Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Wonders of Hangeul

Our Korean lessons are progressing well, and we've finally finished the unit on the alphabet. Now we're actually looking at "dialogues." Granted, so far the dialogues consists of

A: Hello, teacher.
B: Hello.

But, still, it's progress.

On Tuesday, we watched a video about the Korean alphabet (Hangeul). This was obviously a piece of feel-good Korean linguistic propaganda, and it was not flawlessly translated into English, so it made some pretty odd claims. First of all, let me try to explain what I understand about Korea's alphabet. The alphabet was invented by (or at least disseminated by) a man named King Sejong, who wanted to help more people in his kingdom learn how to read. Because the alphabet is a phonetic alphabet (each character represents a sound) as opposed to an ideographic system (where each character represents a word), it was much easier to learn than the Chinese system the Koreans had been using. There are 24 characters in the Korean alphabet, while literacy in Chinese requires knowledge of something like 6,000 characters. For this reason, there is a UN prize for literacy efforts that is named after King Sejong. The video made a lot of this prize. I think it's great and am happy to be learning King Sejong's alphabet.

The history of the alphabet makes it a bit unique because it was specifically engineered to help people become literate. We know how and when it was introduced, and we have a record of the principles behind the shape of each character. Interestingly, the letters are designed to tell you something about the sounds they represent, based on the shape that the tongue and mouth make when you pronounce them. Letters that are phonetically related (for example, aspirated 't' and unaspirated 't') have similar shapes. So it's a clever system that's easy to remember because the form of the letters has some link to the way sounds are produced.

Now, the claims that the video made. First of all, there was lots of talk about how Korean is a "scientific" language. I've heard this claim in other publications, too. There's a confusion between the language, which is as unwieldy and irregular as any other, and the writing system, which was well designed and based on a good understanding of phonetics. How can you really say that one language is more "scientific" than another, though? Has it been tested in a laboratory? Does it increase the speed of understanding between people? Does it have more technical terms in it? This phrasing drives me nuts.

The next claim was similar: that Korean is "a phonetic language." Ok, since phonetic simply means "having to do with sounds," it is clear that all spoken languages are phonetic. What they really mean is that Korean has a phonetic writing system. I think that's great. I love phonetic writing systems. In fact, we have one, France has one, Poland has one, Germany has one, and on and on. Of course, English spelling is notoriously difficult, and many letters represent one sound in certain situations and a different sound in other situations. Our system of correspondence between letters and sounds is inconsistent because of the way English has been influenced by other languages in our history. The Korean system is definitely clearer than ours, especially in terms of the vowels, which are pronounced the same way whenever they occur. But it also has letters that represent more than one sound, depending on the position of those letters in the syllable. We had just finished studying how that works, and then we watched a video that claimed that all letters in the Korean alphabet represent the same sound wherever they appear. And Koren pronunciation follows the same rules as other languages do - sounds change in rapid speech and take on certain properties based on the sounds around them. So hearing about how superior Korean is in this regard left me nonplussed.

Finally, the funniest claim was that Korean is uniquely able to represent the sounds of nature through its well-designed phonetic system. This just made me laugh. They showed pictures of a single droplet falling into a pool and of a rushing brook and then the Korean words for those sounds. But it's not like Korean has special access to imitating the sounds of nature just because it has a clever alphabet! It's not a magical alphabet that allows the human vocal aparatus to produce the sound of a bubbling brook.

I know I sound like a linguistic curmudgeon, and I do think the Koreans have a reason to be proud of their writing system. But they should be proud of its real merits and not make silly claims about it that strike their audience as ridiculous right off the bat.

Perhaps someday, I'll discover a scientific, phonetic language capable of brilliant representing the sounds of nature. But for now I'm content just learning Korean.


Jamie said...

75this is my all-time favorite update! While it is impressive that the orthographic system corresponds to a knowledge of phonology and speech-sound mechanics, it is simply hilarious to think that Korean alphabetical principles allow Korean speakers to uniquely and accurately convey environmental sounds. So do the words they have for animal sounds "resemble" those animal sounds, or allow people to more closely imitate those animal sounds? Cause that would be a real boon for hunters intent on mimicking the cries of their prey :)

Jamie said...

oops, where did that 75 come from? Perhaps it is my attempt to bend our numeric system to more scientifically convey my sentiments.

Yoon said...

Well, I have never heard of the last claim that Korean alphabet is uniquely able represent sound of nature. It may be a very very unique claim of the video producer.

Ellen said...

You're absolutely right, Yoon. I haven't heard this claim before either, and I don't mean to imply that this is a common attitude in Korea. I think that these video producers got a little overzealous in their promotion of the Korean alphabet.