Why we celebrate Korean alphabet day

  • Published : Mar 30, 2010 - 13:32
  • Updated : Mar 30, 2010 - 13:32

This is the text of a speech the writer gave at the KORUS House of the South Korean Embassy in Washington on Oct. 6. - Ed.

By S. Robert Ramsey

How many holidays are there like Hangeul Day? Most of our holidays, whether here or in Korea, or elsewhere, celebrate things such as political events and the changing of the seasons, or are religious observations. But sometimes it is good to pause and reflect on good things about the human spirit and the accomplishments of the human mind. The annual celebration of Hangeul Day, Korean Alphabet Day, is one of those occasions. Each year, on Oct. 9, we take time to think about the significance of this unique writing system.
There are two reasons we celebrate Hangeul in this way. The first is the intellectual accomplishment that it represents. By now, most Americans know what Korean writing looks like - and that`s especially true in our area where there is such a strong Korean-American presence - but few, except for professional linguists, realize that this writing system represents a milestone of scientific discovery.
What I mean is that, in the world of linguistic science, Hangeul has the reputation as the most linguistically sophisticated writing system in the world, and its invention as one of the most remarkable linguistic achievements of all time. As we all know, most holidays are religious or political. Now let me ask you this: How many other holidays do you know of anywhere in the world that celebrate an invention, or a scientific achievement? I suspect very few. There is no other writing system like Hangeul.
First, I should probably say what Hangeul is. Hangeul is the modern name (coined around 1912) for the writing system that was invented in Korea in the fifteenth century. Though it sounds like legend, the inventor of this writing system was in fact the king, the fourth monarch of the Joseon Dynasty, a man later known to us as Sejong.
King Sejong was in fact a linguist, a phonologist, perhaps without parallel anywhere in the world at that time. We don`t know precisely when Sejong invented the alphabet; the new writing system was simply announced as a finished product at the end of the lunar year in 1443.
Three years later, in 1446, the new script was promulgated and given to the Korean people in a handbook called Hunminjeongum, "The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People." Hangeul Day celebrates the publication of the HC. It falls on Oct. 9 because of the date recorded in the postface of this document.
First issued in a 1446 woodblock edition, the original printing of this document was bound together as a single book consisting of two parts, both of which were written in Literary Chinese.
The first part is the Hunminjeongum proper. Written by the king himself, the Hunminjeongum is a small handbook of only four leaves. It was intended to serve as a primer for teaching the new alphabet. The second part, the Hunminjeongum haerye, ("Explanations and Examples of the Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People," is a long (29 leaves), scholarly treatise written by a group of young scholars commissioned by the king. It concludes with a postface written by Jeong In-ji, the head the royal commission.
This second part, the Haerye text, is our primary source of information about the shapes, construction, and use of the original Hangeul letters; it provides an explanation of the phonological and philosophical theories upon which the writing system is based; and, finally, in the process of explaining the use of the alphabet, it provides an analysis of the Late Middle Korean phonological system, giving examples of words and sounds and how they were to be written. Most citations of linguistic information from the Hunminjeongum come from the Haerye text. A number of copies of the Hunminjeongum have been preserved, but only one copy of the first edition containing the Haerye text has survived. (This unique and invaluable text was discovered in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province in 1940, and is now preserved in the Gansong Library.)
The significant feature of Hangeul is that the shapes of the symbols in this alphabet reflect the phonological relationships that obtain between the consonants. Consonants articulated at the same place in the mouth share the same basic graph. Then, if one of these consonants has the added feature of aspiration, the symbol for that consonant has an additional stroke. (Compare, for example, the symbols of the Roman alphabet, where nothing in the shapes of the letters indicates how the phonemes are articulated; nor do pairs of letters, such as t and d, give a clue that the two phonemes they represent are in any way related.)
I mentioned at the beginning that there were two reasons for celebrating Hangeul Day. The first, as I have said, is the extraordinary intellectual achievement that it represents. However, Hangeul Day is also an occasion to reflect upon something else, and that is, the motivation behind this creation. Here is what Sejong himself said about that:
"The sounds of our country`s language are different from those of the Middle Kingdom and are not compatible with the sounds of characters. Therefore, among the uneducated, there have been many who, having something they want to put into words, have in the end been unable to express their feelings. I have been distressed because of this, and have newly designed 28 letters, which I wish to have everyone practice at their ease and make convenient for their daily use."
In simple but moving prose, this short passage makes clear Sejong`s intentions. These words have, of course, become the stuff of legend. Sejong is considered a wise and benevolent ruler who longed to bring literacy to all the subjects of his realm. But there is something deceptively simple about this image of the king. In modern times we take such ideals for granted, when literacy rates are a measure of national development.
In Sejong`s day, however, the desire for universal literacy was an anachronism. In that age it was not considered necessary, or even desirable, for the general population to know how to read and write. Most wielders of power, in fact, even deemed it dangerous to put such a politically powerful tool as writing in the hands of the people.
Yet, the conclusion is inescapable that Sejong believed in the education of the common man - and, yes, the common woman as well. More than once he wrote of the importance of literacy, urging that even women and girls be taught to read. He believed in the fundamental goodness of human nature and thought that the ability to express oneself could only provide an outlet for this virtue. He urged that men of learning devote themselves to teaching the people, for when that was done, men, women, and children would live together in harmony with the natural order of the Neo-Confucian universe. This kind of idealism stands in sharp contrast with much that we have heard in recent days. Its universalism uplifts the spirit.
A few years ago, at a UNESCO conference in Paris, I gave a talk entitled "Korean Alphabet, World Alphabet." I gave it that title, because in a very deep sense, Hangeul is Korea`s gift to the world. While Hangeul is a symbol of Korean culture of the highest order, it has a significance that transcends any one country.