[KS] Kim Il Sung, cunning linguist

jrpking jrpking at interchange.ubc.ca
Tue Aug 23 12:37:36 EDT 2005

Many thanks to Aidan for bringing this to the attention of the list!
> Who would have guessed that the Great Leader was so exercised
> by matters of morphology? (But then Stalin too wrote on linguistics
> - or somebody did, under his name.)

Kim Il Sung is by no means the only 'great' Korean leader to have intervened directly in matters orthographic and linguistic. A couple of the references (from the 1940s and 1950s) in the article you site are new to me, but of course his most famous pronouncements (whether he actually wrote them or not) were his 'conversations with linguists' from 1964 and 1966 which set a new course for North Korean language policy and are excellent source documents for Korean thinking about language and identity.

> A 6-letter alphabet, for Korean? 

The reference is to an aborted orthographic reform from the late 1940s that seems to have been spearheaded by Kim Twupong. The idea was to create six new hangul letters (in addition to the ones we already have) to represent certain 'irregular' alternations in Korean verb forms. So, for example, for verbs like tutta, tule yo 'listen', the idea was to create a special new letter (let's call it "T") and write instead: tuTta, tuTeyo -- the idea was to orthographically 'regularize' irregularity (alternations) in certain Korean verb classes.

So the idea was not a six-letter alphabet, but six new graphs as part of an orthographic reform. The linguistic thought behind the reform was criticized rather savagely by Russian/Soviet linguist Kholodovich shortly after it was published, but the whole episode remained unknown in south Korea for some decades. 

The piece from the JoongAng on linguistic misunderstandings 
across the DMZ is a timely reminder of the salient role that language (and especially orthography) plays these days in imaginings about Korean identity. For more references, see: 

Ross King (forthcoming/2005?). "Language and national identity in the Koreas," in Andrew Simpson (ed.), _Language and national identity in Asia_. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 


Ross King
Associate Professor of Korean, University of British Columbia
Dean, Korean Language Village, Concordia Language Villages

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