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October 14, 2005


gene berman

I don't actually know anything specific about the invention of Hangul. But, while I was in Korea (1960-2, Army), a Korean I worked with (a lab technician in our dispensary) explained the story slightly differently. In his version, the king preceded his actual construction of the written alphabet with the initial step of sending a number of scholars to different countries who were to spend a few years cataloging the different sounds used in the various spoken languages. The construction of Hangul, he said, was done after the reports had been gathered (though he couldn't say whether--in answer to my question--any new sounds had been incorporated as a result).

Korean and Chinese are separate, distinct languages. But Korean contains many words which are very obviously Chinese or of Chinese origin. I could detect some of these despite knowing almost nothing of either language beyond a smattering of Korean words (my wife was Korean). Even her own family name (Yang) was actually of Chinese origin and was expressed by a Chinese character (the common Korean name Yong, meaning "sheep," and of, presumably, Mongolian origin, is an entirely different character). In fact, her name--and the character for it--is the same as the one Chinese people express in English as Leung or Lleung.

Just within the past 24 hours, I happened to read a reference to a Chinese melon called
something like "ha-mi" and recognized its similarity to the Korean, "cha-me," for the similar item. Chinese call noodles "mein," (as in "chow mein"); Koreans call noodles "me-ann."

I was once acquainted with a man who, as a Baptist pastor in the Guyana Highlands of Venezuela, was making his life's work the construction of a written language (with which to produce, first, a Bible) for the Pemon Indians. He was in the beginning stage, which, for him, was bringing people from many villages (speaking local variants)so he could catalog their sounds, their different pronounciations of common words, etc.


"But Korean contains many words which are very obviously Chinese or of Chinese origin."

This is true also of Vietnamese and of Japanese, so much so that the situtation in East Asia with regard to learned vocabulary is almost what you find in Europe, where there is a common vocabulary of political, scientific and literary terms. This common vocabulary in East Asia is so extensive, and the sound correspondences so regular, that it can be used as a resource in historical phonology, the same as the various dialects in the various Chinese languages. In fact within Japanese it is possible to see what part of China a word was borrowed from. There are "kan-on" readings of words that were borrowed form northern China, and earlier, and then there are "go-on" readings from around the Jiang Delta (formerly called Wu, Shanghai area) (Wu Go).

These langauges are all distinct, but the prestige of Chinese is so great that you hear people say things like "Vietnamese is really Chinese and French blended together" - Vietnamese people!

The story you heard in Korea is really more a folk tale than anything historically accurate, because it would have resulted in something like the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is pretty much useless for writing any particular language; rather than Hangul, which is pretty much useless for writing anything that doesn't have a sound system almost exactly like Korean.

There are lots of these alphabets and syllabaries that people invent pretty much from nothing, such as Sequoyah's syllabary for Cherokee and the N'ko alphabet in Mali, the Ivory Coast and Guinea. These systems show only minor influence from other systems, inspiration really more than infuence. That makes them about as original as Hangul, which is saying a lot.

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