by Tom Thompson
I never expected to study Korean, but two years ago an unexpected trip with my boss to Seoul and Busan resulted in the Korean language becoming an ongoing passion for me. As a spoken language, Korean belongs to the Altaic family; within this family Korean is related to the Tungusic languages such as Manchu, more distantly to Mongolian, and more distantly to Turkish.
It was natural that at first it was the spoken language that interested to me, in part because of the immediate need to communicate while traveling. But since my trip to South Korea, I have extended the visit with a linguistic blessing of chance encounters, acquaintances, and even friends, all in the Washington,Dc area, where I live.
Those experiences now have led me to delve into the writen language, Hangul (한글), the country’s native writing system with one of the youngest alphabets in the world. Linguist Geoffrey Sampson’s evaluation of Hangul is that “ it’s one of the great intellectual achievements of mankind.”
Some history. Before the 15th century Koreans had no writing system of their own. The educated elite wrote in “hanja,” the Korean name for Chinese characters borrowed from Chinese and incorporated into the Korean language with Korean pronunciation. King Seycong, who ruled Korea in the mid 15th century, is traditionally credited with the creation of Hangul. Hangul was not a protracted and discrete adaptation of a borrowed system of writing, but rather a deliberate linguistically-sound invention.
Hangul is considered to contain twenty eight “letters” in its original form; four of the twenty-eight are now obsolete. But unlike the letters of the Roman alphabet, those of Hangul have a systematic internal structure correlated with the phonetic-feature composition of the Korean language phonemes. Diacritics are used systematically to provide those phonemes not represented by letters.
The key to understanding Hangul is the combination of the twenty-letters, both consonants and vowels. Knowing from memory those possible combinations, and their respective pronunciation, is what permits the process of literally visualizing the sounds of the language in written form. A look at those vowels and combinations is illumniating.
The consonant and vowel combination chart here, provided thanks to SpeakOutKorean.com, shows as a kind of syllabary the way of Hangul combinations. Hangul symbols are written grouped into syllables, and a syllable-sized grouping of Hangul symbols looks somewhat like a Chinese character.The practical result can be seen as distinct “block expressions” for the syllables of individual Korean words. All of this, for me, offers a strategy to attack and penetrate and I hope someday, master the written language.
“The rule for assembling Hangul phoneme-symbols,” writes Geoffrey Sampson, is as follows. If the vowel of the syllable is based on a vertical line, place the preceding consonant to its left, and if the vowel is based on a horizontal line place the preceding consonant above it; in either case place a following consonant, if any, below the middle of the resulting group. “This produces the syllabic groupings which are squarish, like written Chinese, rather than unduly strung out on the horizontal or vertical dimensions. Korean is written mainly left-to-right in horizontal rows.
Hangul met fierce resistance from scholars and priests, the literati of traditional Korea. Even when Hangul was used by the literati, Chinese word loans were still written with hanja. So Hangul was at first not a replacement for Chinese writing in Korea; it became a supplement.
It’s interesting that, Chinese being preferred, Korean had not often been used as a written language until the 1880s. It was revived under Japanese influence in the late 19th century as a means of weakening the Chinese hold on the peninsula –only to be banned again in favor of the Japanese language. In 1938 it was forbidden to teach Korean language in any Korean school.
After the defeat of Japan in World War Two, South Korea has had a language policy with some fluctuation, sometimes advocating a Hangul-only approach and another of mixing Chinese characters for some words. But it’s just a matter of time until the country turns to the exclusive use of Hangul, along with an inevitable mix of European word loans. There’s a fascinating theory that advances in computing may have been boosted by the ease with which Hangul can be entered on to keyboards, for laptops, for PCs, and phones as well.
Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, DC.