Thursday, August 6, 2009

Korea's Newest Export: Hangeul

Following up on my post from a couple of days ago about Korea's hi-tech prowess, here is an interesting story, reported by Yonhap and Korea Herald:
A tribe in Indonesia has begun adopting Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, as their writing system to express their spoken aboriginal language, which is on the verge of extinction. It is the first time the alphabet has been officially adopted outside the Korean Peninsula.
The 60,000 person tribe in the city of Baubau, located in Buton of Southeast Sulawesi, has been working to transcribe its native language "Jjia jjia" into Hanguel.
The Baubau city counsel decided to adopt Hangeul as the official alphabet for in July of 2008. Work soon began and the textbooks were completed on July 16. By July 21, elementary and high school students began learning their spoken language through the Hangeul writing system.

Who are the Jjia Jjia (or Cia Cia), you may well be asking. After all, you've never heard of them. Neither have I. Neither has Google (beyond the news story quoted here). Neither has Wikipedia.

Buton Island is there in Wiki, and Bau-Bau comes up on Google Earth (if you haven't downloaded it, do so as soon as you finish reading this--it is awesome fun, and useful, even). Still, the place is little-known, so much so that Yonhap's brief story calls it "Bauer and Bauer." Which I think is actually a men's clothiers. Or a financial consultant.

The Bauer and Bauer meme has been propagated to Korea Times and KBS in the last couple of hours.

Anyway, I am reminded of the story of Chief Sequoyah, who developed a Cherokee writing system after seeing the power it gave the white man who raped his people's land, stole their property and banished them to Oklahoma. Well, the pen may be mightier than the sword, but rifles throw off the balance.

Rather than reinvent the wheel alphabet, the Jjia jjia made the decision to borrow a pre-existing phonetic alphabet. They chose hangeul, invented in the fifteenth century at the behest of the enlightened Korean Emperor Sejong, who ruled with a scientific bent. I don't know if this was a good decision, compared to, say, using Sequoyah's alphabet, since I don't know the first thing about his "talking leaves". Or compared to English, which has trouble representing even Korean, much less, say, Swahili or Tonga.

However, if the Jjia jjia use a lot of "f","b","I","r","l" or "z" sounds, they've made a spectacularly bad decision. You cannot represent "cob" in hangeul, only "cop", though can have "cop" two ways. What you can have is "caw-buh". You can't have "shun" only "sun". And so on. As a phonetic alphabet, this system works well for spoken Korean's sounds, the purpose for which it was invented. Hangeul has 24 characters which can be arranged into several dozen syllables which compose the phonetic units of the language.

If your language doesn't use those units, then hangeul can only approximate it. This is the fundamental fact behind what is called Konglish, Korean-English. E-Mar-tuh, pok-uh, English-ee and all the rest of it.

햅브 나이스 대!


Anonymous said...

Wouldn't cob be 카브? (Yes, still a bit off.) But 션 is shun.

Tuttle said...

Thanks for your comment. 카브 is kah-buh, which in any phonetic sense is totally different--heck, it has twice the number of syllables.

션 is often slurred into shun, as I understand it, but is properly pronounced more like shawn. 슌 would be close, too. I don't pretend to be anything like an expert in hangeul, but I'm 슐 it is inadequate for representing certain sounds.

I'm not saying it's a rotten alphabet, but just that I hope the cia cia or whoever they are made sure that their phonemes are all represented.

The Bobster said...

In my experience, one of the biggest obstacles Koreans have in learning English that a in a lot of their classrooms, pronunciation of English words gets transliterated with hangeul symbols. Many Koreans, even educators who should know better, believe that their writing system is up to the job of reproducing any sound produced in any language.

At one school, the owner/principal came in to my class one day and gave his lesson to the beginning students about "phonics" in which he used the Korean alphabet to reproduce the sounds made by English letters. The result was that the next time I asked a student to give me a word that starts with "J" he said "zebra" instead of "jacket," as I had taught him the week before ...

Anonymous said...

Oh, Hangul representation system per se is far more flexible than you anglophones can imagine. For example, Korean linguists decided to 'tune-up' the written Jjia Jjia by introducing a voiced bilabial fricative (something close to "v" sound in English) that hasn't been used in Korea since the 15th century or so. They researched the target language well, you know.

Since Hangul is more "artificial" than 99% of the writing systems used today, it can be easily modified to fit the need. Many phonetic problems stemming from this so-called Konglish can be redressed that way, if only our stonehead of the Education Ministry (which has always been a nest of collaborationist, reactionary scholarium, by the way) would let us.

Anonymous said...

A writing system doesn't need to conform with any specific pronunciation in any case; it's just symbols. The Roman alphabet gets used by many languages for all kinds of sounds (look at what Chinsee pinyin has done with it). I'm sure they can modify Hangeul just fine if they need to in order to fit their language.
(I'm trying to find street signs written in Jjia Jjia now)