Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hangeul Day - a holiday for much celebration . . . and little cerebration?


Friday the 9th was "Hangeul Day," the day that Koreans celebrate their unique alphabet, Hangeul. Consequently, Kim Hoo-ran, an editorial writer for the Korea Herald, posted a column last Friday titled "For the love of humanity" (October 10, 2015) in praise of the Korean alphabetic system, about which she wrote:
Hangeul, at the time of its creation included 17 consonants and 11 vowels, but today 14 consonants and 10 vowels are in use. Each character represents a whole syllable and it is said that 12,768 phonemes are possible using the various combinations of consonants and vowels, making Hangeul a highly flexible writing system.
In an alphabetical system, the term "character" does not easily fit since the term ordinarily designates a Chinese ideogram signifying a meaning rather than a sound. I don't know how Kim is using this term, but Korean does divide its words into syllables in a way that most other alphabets do not, which may be what Kim is referring to, though I don't see how this is an advantage. Indeed, for the life of me, I cannot see the advantage on Hangeul over other alphabets, though Koreans often proclaim its superiority:
As a phonemic alphabet that can transcribe numerous languages, Hangeul could be an invaluable tool in preserving languages that face extinction and thus contribute toward preserving endangered cultures.
Any alphabet can do this. But what is being claimed?
In August, a group from Seoul National University successfully completed a three-year project to develop a Hangeul-based writing system to record the language of the Aymara Tribe in South America. The Aymara people, who number some 3 million, live spread across Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. The Latin alphabet used to write the Aymara language is inadequate in rendering the sounds of the Aymara language accurately and the use of Hangeul allows for easier and more accurate rendering of the language in written form, according to the team.
We'd need to see the evidence for this since Hangeul cannot even render all the sounds of English - consider the problem of "f" and "p" or "r" and "l" - without adding extra letters, which can be done with any alphabet, and I assume that's what's being done in this case. Note, for instance, the reference to "a three-year project to develop a Hangeul-based writing system." That's "Hangeul-based," not "Hangeul."

Similarly, the JoongAng Daily (October 9, 2015) devotes an editorial to the Korean language, titling it "Respect the integrity of hangul" (but disrepects its capitalization), and this editorial states:
In international conferences, the Korean language was chosen as one of the top ten in the world. Hangul has been receiving excellent appraisals from the international community, which says it's more scientific, ingenious and polysemantic than any other languages.
This excerpt conflates language and writing system, but even if the excerpt were not imagining such scholarly international conferences, the point would have to be made comparing Hangeul with other alphabets.

I'm not saying that Hangeul is unimpressive, but rather that extravagant claims are too often made on its behalf by too many Koreans, who - to be frank - seem not to know what they're talking about.

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At 10:42 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...


Shame on you for insulting Koreans' "Engrish-y" pronunciation of "r"s and "l"s.

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Fortunately, I didn't insult Koreans themselves . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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