Friday, December 31, 1999

an old debate with my boss: is hangeul an alphabet?

[Originally posted on March 21, 2022, at 3:20 a.m.]

My boss has his good points, but he can be an attention-seeking troll when he wants to be, and this is nowhere more obvious than when he rolls out another one of his crackpot linguistic theories unsupported by actual scholarship. Years back, he and I argued over some of his stupider claims, like the idea that jondae-mal (the respectful register when talking) doesn't exist in English.* Another of his nutty notions is that hangeul is not an alphabet, or not a true alphabet, whatever that means. Why? Because the jamo/letters of hangeul are not true letters. To be a true letter, the logograph should be able to stand on its own, but as we see with a vowel like ㅏ, the vowel can't be pronounced until you pair it with the consonant ㅇ. No disrespect to my boss, but this is just dumb,** and scholars of Korean have no trouble calling hangeul an alphabet. My boss, though, wants to be the lone voice crying in the wilderness because it gives him some sort of perverse, self-righteous sense of superiority: I know something you don't, and all of you are wrong. Me, I think it's just a stupid claim.

We'd had the debate about hangeul years back, and I reminded my boss of that fact. (Being an argumentative person, he gets in so many arguments with so many people that he of course can't keep track of whatever debates he has with me.) It wasn't a topic I wanted to revisit, but my boss was provoked by the jokey dedication I'd put in his personal copy of Think Like a Teacher, part of which said that he routinely drove me up the wall with his crackpot linguistic theories. Seeing my sentiment in print probably triggered something in him, and we ended up debating the alphabet thing again last week, to no avail. I say he's obviously wrong. He tried to show that some scholars side with him, and to prove his point, he searched online (probably for all of five minutes) and found one linguistics paper by an Insup Taylor (see here) with the title "The Korean Writing System: An Alphabet? A Syllabary? A Logography?" He didn't want to shell out the money to download the entire PDF of Taylor's paper, so all I got was the 2-page preview, which I didn't read deeply until the very end of the day, when everyone had left.

Basically, Taylor's paper is horribly written and doesn't actually support whatever case my boss is trying to make (I don't think my boss actually read the paper; he was in a snit and simply wanted anything that might even seem to help his case). Taylor even gets basic terminology wrong, like the difference between voiced/voiceless and aspirated/unaspirated*** when talking about Korean consonants. Taylor argues that, by adding a single stroke to a Korean consonant, it goes from unaspirated to aspirated, which may in fact be true in limited case (or is it?). But what about when you go from ㅈ to ㅊ, or from ㄷ to ㅌ? That's a move from voiced to voiceless! In the case of both pairs, all the consonants are aspirated.  More: Taylor actually uses the term "alphabet" in direct reference to hangeul, almost as if it were a settled question for him: "Hangul appears to be the only alphabet, indeed the only writing system, in which the shapes of symbols reflect the articulations of sounds." See? Taylor ponders the question of whether it's better to describe hangeul as an "alphabetic syllabary," which my boss triumphantly felt made his case. There are two responses to this. First, Taylor only poses the question; he doesn't answer it in this section of his paper, and I'd need to read his conclusion (assuming I can get through the bad writing). Second, note that, even with that terminology, you can't escape the concept of an alphabet.

Anyway, I made my boss aware that my old undergrad Korean prof edited a book titled The Korean Alphabet, and the title alone settles the question for me. When I Googled "hangeul isn't an alphabet" online, I found a non-scholarly discussion in which one discussant put forth the idea that hangeul, despite being written in syllabic clusters, still follows the same write-one-letter-at-a-time rule that is followed in other alphabetic systems like Arabic, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, English, etc. And all the scholars in The Korean Alphabet actually use the term "Korean alphabet" in their respective papers. I checked. 

To me, this is an open-and-shut case, but the backfire effect means that I can give my boss all the evidence in the world to show he's wrong, but the fact that I declared him wrong at the beginning means he'll only double down in the face of all that evidence. This is the sort of shit I occasionally have to deal with in the office. It's not horrible compared to how things could be, I guess; at least my boss isn't a raging alcoholic or otherwise unprofessional. This is, in fact, a pretty nerdy disagreement. Still, it's annoying, and crap like this erupts in the office several times a year, making me wonder, now and then, why the hell I still work here.

We all have problems, right?


*My boss argues that American culture is "horizontal" while Korean culture is "vertical," and that formality in English has to do with how socially intimate or distant you are from the person you're talking with, not where you stand on an invisible hierarchy. Personally, I don't think that calling the American situation "horizontal" changes the basic reality of verticality: primates all follow dominance hierarchies, and even in English, we express verticality when we say things like "top dog." And there's an obvious difference between greeting your boss with, "How are you today, Mr. Henderson?" versus "Yo, Frank." The former is an obvious version of jondae-mal in English.

