The Korea Herald


[Jieun Kiaer] Hangeul should be at the heart of Hallyu

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 15, 2024 - 05:28

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"I want my country to be the most beautiful country in the world. I don't want it to be the richest country. I don't want my country to invade other countries because I've been heartbroken by invasions. I’m satisfied if we have enough wealth to provide for ourselves and enough strength to keep us safe from invasion. Yet one thing that I deeply wish to have is a culture that has lasting legacy and power." ("My Wish" from Kim Ku, 1876-1949)

As I start a new year, I am reminded of these words by Kim Ku, a leader of the Korean independence movement. Korea’s cultural soft power -- Hallyu -- is at its peak. The word "Hallyu," which is now in the Oxford English Dictionary, was first mentioned in its English form in The Korea Herald in 2003. Are we now fulfilling Kim Ku’s dream through the Korean Wave? In order to maintain the power of Hallyu, I think it’s time for us not only to enjoy its popularity but to seriously engage with its meaning, impact and future for both Korea and the wider world. If Koreans really want Hallyu to last, there must be an active discussion on how to make it contribute to a broader global culture.

This year I am working with the UK’s Department for Education as the Oxford’s policy engagement fellow to research why British young adults study Korean, even if there isn’t yet an official university entrance exam for Korean. Each year, the number of students learning Korean is growing. They are self-motivated, enjoy learning and maintain their studies. This is contrary to what is happening in the rest of the UK’s language learning landscape. Language learning in the UK is declining overall. For instance, the number of those who are taking French in public exams has halved over the last 20 years.

Now, why do young people learn Korean? Is it just because of K-pop or K-drama? While talking to school children and their headmasters, I found that K-pop gives them a sense of identity, belonging and togetherness. It wasn’t really about Korea. Rather, through the medium of K-pop and Hallyu, British youth seem to be finding a way to belong to a community in our fast-moving, multicultural society. I think we need to re-imagine the value of Hallyu, not in terms of Korea’s economic benefit, but through its potential as a soft power which future generations across the world can nurture internationally, to help them navigate this rapidly advancing, technology-driven era. Now is the time we can make Hallyu have a lasting legacy and impact both for Koreans and others around the world.

With this in mind, my first concern is Hangeul and the Korean language. Hangeul serves as the driving force behind the Hallyu phenomenon and is to lead in Hallyu 4.0. In 2021, there were a staggering 7.8 billion K-pop-related tweets on Twitter. At the heart of Hallyu lies Hangeul, and K-pop and K-dramas revolve around the use of Hangeul and the Korean language. The global fandom for Korean content continues to grow, with over 60 percent of Netflix members watching Korean titles in 2023. Hangeul is undoubtedly one of Korea's most precious cultural assets.

While William Shakespeare, often celebrated as the UK's greatest cultural icon, introduced over 1,700 words still in use in English today, he did not invent an entire writing system. There is no other recorded instance in human civilization that delves as deep into the history, usage and scientific principles of their own writing system as Hangeul. King Sejong, in the preface of the Hunminjeongeum outlined the purpose of inventing the alphabet: to make it easy for all people to learn and use daily-- a convenience meant not just for Koreans but for everyone, especially in the age of Hallyu.

As a linguist, I am most interested in Hangeul’s phonetic expressivity. Hangeul is learner-friendly and possesses remarkable phonetic expressiveness. With 19 consonants and 21 vowels, it can create 10,773 characters, with each character representing a unique sound. In contrast, Latin alphabets have limitations in capturing the sounds of various world languages, and International Phonetic Alphabets are too complex for lay users.

Hangeul offers a better means to represent sounds of the world's languages. Hangeul, with its full phonetic potential, is the alphabet that can preserve linguistic and cultural diversity. According to the Ethnologue released in 2016, there were 7,097 living languages. Among these languages, 3,748 are known to possess a “developed writing system,” while the remaining 3,349 are “likely unwritten.”

Already, Hangeul plays a crucial role in preserving the Cia-Cia language in Indonesia, where it has enabled 80,000 people to have a writing system. This success is an inspiring example of Hangeul as a valuable tool for documenting various languages. There are many more languages worldwide that could benefit from the adoption of Hangeul as their writing system. Hangeul has the ability to complement existing alphabets and play a significant role in fostering global cultural diversity and linguistic justice. This is particularly relevant for languages whose current writing systems are complex and challenging, to capture and describe adequately using Latin alphabets as well as those who need writing systems. To unlock Hangeul's full potential as a global writing system with substantial linguistic impact, it requires increased attention and investment.

Jieun Kiaer

Jieun Kiaer is a Young Bin Min-KF professor of Korean linguistics at the University of Oxford. -- Ed.