[KS] Korean spelling politics

jrpking jrpking at interchange.ubc.ca
Fri Jun 3 18:40:50 EDT 2005

Wow -- who'da thunk we'd live to see the day when Gari Ledyard advocated abandoning McCune-Reischauer in favor of Yale, not just for academic writing, but for Korean school children, too!

But he is absolutely right -- the features of Yale that cause some of our colleagues to roll their eyes are no worse than some of the sound-graph correspondences in Pinyin. 

> Finally, a note on Syngman Rhee (Li Sungman) and Hankul orthography.
> One wonders about Rhee's motivation in calling in a foreign scholar
> for advice on this question. 

I discuss this episode in this article: 

King, Ross. 1996. Language, Politics and Ideology in the Post-War Koreas. In: Korea Briefing, ed. by David R. McCann, pp. 109-144. Asia Society. (pp. 119-123, to be exact)

> Rhee never accepted the 1933
> thong.il.an on Hankul orthography. It was developed while he was in
> exile and the Japanese were in charge (though it was completely a
> Korean project from beginning to end)

My own understanding of this is that Rhee was beholden to the Bible/missionary spelling that he first learned in his youth. His opposition to the 1933 Unified Hankul Orthography has to be seen in the context of broader, Protestant opposition to that orthography that also had interesting ties to Phyengan dialect identity -- Phyengan Christians voted down (and rolled back) an attempt to reform Bible orthography initiated by James Scarth Gale already in 1902 (on the basis that it left their dialect in the cold), and the Protestant community (the Bible Society and the Presbyterians) didn't get around to embracing the new spelling until the 1940s -- primarily because of the dominance of Phyengan-based conservatives, by which time it was too late anyway, and the Bible wasn't printed in the new hankul orthography until 1952!  

You can read all about the failed spelling reform of 1902 in:

King, Ross. 2004. Western Protestant missionaries and the origins of Korean language modernization. Journal of international and area studies, vol.11, no. 3: 7-38. Seoul: Institute of International Affairs, Seoul National University.

-and about the Phyengan Christian resistance to hankul orthography in the 1920s and 1930s in: 

???Dialect, Orthography and Regional Identity:  P???y??ngan Christians, Korean Spelling Reform, and Orthographic Fundamentalism.??? Paper prepared for the Harvard workshop on the Northern region and Korean culture, history and identity. February 2005. 79 typescript pages. 

> The academic
> establishment was solidly behind the 1933 reforms

-in the 1950s, that is. There was more resistance to the new 1933 hankul spelling than standard accounts are willing to admit, and we mustn't forget that the majority of Koreans in the 1920s and early 1930s were illiterate in ANY orthography -- opponents of the new hankul orthography pointed out how difficult and abstract it was. Rhee used this argument in the 1950s, too, and claimed that the ROK could achieve HIGHER literacy rates if it abandonded the unnecessarily complex new splelling. 

> Do you suppose he called in an international scholar to
> get some leverage against these people and their "new" spelling? It
> would be interesting to know if Sam Martin could tell us anything
> about that.

I have no doubt that such were Rhee's intentions, but he must have been sorely disappointed, as Martin's open letter to the _Korea Times_ on July 10 1954 praised the Hankul Hakhoy and its new orthography, criticized Rhee's ideas on spelling as a retrograde step, and also noted that the Rockefeller Foundation's financial support for the _Great dictionary of the Korean language_ had been placed in jeopardy by the spelling controversy (not to mention Martin's own dictionary project, underway at Yale then). 

My own belief is that if anybody other than Rhee had been behind this attempt to roll back the 1933 orthography, it might have made considerably more headway. But he was so widely resented and hated, that this was a good way to cheese him off. 

Sorry for the shameless plugs,

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

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