[KS] Exporting Han'gûl

Robert Provine provine at umd.edu
Sun Aug 9 15:47:33 EDT 2009

Jeremy Kritt's observations ask for some further consideration.

> The only problem with Hulbert's argument is that it is linguistically 
> incorrect. Hangul falls short of being able to capture the significant 
> tonal structure of various forms of spoken Chinese. That is probably one 
> reason why this project failed miserably in China.

Every writing system falls short of capturing all languages, though IPO does a pretty good 
job overall.  IPO looks like roman letters with modifications and additions.

> Hangul was not developed to capture all the sounds that are humanly 
> possible. Instead, the orthography was designed to meet the needs of a 
> very specific sociolinguistic situation for a particular spoken language.

Again, like all other writing systems, apart from hybrid fabrications like IPO.

> Given that language is such a core aspect of a community's identity, it 
> is a rather strange idea to think that a country like China would even 
> remotely consider adopting a writing system developed by a country it 
> considers to be culturally subordinate. While it may have been attempted 
> on a small scale, it was clearly destined to fail from the outset and 
> the premises fueling such a movement seem to be misguided.

Yet, to take an example, tonal Vietnamese is written with (highly) modified roman letters, 
and it has the advantage that a lot of people around the world can make noises that bear 
at least a passing resemblance to Vietnamese.

My main point:  yes, Han'gûl was designed for writing Korean, but, like roman letters, it 
can be modified to become more appropriate for denoting the sounds of non-Korean 
languages.  Indeed, there are historical instances where this was done in Korea, the prime 
example probably being the translator's dictionary _Han Han mun'gam_ 漢淸文鑑 of about 
1780, in which a much-extended Han'gûl is employed to depict the (decidedly foreign) 
sounds of Manchu and Chinese.  Those interested to look up this work should consult the 
opening section of rubrics that explains the extended Han'gûl.  The _Han Han mun'gam_ was 
in effect a rip-off of a five-language dictionary (Chinese, Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian, 
and Uighur, but not Korean), _Wuti Qing wenjian_ 五體淸文鑑, published in China in 
something like 1770.

In other words, the point is not whether an unmodified writing system is suitable for a 
language different from the language for which the writing system was initially designed, 
since it can be appropriately modified.  The main problem surely lies in the political 
aspects that Jeremy and others have already mentioned.

> Of course, my comments are not meant to diminish the accomplishment of 
> Hangul. Korean people should be proud of their language; however, as was 
> previously mentioned by a distinguished scholar, at times that pride 
> leads to rather strange ideas.

Let's don't confuse Han'gûl and the Korean language!


Rob Provine

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