**Horrible time to rely on postmodernism, but this idea probably comes from the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who might be thought of as an inadvertent recruit into the PoMo camp because of his influence on poststructuralist/deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. Derrida's concept of différance (deliberately misspelled)—that things are both different and deferred—relies on the idea that you can't know the valence of something until you know its context, e.g., the letter "c." How is that letter pronounced if you don't see it in a word like trace or cat or Ricci or Bach? So the same would apply to my boss's contention about the Korean vowel, which means the Korean vowel is a true letter in a real alphabet, after all.

***A voiced sound involves a vibration you can feel in your throat. Take the sound "j" in jump. When you say the "j," you can feel your voice at work in your throat. Now take the sound "ch" in child. You can pronounce this phoneme without using your voice at all. Now contemplate the "t" in table. That's an aspirated sound because the "t" is plosive, i.e., a puff of air comes out when you say it. Compare that  to the "t" in scarlet. Your speech organs close after you say that "t," meaning it's unaspirated. See the difference? Think about the ㄱ in the surname 박 (Pak, Park). That's an unaspirated ㄱ. But put the ㄱ in a verb like 가다 (gada, to go), and it's aspirated. Now refer to the jump/child distinction, above, as you ponder the ㅈ/ㅊ difference.


  1. Hmm, first-world problems. How's the boss with commas?

    But seriously, it is fascinating to me in the sense that I'd never thought of any of these issues--alphabet or not, aspirated or not, vertical versus horizontal culture--that's quite a lot to be hit with at five in the morning! For what it is worth, I agree with you. I laughed when the boss' evidence author called it an alphabet.

    Still, consider yourself blessed if this is the worst thing your boss does at work!

  2. Hangeul is an alphabet. The letters may be written in syllabic blocks, but they are distinct and have significance on their own. This is why you sometimes see words written like ㅎㅏㄴㄱㅡㄹ (generally by pretentious graphic designers). It doesn't follow the usual rules of jamo formation, but it is still legible, because each letter is distinct. Compare this with true syllabaries, like hiragana and katakana in Japanese, in which a single character represents a syllable, and the difference becomes obvious. This is even more evident in a logography like Chinese, where 暗 means something very different from 日音.

    It may be possible to inject some nuance into the other arguments you brought up--for example, the idea that English doesn't have 존댓말. I think the answer to this question depends on how you define 존댓말. If you're just talking about deference or politeness, then yes, English of course has it. But if you are referring specifically to the normative politeness represented by 존댓말--that is, the deference that is "baked into" the language through the use of suffixes, particles, etc.--then, no, English does not have 존댓말. But this is merely the result of Korean being highly inflected and having an agglutinative morphology, two characteristics which set it apart from English. So the distinction becomes an academic one. This doesn't seem to be what your boss is arguing, though, and I find his vertical/horizontal dichotomy to be a little simplistic.

    As for aspiration, it should probably be noted that Korean linguists generally use the term to refer to 격음 such as ㅋ, ㅊ, and ㅌ. ㄱ, ㅈ, and ㄷ are 평음, often referred to as "lax" consonants. So while it may be true that ㄱ, ㄷ and ㅈ involve some aspiration, the term is avoided in order to create a distinction between the different types of consonants. In the field of Korean linguistics then, Taylor is not incorrect to say that adding a stroke moves a consonant from lax to aspirated (although that is a bit of an oversimplification of what is actually going on).

  3. "generally by pretentious graphic designers"

    Yeah, I know a guy who made a tee shirt that was fairly similar. What an ass.

    re: aspiration

    You'd think I'd have learned that little Korean factoid by now, but I guess it's one of those things that slipped through the cracks of my own studies. My immediate instinct, when I read your comment, was to think the term aspiration was being horribly misused, but as I chewed the matter over, I realized that, in French as well, the term actually has a specialized meaning. In French, they speak of "un H aspiré." This shows up, for example, in la haine, which can't be written "l'haine" because there's a glottal stop preventing the élision (although a lot of French people will breathe right through the stop and simply pronounce la and haine separately). Contrast the "H aspiré" with the "H non-aspiré" in an expression like l'herbe, where élision isn't impeded. So if, in English linguistics, something is aspirated because of the passage of air through the speech organs, it's considered "aspirated" in French thanks to the blockage of air—totally the opposite thing.

    OK, so score one for Taylor, maybe. I still say his paper is pretty horribly written.

  4. "Yeah, I know a guy who made a tee shirt that was fairly similar. What an ass."

    Heh. Well, I did say "generally." But I was mostly being facetious. I will admit that I find unorthodox uses of hangeul letters to be fascinating, and I've played around with them myself. Never had the gall to put any of it on a tee shirt, though.

    "OK, so score one for Taylor, maybe. I still say his paper is pretty horribly written."

    If there's one thing that I've learned in my academic reading, it's that you can be right about something and still be horrible at written communication--and vice versa.



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