[Viewpoint] Hats off to Hangul

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[Viewpoint] Hats off to Hangul

“At McDonald’s, Vance chooses a fork, though Zack prefers a spoon.” It’s not the most elegant sentence I have ever written, but it serves a purpose. Every year on Hangul Day, I wrote that sentence on the blackboard for my students and asked them to transliterate it into the Hangul alphabet - not translate into Korean, but write the English words in Hangul.

Then I would pronounce the Hangul back to them: “Etu MakuDonardo Bencu jujej ah poke-u, doe Jeku pu-reepawju ah su-poon.” My students laughed. It didn’t sound much like English, yet my recitation pretty accurately captured the sounds conveyed by the Korean letters.

Why did I pull this little stunt? Oh, to have a little fun with Korean cultural chauvinism. Every year on Hangul Day, the commemoration of the Korean alphabet, op-ed pages bloom with boastful encomia to the superiority of Hangul.

So far, so good. It really is a great alphabet, easily learned and (within rules) strictly phonetic. If my Korean pronunciation sounds a little funny, it’s my mouth’s fault, not because I can’t read the words and know how they should sound.

But Hangul was designed for Korean, not for other languages. So when I read the claim, printed on this page a few Hangul Days ago, that Hangul can reproduce every sound the human voice is capable of articulating, 8,840 in all, I gaped in baffled amusement.

If only Hangul could manage, say, 8,845 sounds, Koreans might be able to pronounce z, f, v, th and the “a” sound of “at,” “Zack” and “Vance.” Also, Hangul can’t handle double consonants, which are common in many languages, so it has to interpose a short vowel between them or after the second one.

One strains to imagine what Hangul might do with the “click” sounds of some African languages. Dare one say perhaps Hangul is not the ideal alphabet for all languages?

That doesn’t stop patriotic Korean linguists from trying. The Hunmin Jeongeum Society, founded in 2007, tries to spread Hangul to minority language communities lacking a written language, or whose orthography is for one reason or another unsatisfactory.

“Hunmin jeongeum,” literally “the correct sounds for the instruction of the people,” was the original name for the Korean alphabet. It has had other names, mostly disparagements flung by scholars who preferred Chinese characters and disdained educating the masses: Eonmun (vernacular script), bangeul (indecent script) and amkeul (script for slow females). But educating the masses, or at least broadening literacy beyond the scholarly ranks, was what King Sejong had in mind when he proclaimed the adoption of Hangul in 1446.

“The sounds of our country’s language are different from those of China and do not correspond to the sounds of Chinese characters,” he declared. “Therefore, among the stupid people, there have been many who, having something to put into writing, have in the end been unable to express their feelings. I have been distressed by this and have designed 28 new letters, which I wish to have everyone practice at their ease and make convenient for their daily use.”

“The stupid people,” eh? Well, if you’re a king you get to condescend, no? Koreans celebrate Hangul Day every Oct. 9, the supposed date of King Sejong’s proclamation. Not all Koreans, of course. In the North, Hangul Day is Jan. 15, the supposed date of the script’s actual creation. Each side insists that its Hangul Day is more authentic than the other’s.

For his alphabet, Sejong certainly deserves a statue in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, though perhaps not as over-scale as the 20-foot bronze gargantua around which lovers of Hangul will celebrate this weekend. For its part the Hunmin Jeongum Society will mark Hangul Day with a conference this weekend that will present scholarly research into Hangul and examinations of various writing systems used in the world.

It will propose a Hangul-based writing system for the Aymara language, spoken by more than two million South American natives in the region around Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. Not that Aymara lacks a writing system: It uses Roman script, but with a number of diacritical marks - umlauts, apostrophes, tildes - to guide pronunciation.

The society is also studying languages in Mongolia, China and Thailand as candidates for the blessings of Hangul. Granting a modern alphabet to a minority-language group is not always a benevolent act. Azerbaijan, a tiny, ancient Muslim country in the Caucasus, Persian in culture, Turkish in language, underwent three script shifts in the 20th century.

For 1,300 years the Azeri language was written in Arabic even after its incorporation into the Russian Empire. Then came the modernizers of the Soviet Union. In 1929 they decreed that Azeri should be written in the Roman alphabet. In 1939, the same Soviet modernizers decreed that Azeris should write their language in Cyrillic letters. It made sense. The Soviet Union was a multinational empire, and a common alphabet would further the integration of its constituent peoples.

In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and the next year liberated Azerbaijan went back to a Roman alphabet. Obviously, the Hunmin Jeongam Society has no such imperialist designs on the small Indonesian island of Buton, where it has scored its greatest success to date.

There, 80,000 tribesmen speak the Cia-Cia tongue. Since 2009, Hangul textbooks published by the society have been distributed in local schools. Hangul for Cia-Cia speakers invents a character that both English and Cia-Cia use, but that Korean does not. Maybe one day Vance’s fork will come out pronounceable in my students’ Hangul writing.

*The writer is a former chief editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

By Harold Piper
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