Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Korean Week 2 - Hangul

October 9 was Hangul Day in Korea, a national holiday dedicated to the language's script. Han means both great and Korean and gul means script. North Korea has a similar day, but they call it Choson Gul Day, because they prefer the name Choson for Korea. A good argument can be made that hangul is indeed one of the greatest writing systems created, so here is its story.

The first thing to know is that Korean is most often considered an isolate among languages. This means that there is no strong evidence that it is connected to any other languages genetically. This is completely different from, say, the Romance languages - Spanish, French, Romanian, etc. - which are all descended from Latin. People were talking Latin for hundreds of years all over Europe and then one day they took a trip over the mountains and discovered their Latin didn't sound much like the other guy's Latin anymore, and so they called it French and the other folk called their Latin Spanish.

But we find no clear evidence of sister languages to Korean anymore. Some scholars have argued that Japanese and Korean are sisters, and that they all fit into this larger group called Altaic, which would include languages of Northeast Asia, like Mongolian. However, many others consider the evidence for this to be rather weak.

I'm going into this to make the point that Korean as a language is not related to Chinese. Its grammar works completely differently; the sounds of the language are completely different; and the ancient Korean words (think Old English for us) bare no resemblance to ancient Chinese words at the same time.

However, for whatever reason, China came up with its own writing system - the characters - over 4,000 years ago, while Japan and Korea did not. Moreover, China was the most powerful nation and most scientifically advanced one in the world for most of the last 4,000 years. Korea, however, was not. And so Koreans decided to borrow a lot of stuff - Confucianism, Buddhism, science, governmental systems, tons of words, and, for better or for worse, the Chinese writing system.

Things went pretty swimmingly for most of the borrowing, but it wasn't all that easy to use characters for Korean because Korean, again, is a completely different language. Characters are also just really hard to learn. They have other benefits, but becoming truly literate in Chinese characters takes a lot longer than a simpler writing system. (English's crazy spelling also measurably slows down the time it takes to learn it as compared to a language where the letters reliably match the sounds.)

And so King Sejong the Great decided to create a new script just for Korean. And unlike, say, the King James Bible, which James never worked on, Sejong appears to have been primarily responsible for the creation of hangul.

Unlike both Chinese and Japanese, hangul is basically alphabetic, like English or French. A tiny stroke stands for a letter. Here's one: ㄱ . This is the letter for the sound "g" as in Gary, not George. And then to write something, you take one of these consonants, another for a vowel, and a third for any following sound if needed and then arrange it into a little block representing the whole syllable: 글 . See the g on the top? This is the syllable gul as in hangul. Below the g you have the vowel and the final "l".

So it's both alphabetic and yet very compact to write with an entire syllable taking up just one little block of space. There have been some experiments and Korean is indeed one of the fastest languages in the world to type as well as being exceedingly compact.

As a linguist, however, what really sets Korean apart from any other writing system ever created is that the principles of phonetics are built right into the script itself. What am I talking about? Time to start making sounds and try to figure out what your mouth is doing. Here's the Korean symbol for n "ㄴ" and the one for g again "ㄱ".

Now make an n in your mouth and sit there humming it. Where does your tongue go as you sit there making "n"? The tip goes right to the front of your mouth and curls upwards. For most English-speakers it curls up to a ridge up and behind your teeth. A few of you might be touching the back of your teeth, but this is less common. In short, the tongue goes forward and then the tip curls up. Now look at the Korean n again "ㄴ". It's a little schematic of your tongue.

G is harder to feel, but you can try. Make a g sound. "ga, ga, ga". The tongue definitely is further back this time, right? In fact, your tongue tip isn't anywhere in particular, it's just sorta hanging. Can you feel the back of your tongue hitting the middle back of your mouth on the roof? And here is the Korean g again "ㄱ". Again, it's a schematic of your tongue.

King Sejong appears to have figured out articulatory phonetics almost all by himself and then written a new writing system for his people based on this study. It's really quite stunning and one of the great world cultural achievements.

Happy Belated Hangul Day.


Haem said...

FYI: People have also tried to establish relationship between Japanese and other ancient languages once spoken in nowadays Korea...Not sure about how serious the claims are, though.

SzélsőFa said...

Thanks for the ride. I was all ga-ga-ga-ing and n-n-n-ing in front of the monitor.

(I was alone in the room!!!)

bunnygirl said...

Thanks for the linguistics lesson, Paca! I love this kind of stuff!

Ello said...

Cool. My father once told me that King Sejong came up with the alphabet as he sat staring at the paper window frames of his door. Maybe he was pulling my leg. My korean writing is nonexistent. You would so put me to shame.

pacatrue said...

Ello, I don't think your father was making it up. My understanding is that the realization of why the alphabet is the way it is is a pretty recent discover.

Let's try that sentence again.

Scholars only recently discovered Sejong's reasons for the design of the alphabet,

That's better.

People did indeed think they were just based on some sort of wooden slates like a window for a long, long time. And then sometime recently they discovered another document of his, which revealed what was really happening. The consonants are all quite scientific about mouth shape and acoustic quality. The vowels, however, are based on yin-yang principles of some sort.

Bunnygirl, I'm glad you found it interesting!

Szelsofa, you'd make a good phonetics student. The ones with good grades are almost always the ones who make noises in class, trying to figure out how to get certain sounds out.

Haem, hey, I did not know that stuff myself, so thanks for the FYI. I had read a very little bit about the origins of Korean and Japanese peoples and this linguistic theory matches that general history well.