Monday, December 19, 2011

"Korean is the world's most superior language"

Professor Sohn Ho-min
University of Hawaii
Photo by Lee Sang-sub

Astounding news from respected University of Hawaii professor of linguistics Sohn Ho-min:
"When we say Korean is superior, we are basing this on scientific examination. The Korean language's method of making sound through a combination of vowels and consonants is very scientific and economical, even."

And we can believe it because in this Korea Herald article, "Korean language scientifically superior," the reporter, Shin Hae-in, assures us that:
"As a scholar who has spent the past four decades studying his mother-tongue and language in general, professor Sohn Ho-min should know what he's talking about when he says Korean is the world's most superior language."

Unfortunately, the article never explains in what way the "combination of vowels and consonants" in Korean is "scientifically superior" because the term "scientific" remains undefined, unless this has some connection to "economical," but that term seems to be a separate adjective, intended to describe the language, not to define "scientific."

Moreover, I have to wonder if this reporter has really understood Professor Sohn Ho-min. Perhaps the good professor actually is a linguistic chauvinist, but a close reading of the entire article does not turn up an exact quote with Sohn claiming that "Korean is the world's most superior language." The reporter supposedly paraphrases Sohn as saying this, but no quote is provided.

I presume that Sohn was speaking in Korean, and I suspect that Sohn was talking not about the Korean language (한국말, Hangungmal), but about the Korean alphabet (한글, Hangul), instead. In that case, the statement by Sohn would read:
"The Korean alphabet's method of making sound through a combination of vowels and consonants is very scientific and economical, even."

If Sohn said that and maintained merely that "When we say the Korean alphabet is superior, we are basing this on scientific examination," then his statement is more reasonable, for he's not speaking of a natural language but of an invented alphabet, and he does not directly state that the Korean alphabet is "the world's most superior" alphabet.

Sohn might, of course, actually mean that it is "the world's most superior" alphabet, and if so, then his statement is the problematic sort of nationalist claim that Koreans often make about Korea's writing system, i.e., Hangul, but offering only reasons that seem unconvincing to most non-Koreans.

But I'd need to know exactly what Sohn claimed.



At 12:18 PM, Blogger whitney said...

I think alot about language and I have concluded that the English language is superior. I have good reasons (I think) but I wonder if I am just being chauvinistic. Here are my reasons:

1. It is not tonal, so you can mispronounce words and its not a disaster.
2. It has an alphabet of 26 letters, not 5000 pictures or any of the other more difficult options.
3. It is relatively easy to learn,you can absolutely mangle it and still be understood, though it is difficult to master.
4. People all over the world use it to communicate so, and I believe that all these conversations have to do with 'which should be the one language', it already has a hand up.
5. It is enormously adaptable, it is still a creative language.

Spanish meets all these requirements, also. I still think English is superior to Spanish just because. That could be chauvinism.

What do you think?

At 12:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Spanish nouns have gender, an unnecessary complication, so English wins!

On the other hand, if we're talking about English spelling . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:48 PM, Blogger whitney said...

I am so glad you said that about the gender issue. English does win.

I'm a terrible speller so I am not much of a spelling stickler. I just read a book called The Information that, at one point, went into a history of the written English language. So many of the words we use have changed so much, we only say it one is correct because it is used contemporaneously.

I used spell check.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Spelling is always behind the curve of change . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Pidgin is almost certainly the easiest language in the world to learn.
Bahasa Indonesian is fairly easy.
And's that's just two that I actually know.
I'm sure there are many more.

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Right. There are undoubtedly many languages easier to learn than English.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:28 PM, Blogger whitney said...

I find the differences between 'the queens english' and american english fascinating. I am really glad that Noah Webster thought the US needed its own language and streamlined the spelling. It turned it into a more efficient language. And in addition to my other reasons for preferring English, I will add that I prefer American English for its efficiency in a spelling and nouns. I mean, we call a pull-over a pull-over because we pull it over our heads. Why do the English call it a jumper? There are a bunch of examples of this. Of course, no person can deny that the English are masters of slang and perhaps produce a more colorful language.

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, I doubt that people can reach any agreement on which languages are better and which worse.

Suppose somebody were to observe that English has a larger vocabulary than any other language and then used that as evidence for English superiority as a language.

A critic could reasonably ask why that is a criterion.

Does anybody actually know all those words? Does a language really need so many words? Don't the excessive number of words make English harder to learn? And so on . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:55 PM, Blogger whitney said...

Well, all those words is part of the difficulty of mastering English. So, us novices leave it to the likes of Christopher Hitchens to learn them all and then delight us with them.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Okay, I'll learn them all . . . starting tomorrow.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:19 PM, Blogger whitney said...

Oh good, but remember, you must learn and delight.

