Wednesday, October 09, 2013

my Wednesday mission (and a spiel on hangeul)

We've got Hangeul Day off today, so I'm going to try and see Ron Howard's "Rush," which opens in Korea on the same day that Koreans celebrate literacy. (And how wonderful is that? I wish we had a national day for literacy in America.)

For those not in the know: Great King Sejong and a team of advisors developed the Hunmin Jeongeum (Proper Sounds for the Edification of the People) back in 1443, and released their product to the masses in 1446. The goal was a Confucian one: the democratization of knowledge. Now known as hangeul, the Korean alphabet* originally had 28 letters; these days, like modern Greek, hangeul has only 24.

Much ballyhooed among Koreans, hangeul is often called a "scientific" alphabet. A bit of skepticism about that claim is warranted, but there are elements of hangeul that do reveal some method to the madness. Linguists have long noted, for example, that the shapes of many Korean consonants mimic the shape of the human speech organs (the Korean letter "g," for example [ㄱ], is shaped like a bent tongue making the hard "g" sound). The arrangement of most of the alphabet's vowels also shows a general progression (except for "ee," the final vowel) from front vowel to back vowel. So, while not totally unscientific, hangeul, as an invented alphabet,** shows that much thought was put into its conception.

All in all, Koreans have every right to be proud of this marvelous invention. As comedian Steven Wright once noted, "The guy who invented the alphabet invented everything." The point Wright is making, however wryly, is that the content of so much human thought is linguistic, and written language provides the framework for the articulation of linguistic thoughts. Sejong didn't invent the Korean language, but in an important sense he gave the language its "voice."

Happy Hangeul Day!

*An alphabet is a system of symbols in which there is, roughly, a one-to-one sound/symbol correspondence. There are exceptions, of course: the letter "x" represents two sounds, as does the long "i" in English ("ah" + "ee"). Alphabets stand in contrast to syllabaries, such as can be found in Japanese (hiragana for Japanese words; katagana for foreign words). In a syllabary, one symbol represents a cluster of sounds. Alphabets also stand in contrast to characters, such as can be found in Chinese. A character is a single symbol (often containing a smaller root-symbol, or radical) that simultaneously represents (1) a cluster of sounds and (2) one or more specific concepts.

**You might be saying to yourself that the phrase "invented alphabet" is a redundancy because all alphabets are human inventions. You'd be partly correct, but it's far from obvious that all human alphabets were invented by a single person or team, then deliberately distributed to the masses as was the case with hangeul. In fact, it's likely that, in many cases, the letters of the world's alphabets developed over time, somewhat haphazardly. The origins of parent-alphabets, like Phoenician script, are shrouded in mystery, with no indication of a single inventor or team of inventors.

For practical purposes, my use of the phrase "invented alphabet" is analogous to how we speak of "invented languages" like Esperanto and Klingon, both of which are the products of focused effort by a small group of people, and both of which were developed over a very short period (years as opposed to centuries; Klingon is primarily the 1980s brainchild of linguist Marc Okrand). Compare this to a language like modern French which, far from being the deliberate and quickly developed product of a few scholars, is an organically evolved language.


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