“The Korean Alphabet is the Most Scientific in the World.”
“The Korean Alphabet is the Most Scientific in the World.”
  • English Editor Joshua Snyder
  • 승인 1970.01.01 09:00
  • 댓글 1
이 기사를 공유합니다

One is prone to dismiss statements such as nationalistic hyperbole. However, it would be wrong to dismiss the claim made about the Korean alphabet, Hangul (the “Great Script”), as any linguist would agree. What makes the Korean alphabet “scientific” is that its letters correspond to the places of articulation in the mouth.
Let the letters “ㄱ” and “ㄴ” suffice for examples. These two letters correspond roughly to the /k/ and /n/ phonemes of the International Phonetic Alphabet.  “ㄱ”  shows the back of the tongue raised to make contact with the soft palate, in the rear part of the roof of the mouth, where /k/ is produced. “ㄴ” shows the tongue raised to the front of the month, where the /n/ sound originates.

This same mimicking of the shape the mouth takes when forming their sounds is true of all 14 Korean consonants. Its ten vowels represent the three concepts of Yin (Earth) and  Yang (Heaven), with Man at the intersection of the two. Thus, we might also say that Hangul is the most philosophical of all alphabets, but that would be a subject for another essay. The consonants and vowels are then combined to form syllable blocks that are easy to recognize and, with practice, to pronounce. Hangul is unique among major world alphabets in that its inventor is known to us, and it was created in relatively recent times. In 1443, King Sejong the Great  commissioned that an alphabet be created for the Korean language, as Koreans had hitherto used Chinese characters for writing. In 1446, the new alphabet was promulgated in an enlightened document titled “The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People.” Hangul be seen as a humanistic creation of the Korean renaissance.

Because of its ease and regularity, it is no exaggeration to say that the Hangul alphabet can be learned within an afternoon.  However, while the script is simple and straightforward, the language it represents is anything but. Indeed, the Korean language is one of  the world’s most difficult to learn, especially for speakers of European languages.  That said, the visitor to Korea should not miss the opportunity to learn the Korean alphabet, even if he has no intention of mastering the language, a task that would takes years if not an entire lifetime.

Even for those whose stay in will be brief and have no intention of learning any Korean beyond basic greetings and items on a menu, learning the Korean alphabet is a profitable endeavor.  Hangul offers a window not only into Oriental philosophy but also universal phonological principles that are true of all languages. Whether one’s Korean sojourn lasts a few months, a few years, or a lifetime, learning Hangul will be a valuable way to spend an afternoon.

About fifteen years ago when a university student in United States, an American friend of mine returned from a trip to Korea and the one thing I remember him telling me was his description of the Korean alphabet as the “space alien language.” Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the script, seeing it in its modern fonts on neon signboards might remind someone of the undecipherable lines and circles seen on the sides of spacecraft in science fiction movies. However, as “alien” as it might look, it is remarkably easy to learn and carries with it valuable philosophical and scientific principles that will enrich anyone giving the effort to learn it.

Hangul Day, commemorated this past Friday, October 9th, was celebrated as a national holiday until 1991. It is now celebrated as a national commemoration day, which means we still have to work and go to school. It’s a pity. If ever an alphabet deserved a day of rest, it is Hangul, if at least to give visitors from abroad the time to learn it.