Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Hangul, the Korean Alphabet

Fig.1: Korea's two biggest contributions to culture. You 
decide which one is more important.
Many nations take a lot of pride in some of their own innovations. Canada loves their sport of ice hockey, and lately have been unwilling to share their gold metals with anyone else. Argentina lives to make people feel uncoordinated and uncomfortable with their tango dancing. Even India celebrates their invention of the number zero during the Gupta period by having nine of them when their population is rounded down. But perhaps one of the most interesting and original creations from any culture occurred in Korea in the 15th century: Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Unlike many other writing systems that were either developed over a long period of time or largely adapted from another, Hangul was specifically designed to match the Korean language. The alphabet has become so revered in the peninsula that its creator is considered a legendary hero, a national holiday commemorates its implementation, and its use is one of the few things that North and South Korea agree about. That alone makes Hangul worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize!

Prior to the 15th century, Korea relied on the Chinese writing system to express their language on paper. After all, Korea had already borrowed Confucianism, Buddhism, as well as most of the Game of Thrones DVDs from their westward neighbor, so it was only fitting for them to snag China's 2,000-year-old logograms as well. The adaptation of Chinese characters for the Korean language is known as hanja. Unfortunately it's not exactly a seamless fit: the hanja didn't match the Korean pronunciation of certain words, and looked almost as silly as Chinglish does to us (almost, since nothing is as silly as this). In addition, Chinese retained its status as one of the hardest writing systems to pick up even back then; the fact that each character had to be memorized to its corresponding word meant that only the best and the brightest (aka: only people rich enough to afford a decent education) could learn how to read and write. The majority of the population in Korea had no idea how to decipher all the lines and squiggles that was supposed to signify their language, and therefore even subtitles wouldn't have helped them figure out whatever Sofia Vergara is saying.

Fig.2: King Sejong, memorialized by reading the
Hangul version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas"
to all the children of Korea.
A solution to this issue was proposed by King Sejong (r. 1418-1450), fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty that thankfully cleaned up the mess that was the Three Kingdoms period. Sejong was already a popular guy after he defeated some annoying Japanese pirates who tried to shiver his timbers (whatever that means) in 1419, but he believed that the majority of the population being illiterate was an even bigger issue. So he got to work on creating a new writing system that better reflected the Korean language, and would make it easier for everyone to read. In other words, he got his scholarly lackeys, known as the Hall of Worthies, to make the alphabet, while he would historically take all the credit for it (it's good to be the king). In 1446, the rules for the brand new alphabet was published in the Hunminjeongeum (translated as "The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People"). Hunminjeongeum was also designed to be the name of the alphabet as well, at least until they realized they didn't make enough letters to spell that word. Sejong considered the new writing system as his most worthwhile achievement as king, and legend states that he nearly went blind making sure every letter was perfect (though I'm sure the excessive drinking most rulers did during this time didn't help).

So what makes Hangul as easy to pick up and use as a set of Ginsu knives? Originally it was comprised of twenty-eight letters, though it was eventually reduced to twenty-four after a few were kicked off the team for juicing. Instead of writing each letter in a straight line, they are grouped by syllable and written within a square, with the order of pronunciation going from left to right and up and down. For example, compare the figure below on the left, which is "Hangul" written in Hangul, with the figure on the right, which highlights the different letters it contains in vibrant, eye-catching colors. To make it easier, the shape of the letter mimics the shape that a mouth or tongue makes when making the sound. So for "Hangul":

H: You curl your upper lip and open your mouth. It also helps to have a mustache.
A: You widen your mouth, and stick your tongue out the side.
N: You curl your tongue to the front of your mouth, like a tongue sit-up!
G: You tighten your mouth and let a little bit of drool to peak out.
U: Like a "ew" sound, which should have been your response to the drooling thing.
L: You curl your tongue so much that it does the worm. Your tongue is so fit!

Just by mimicking what the letters are doing with your mouth, you would be able to read Korean (though knowing what the gibberish means is another matter entirely). Thus, Hangul was extremely effective in helping the common people learn to read and write their language. In fact, in a manual for Hangul written by Sejong's scholars published soon after the Hunminjeongeum, it is said that, "A wise man can acquaint himself with [Hangul letters] before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days." Obviously, the era of political correctness did not dawn during the reign of Sejong of Joseon.

Of course, whenever a new innovation comes along that makes life easier for people, a bunch of jerks come out and try to stir up opposition to it. In this case, the Confucianists who retained much control and influence over the royal court saw Hangul as a step backward for Korean civilization. The fact that even a stupid man could learn the letters quickly and easily only meant that it was too simplistic, and could very well undermine the entire system of education in the land. They saw hanja as the only legitimate writing system, especially since it was derived from the language used by Confucius himself when he was berating people for not honoring their parents enough. In reality, these scholars feared that if most of the population could read and write, those mouth-breathing commoners could eventually take their jobs! Social mobility! How dreadful!

