Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Query: Origin of Hangul

Comparison of Korean and Mongolian Letters
(Image from Wikipedia)

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.

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.
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.

Now, back to the US presidential election, which is already in progress.

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At 9:30 AM, Blogger John B said...

Why couldn't both explanations be true at the same time? This was, after all, an alphabet designed by committee.

They went into the meeting and the committee chair said, how the hell do we do this?

One guy said, Umm, maybe, we could make letters in the shape of your mouth?

Another guys said, That Uigur script used by the barbarians (who kicked our butts a long time ago) was really flexible and easy to learn. Maybe something like that?

The chairman said, Sounds great. Both of you guys, talk it over and have a report on my desk tomorrow morning. Meeting adjourned, I have to get to meetings on the movable type press committee, the water clock committee, calendar committee, and the rain gauge committee.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, those are humorous concluding remarks. Thanks for the laugh.

As for the explanations, possibly, the two are compatible, but I'm not fully convinced that the letter shapes actually resemble the tongue or lip positions -- not when I reflect on this. This sounds more like an ad hoc explanation to me, especially if scholars could demonstrate that Hangul is drawn from the Mongolian alphabet (and I'm not claiming that this can be demonstrated).

But I'm no expert.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:54 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...


An excellent source for you would be this one, edited by my old Korean prof at George Washington U. (my own college had no Korean program of its own back in the late 1980s).

Rock on... or should I say, "Barack On"?


At 3:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, thanks. What, by the way, does the book say about the origin of the Korean alphabet. Does the 'Mongolian Alphabet Theory' have any substance?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:41 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I think that theory gets a prominent mention, but it's been a while since I flipped through the volume, so I can't quote chapter and verse.


At 3:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Kevin. The existence of this book, anyway, demonstrates that a dispute does exist, which was my main point.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:04 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...


I think someone has hacked your Blogger gravatar.

When I suggested that you be more circumspect about OpSec, the current sort of hiding in plain sight isn't what I had in mind.

At 8:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, I dare anyone to hack my gravitas. My own personal gravitas is so weighty that the space-time continuum of any who hack in will be distorted beyond despair:

"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

Such fate awaits those who approach too near my august gravitas...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, HJH. This post was for me because I am the reader referred to.

I was intrigued because Korean looks so different from Chinese and Jappanese. There had to be a story behind this difference -- little did I know it was so complex and obscure. I though there would have been a much clearer evolutionary process, such as in the case of Western alphabets. Silly me.

At 6:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm glad to have been of some assistance, but I really know little about Hangul.

Jeffery Hodges

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