Classes start tomorrow and I'm still psyched about Korean. I know next to nothing about the language, and indeed it hasn't interested me before. What first attracts me to a language is usually the phonology, and Korean's is--at first glance, anyway--rather simple. I like a little complication.
What's awesome about Korean is the writing system. I linked to the Wikipedial entry on Hangul in my last post, but since I know none of you clicked on it, and because I'm stuck at work with nothing better to do, I'm going to subject you to a brief explanation here.
This is what Geoffrey Sampson says in his Writing Systems,
wrapping up the section on Hangul:
When we come to compare the solution the Koreans have evolved for the problem of recording speech visually with the solution reached from precisely the same starting-point by the Japanese, we may well marvel at the outstanding simplicity and convenience of Han'gŭl. Whether or not it is ultimately the best of all conceivable scriptos for Korean, Han'gŭl must unquestionably rank as one of the great intellectual acheivements of humankind.
Before there was Hangul, there were Hanja--imported Chinese characters, the Korean version of Kanji. Anyone who's familiar with Japanese knows what a pain these are. Chinese characters are hard enough for the Chinese; use them to write a totally unrelated language and it only gets more
In The World's Writing Systems
, Ross King summarizes what I find most intriguing about Hangul (emphasis mine):
Hankul is original. It was the product of deliberate, linguistically informed planning. Despite numerous theories attempting to link it to, or derive it from, other scripts (there are no less than ten different "origin theories"), the most convincing theory of letter shape origins remains that given in the Hwunmin cengum haylyey (HCH) 'Explanations and examples of the correct sounds for the instruction of the people', which was lost and not rediscovered until 1940. According to the HCH, the basic consonant shape for each of the five places of articulation is based on a graphic representation of a graphic representation of the speech organ involved.
Hankul is scientific. Its invention rested on an elaborate phonological analysis of fifteenth-century Korean, and transcended Chinese-based theories of phonology of the time.
And this marvelous invention was published in 1444.
We still hadn't invented spelling in English, yet.* (Some would say we still haven't!)
But apart from being scientific, Hangul is also elegant. It resembles the shape of Chinese characters--its aesthetic was undoubtly inspired by them. However, it functions completely differently. This is the world "Hangul" in Hangul:
With thanks to Wikipedia. You can see how each character is actually a syllable block composed of symbols (these are called "jamo") that represent a single sound. In this case, there are three sounds per syllable. The jamo themselves were based on the scientific analysis of Korean; as mentioned, many are representations of the place of articulation, and also, related sounds have related jamo. This isn't the case in English. You can't tell, for example, that the sounds represented by the letters t
are very closely related just by looking at those letters.
Unfortunately, awesomeness often loses when pitted against tradition, and it wasn't until the previous century that Hangul was widely accepted. It was seen as a degenerate form of writing; its relatively easy accessibility to the lower classes and women no doubt caused a lot of defensiveness towards it among the educated elites. They spent years learning Hanja (some academics still do), and Hangul could be mastered in days.
* Yes, I know. Joke.