[KS] Exporting Han'gûl

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Sun Aug 9 19:21:08 EDT 2009

Dear all, 

Just to add to Rob's germane comments, as I was writing this note when his came in:

Although news stories certainly imply that the primary motivating factor for using hangeul to write Bahasa Cia-Cia is a desire to expand Korea's 'soft power', it's easy to imagine sound linguistic reasons for doing so. Nothing that I've seen has yet addressed Bahasa Cia-Cia's phonological features and how they map on to hangeul as a writing system; more importantly,  every comment I'd seen until Rob's makes the assumption that each hangeul character will carry precisely the same value it does in Korean, but there's no reason that has to be the case: it certainly doesn't happen with the Roman alphabet as it migrates from language to language (think, e.g. pinyin [and Rob's citation of Vietnamese]). Any language that makes three (or four) distinctions within a given consonantal series could be potentially well-served by hangeul: the distinctions need not be nasal, unaspirated, aspirated, tensed. There is a clear logic that most people even without linguistic training can quickly follow in the relationship between, e.g., ㄴ, ㄷ, ㅌ, ㄸ  and their sounds, and this could work for similar sets of contrasts.

Furthermore, the languages of Southeast Sulawesi, where Bahasa Cic-Cia is spoken,  evidently share a restricted vowel phonology: for a system with just five or six vowels and no diphthongs, ㅏ,ㅓ,ㅗ,ㅜ,ㅡ, ㅣ could readily be adopted, most likely with their Korean values (who knows, maybe ㅓ would shift to /e/, e.g.?). Deviations from Korean might initially confuse those who come to Bahasa Cia-Cia from Korean, but so what? If they need to learn how to read and write Bahasa Cia-Cia, they'll quickly get used to it. Compare this situation to teaching speakers to see a relationship between the shapes of e.g. a, d, e, i, n, o, t, u an their sounds. Comes across as essentially arbitrary; not so hangeul, with it s basic systematization. 

A linguist colleague who has some knowledge of the languages of the region notes that Bahasa Cic-Cia and its neighbors are strictly CV (consonant vowel), and although they can have syllables that are just V, there is no CVC.  A purely aesthetic consideration that people may disagree on, but to me at least, hangeul, pressed into service for a string of open syllables, would look quite neatly geometric, even elegant--perhaps more so than Korean itself?

The main reasons to hold on to the Roman alphabet for smaller regional languages in Indonesia likewise relate to arguments from the expression of soft power: the Roman alphabet has wide hegemony, and, as Indonesia's national language has adopted it, most who want to write Bahasa Cia-Cia will be already familiar with its standard values, thus sparing the need for learning a new script. Reasonable considerations, but not intrinsic to phonology/orthography. 

Finally and conversely, to pick up on Jeremy Kritt's comments, it is not hard to picture a smaller language community finding it compelling to distance itself from the national linguistic mainstream via its script--certainly makes for a distinctive linguistic identity.

From: koreanstudies-bounces at koreaweb.ws [koreanstudies-bounces at koreaweb.ws] On Behalf Of Robert Provine [provine at umd.edu]
Sent: Monday, August 10, 2009 7:47 AM
To: Korean Studies Discussion List
Subject: Re: [KS] Exporting Han'gûl

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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