Fig.3: Unfortunately by the 1600s, "Oh my
god, Tae-hyun is soooo cute!" was the most
oft-repeated phrase written in Hangul.
So after Sejong's death, Hangul's use declined within official and academic circles. It was actually banned for a time in 1504 by King Yeonsangun (Sejong's great-great-grandson) after his subjects mocked him with posters, written in Hangul, about how he kidnapped women for his brothel and tore down residential districts for his own personal hunting ground (even though those things were true, he didn't appreciate the people's ability to write about it). For several centuries, the only use for Hangul was for literary works meant to appeal to the average Joe and Jane (or Jong-seok and Jae-kyung, if you will). Poetry such as gasa (which was often sung) and sijo (which was often told over bongos) used the script to appeal to wider audiences, as well as novels written for children and adults. Ladies often used Hangul to compose their letters and diaries (fig.3); as such, it was often derided by haughty men as "women's script," though their wives would often remind them that they could make fun of their system of writing as much as they wanted if they would only wash their dishes every once in a while.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the perception of Hangul finally began to change. A growing sense of nationalism in Korea convinced many people that they should not be using a foreign script like hanja to convey words in their own language, causing Hangul-using hipsters to proclaim that they believed that before everyone else did. Starting in 1894, all official documents from the government were printed in Hangul, all textbooks and lessons in school were to use the alphabet, and episodes of Sesame Street would be brought to you by letters such as ㅈ or ㅎ. The Korean Language Society, founded in 1908 by renowned linguist Ju Si-gyeong, helped to standardize the script and gave it the shorter, two-syllable name it thankfully has today. Of course, just when it looked like Hangul was finally enthroned at the adult table, in come the Japanese to kick it back to sit with the kiddies. After Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910, they tolerated Hangul as a way to make sure all citizens could read the decrees of their overlords, but eventually banned it (alongside the Korean language) once they realized smacking people around did the job just as well. Korea was liberated in 1945 after Japan literally blew it during World War II (too soon?), allowing Hangul to stage yet another comeback.

Fig.4: Though most North Koreans can
read, maybe they would be better off 
illiterate than having to believe this crap.
Despite the postwar division between North Korea and South Korea, both have reinstated Hangul as the official writing system for their nations, though the North calls it "Chosŏn'gŭl" just to be difficult. As Sejong intended centuries beforehand, the literacy rate of both nations have skyrocketed due to the ease in which Hangul can be learned; Korean children typically become fluent in writing by age six, while American children can barely color a firetruck at that point. For his contributions, Sejong is just one of two Korean leaders to be called "the Great," unlike Russia who call all their rulers that (except for the Terrible ones). In addition, both Koreas observe a national work-free holiday dedicated to their alphabet called Hangul Day, celebrated on October 9 in South Korea for the publication date of the Hunminjeongeum, and January 15 in North Korea for they day the alphabet was created (at least according to their Supreme Leader, knowledgeable in all the things). No other nations celebrate their writing systems like the two Koreas, though let's not give the U.S. post office another day to not deliver my mail.

It may seem silly, but Hangul could very well be the most important invention ever produced in Korea (and they were the ones who brought us the exploding phone). The ability to convert a spoken language into a hand-made, brand-new, easy-to-use, just-pay-shipping-and-handling writing system is an accomplishment that has practically no equal in world history. Other ethnic groups are beginning to take notice: in 2009, when the Cia-Cia in Indonesia where looking to adopt an alphabet to preserve their unique language, they turned to Hangul since their mouth-mimicking symbols were easier to learn than those stupid Latin letters (I'm sorry, but it's always a problem when some P's are silent,  some X's sounds like Z's, and Y can't make up its mind about what kind of letter it wants to be). In addition, an organization called the King Sejong Institute has established schools and programs to promote Hangul, as well as Korean culture, around the world (though I doubt King Sejong himself envisioned the horror that is K-Pop). It has also been argued that Hangul is simpler to use in computer programming, partially explaining South Korea's huge share in the modern world's technology industry, as well as North Korea's ability to keep the modern world's technology a secret to everybody who lives there.

As a symbol of national identity, it might be difficult to compare Hangul to others around the world. Sure, it's easy to think of France and the Eiffel Tower, Cambodia and Angkor Wat, or Mexico with an eagle eating a snake on a cactus (it's true). However, I argue that Hangul is considerably more useful than all those silly things put together, as it actually makes a impact on the everyday lives of the people. Unless the Washington Monument can be used as a giant pencil to help children learn their own language, Korea should be pretty darn proud of their national symbol. As they say in Korea: 우리를 중국이나 일본과 혼동하지 마십시오.

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