[Viewpoint] Protecting culture, not stroking egos

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[Viewpoint] Protecting culture, not stroking egos

Indonesia has never felt so close, largely because a small tribe in that country now shares part of our core cultural heritage - the Korean alphabet.

The Hunminjeongeum Society, devoted to the study and spread of Hangul, has been anxiously watching the media coverage of our venture with the Cia-Cia, a minority of 60,000 in Bau-Bau City, South East Sulawesi Province, to help transcribe their spoken language and teach writing in the Korean alphabet.

Our mission is by no means aimed to “export or globalize” Hangul or the Korean language. First of all, I would like to draw a clear line between Hangul and the Korean language. Hangul is a means to contain a spoken language. The Cia-Cia tribe will be using the alphabet to propagate and conserve their spoken language, which is on the verge of extinction due to a lack of a mean to write it down. It is a part of a global project led by many linguists to help preserve the indigenous languages of aboriginal communities. So the campaign should be seen in a broader perspective, as part of efforts to conserve the diversity of language and culture, rather than as the simple proliferation of Hangul.

We should also banish the thought that Hangul can be used to express all words. We must overcome and do away with the egocentric belief that our alphabet is all-inclusive.

The organization also has another, happier concern. Koreans, with a long tradition of helping one another, are sending in various gifts and donations to help our new Cia-Cia friends. Some offer computers and other supplies for schools while others suggest human resources to help out our venture on the island. Our association, an academic and research institute, is unfamiliar with such gushes of attention. We will undoubtedly have to relay our people’s warmth and hospitality to the Cia-Cia. We will systemize channels here as well as in Indonesia to guarantee fair and efficient distribution of the donations.

What we worry about most is the potential envy and suspicion other tribes may harbor in response to the attention the Cia-Cia tribe is getting, which might undermine the Indonesian government’s efforts to integrate its people as well as our work there.

Such a consequence would prove costly for the Indonesian government and Bau-Bau, which accepted our alphabet. We would be thankful for more lasting, sincere and subtle support.

*The writer is a linguistics professor at Seoul National University and chairs the Hunmin-jeongeum Society.

by Kim Ju-won

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