I had a flight connecting in Seoul once and I remember walking around that high tech airport thinking that the Korean language was one of the most interesting looking languages. I really liked looking at it but I can't find the right word to describe how much. Blast!

At 4:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Blast"? Don't use that word in an airport!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:01 PM, OpenID kuiwon said...

I wrote that Hangul from a scientific perspective is actually inefficient compared to Chinese, Hiragana & Katakana, and even the Roman alphabet: Against Hangul Supremacy and "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words".

No one language I think can be said to be "superior."

At 5:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I recall reading those. Thanks for the links.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to butt in, but I think Whitney is misunderstanding how some parts of Korean (Hangul) works.

Unlike Chinese, Korean does not use "characters", they use a system of 14 consonants and 10 vowels. You literally create the characters that form words, not just have a set amount of characters.

Also, on the topic of adaptability, Korean was formed by the study of the sounds that a human mouth can make, not the language it would be used for. So, in other words, you can use Korean characters to create English words, and it would sound pretty darn close when pronounced. In fact I heard that some African country out there is using Korean characters. Dunno which country.

One last thing, to Kuiwon, I have ABSOLUTELY no argument on which language is superior. However, the Chinese language contains around 50,000 characters, as opposed to Korean's 24 letters. I'm not so sure that Chinese is a good competitor here.

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Korean was formed by the study of the sounds that a human mouth can make, not the language it would be used for."

All of the sounds that a human mouth can make?

"So, in other words, you can use Korean characters to create English words, and it would sound pretty darn close when pronounced."

How would Hangul distinguish between "rush" and "lush" or "part" and "fart" or various other such pairs of words?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make a valid point. I never really thought about how it would distinguish rhyming words.

Still, I'm proud that I learned it as a second language, not Spanish like most people around my parts do.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I admire you for learning Korean, and I admit that Hangul is something special.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:27 AM, Blogger bontakun said...

1. Korean is not tonal. Only tonal language I know is Chinese.
2. They're called characters, not pictures. But either way..korean combines "alphabets" or "characters" to create words just like english. Only difference is in Korean these characters come together to create a letter and letters to a word.
3. This is your opinion
4. There are plenty of places in the world where English is not understood. But it is true in major cities of the world, you can get by with english.
5. This is your opinion

That's what I think. So in conclusion, I don't whole agree with you. If a well respected linguist says korean is superior, proven by science, I'll do a bit more research and side with him.

At 12:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Bontakun, I believe you are responding to Whitney, who I think was being ironic, not serious, but thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a korean i can confirm that the korean language has no problem romanizing or writing 'rhyme words'that are in english or any other language. they may rhyme however they are still pronounce slightly differently which the korean script can write differently.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You need to scratch a little deeper. How would you distinguish "part" from "fart"? Or "rush" from "lush"? Or other such words? Such pairs of words are identical in Hangul.

Jeffery Hodges

@ @ @

At 1:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For your examples, part would be pa-t so (파트) and fart would be fah-t(퐈트) although the korean language doesnt have the f sound as some others, the emphasis as you say the words are different for which there are supporting "characters" for them. lush would be luh-sh (러시) and rush with a more "raw" than "luh" would be written as (뤄시). it can actually be written the same as lush for rush in this case, as people would understand as rushing for something based on context. Just wanted to clear up the question that it is possible to write rhyming words in korean that are english. Interesting blog btw!

At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also i found through working as a translator for webtoons that english seems to be very limited in onomatopoeia s. In korean there are many description sounding words that also give you the textual feeling of something. For example if someone is eating an apple the sound would be quite limited to crunching omnomnom and things. Or you'd have to describe the texture in sentences to say its not crunchy but more spongey or brittle-like. So in a webtoon or cartoon or comics having those "sound" written around the picture (manga/manhwa) readers will be familiar with this concept, writing brittle brittle would seem quite odd and not blend in with the frame at all. So i think what was pointed out here that you can say out the sound you can write it is quite valid point for superiority (if that's what makes it more superior) there are many sounds to do so such as (아삭, 푸석, 아작). These descriptions not only tell you the sound the action is making but also the texture the strength of action as well as what it would feel like linking quite a lot of the senses. Thought it'd be interesting to share what i found and realised. :)

At 10:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for the examples. There are a number of problems. One problem is that the transcription in Hangul doesn't really sound like English. My point here is that Hangul can't really really reproduce all sounds in other languages. This inability is nothing to be ashamed of - Hangul was developed to express Korean sounds.

But you're right about the greater number of onomatopoeia words in the Korean language - though this has nothing to do with Hangul, of course, for such words predate the invention of the Korean alphabet.

My wife and I have encountered the same problem in our translation work - most onomatopoeia words in Korean have no English equivalents. We struggle to translate such terms.

Jeffery Hodges

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