ever coming up with acceptable interpretations and announce that such inscriptions "probably have some religious significance which we are unable to determine at this time."

The containers that had held cosmetics and personal hygiene products, having about equal amounts of both kinds of writing usually saying the same thing, would serve as a Rosetta stone to decipher the Korean language. English would have already been figured out from the quadrillions of tons of other trash found in North America.

It would be obvious to our archaeologist that English was the predominant language: although he would find quite a number of Korean artifacts that bore no Korean whatsoever, even such trivial items as gum wrappers would have at least a phrase of English on them somewhere -- and he'd quickly figure out that even those product names and promotional blurbs that were written in the Korean script were actually just transliterations of English words or imitations of English and other non-Korean languages.

Perhaps after decades of piecing the puzzle together, our future archaeologist and his colleagues would finally figure out the real story: Korean had been the main language of the peninsula, after all, not English. A king named Sejong, together with many of the best scholars of his time, had invented an excellent script for Korean in the 15th century on the basis of their own brilliant phonological analysis of the language. Still, this invaluable cultural achievement had not come into wide use until more than four and a half centuries later.

Then, sometime in the mid-20th century the Korean mind had taken on a peculiar twist. Consumers were no longer interested in buying a product unless it had a foreign-sounding name and Latin letters written all over it.

Cinema importers found that their box-office sales slumped if they translated a movie title into Korean -- if the original title was too troublesome for Koreans to pronounce or understand, they'd just make up a pseudo-English title of their own to draw bigger audiences.

This little scenario about the perceived lack of marketability of the Korean language and script might provide a little food for thought as we commemorate Wednesday the 556th Hangeul Day, the greatest cultural achievement of the Joseon Dynasty and perhaps the most important day in Korean history.


writer -----------------------------------------------------------------------

The writer is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.


His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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