Query: Origin of Hangul
I'm told that there's a bit of an election going on about right now, but people might need a break, so here's a relaxing post on Korean linguistics.
I'm no expert on Korean -- and not much of a linguist generally -- but I have a question about the origin of the Korean alphabet. I recall that when I first came to Korea, many Korean students very proudly informed me that the Korean alphabet, or Hangul, is the "most scientific" alphabet in the world because it can perfectly express any language in the world and that it was invented by King Sejong in 1446 without reliance upon any other alphabet in the world, which meant that it was "perfectly unique."
I knew from my own experience with English words spelled in Hangul that the Korean alphabet cannot express English sounds perfectly, so I dismissed that particular claim as mere exaggeration by my Korean students.
However, I knew nothing about the origin of Hangul, so I checked with my wife about this reputed uniqueness, and she initially agreed but later checked into the issue and discovered that scholars dispute the point (as scholars are wont to do) and that some connection to a Mongolian alphabet had been proposed.
So on a recent post, when a commenter asked about the origin of Hangul, I noted that "there's a lot of dispute about the origins of the Korean alphabet, and I know too little about this vexed issue to risk broaching it."
As it turns out, I had to do more than broach the issue, for a Korean student then posted a comment inquiring what the dispute is:
Hangeul doesn't look like any other alphabets in the world . . . and that's why I referred to its uniquness -- being unique in its shape. I thought you said it is disputed because some people say Hangeul came from, or branched from some other alphabets. I know you mentioned that you know little about the issue, but I'd like to ask you in what way it is being disputed.I responded by noting two explanations given in a 15th-century scholarly commentary, Hunmin-jeong-eum Haerye, concerning King Sejong's 1446 announcement of the invention of Hangul:
As for the dispute, you need to understand -- first of all -- that scholars dispute nearly everything. That's what scholars do, among other things -- they question received wisdom and analyze discrepancies.Being that I'm neither a Korean expert nor even a linguist, that's the extent of my knowledge, and I merely note the fact of a dispute among scholars. However, I am interested in this disputed point, so if Charles La Shure or some other expert on Korean would care to comment, I would be grateful, and I am sure that the some readers of this blog would also be interested in learning more.
In the case of Hangeul, here's the dispute. The Hunmin-jeong-eum Haerye states that the consonantal letters were designed the positions of the tongue or shapes of the mouth, depending upon the particular consonants, but it also states that the consonants were adapted them from the "Gu Seal Script". These two statements are not easy to reconcile (though I don't assert that reconciliation is impossible), and one important scholar has argued for a link to the Mongolian alphabet.
To find an easy introduction to this issue, see the . . . Wikipedia site on Gari Keith Ledyard.
I realize that Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, but it is a useful resource for getting into a subject. Please understand that I am taking no position in this dispute, but merely noting that a dispute does exist, which was my original point.
Now, back to the US presidential election, which is already in progress.