The Superiority of Hangeul

Yep, having collected the majority of those assignments from my writing class students, it turns out that more than one group decided to write about how Hangeul is superior to English. When you ask people to compare and contrast something, it’s interesting how some immediately feel the need to prove that whatever they feel is theirs is absolutely superior.

The claims made are that Hangeul is easier to learn. Well, yes, I have to give it that. It’s generally pretty easy to learn to spell Korean words by ear. There are a few difficult liasons, and some of those double consonants take a while to start hearing, and the a-e/eo-e vowel is basically indistinguishable by hearing, but yeah, all in all, spelling in Korean is easier than spelling in English. Why? Well, English language words tend to contain (or hint at) their etymology. You have words and roots borrowed from French, Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, and many more languages. While learning to spell in English can therefore be a big pain, it may help somewhat with advanced learners, who start to catch the etymological links between words. Of course, this exists in Korean, too, but it’s not a facet of the spelling per se. The tradeoff here is that spelling is a royal pain in English, but that etymology presents itself a little more clearly. On the other hand, in Korean, since everything’s spelled using a more semi-phonetical system, it’s much easier to learn how to spell in Korean, but a foreign learner might need to learn Hanja (Chinese characters) in order to figure out which words are Korean and which are Chinese-rooted.

Notice how I’m contrasting the two languages? Some of my students seem to have missed that this was the point of the exercise. When I see essay titles like, “The Superiority of Hangeul”, I have to shake my head. It’s like a knee-jerk response, this, “Mine is better, mine is the best!”

Other “interesting” arguments: It will be easier to create a voice-recognition system because there are no homonyms in Korean. (So, then, does ? mean speak, or horse?) It will be easier to create a voice-recognition system because Korean speech is much clearer. English has no innate characteristics because the vocabulary comes from a mixture of different languages, while Korean has an innate character because King Sejong invented Hangeul for the people. (And here I was thinking that the majority of Korean words were derived from Chinese words. Silly me!)

Actually, if you ask different people what percentage of Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese, you’ll get different answers. In one class, I was explaining to some Chinese students that they might have an advantage over me in learning Korean because of this, and we asked three different students about what percentage of Korean words were originally Chinese. One student said, “Nothing!” while the second said, “I think about 30%,” and the third said “I don’t know, maybe 60%?” The latter student is the closest, though all the sources I’ve seen say something vague like “over 50%”.

Of course, it might just be that most people never really think about numbers in terms of this. Certainly, I wouldn’t know what percentage of English is from Anglo-Saxon, how much from French, Latin, and Greek… I wouldn’t even be able to guess at numbers. So I’m not ridiculing students for not knowing. But what I do find interesting is that, rather than saying, “I have absolutely no idea,” students hurried to offer a guesstimate, which in the majority of cases was absolutely wrong, and I have to wonder on what basis they made that assertion.

I’ve experienced that before, though: asking people whether this or that shop was on this street, people would answer “No.” I quickly learned that asking Yes-No questions most often got me “No,” as an answer, I think because many people, at least in Jeonju, were not comfortable speaking to an unfamiliar foreigner in Korean. (I remember a running gag between friends about how the answer to any question, at work or in a restaurant or at a coffeeshop, was always, “No.” It wasn’t really that way, but dealing with some people, it sometimes felt like it.)

But when I started asking more complex questions, like “Where this or that thing is located?” in Korean, they would often give me what seemed like randomly-generated , semi-logical answers. I’d get sent down this or that street. People would tell me to try another location of the shop for a service that they couldn’t provide (such as transferring my phone ownership to my own name), and at the second shop, I’d be directed back to the first shop with absolute certainty that that was the place I needed to go. I don’t know if it’s a strategy of urgent politeness, or just a way of getting rid of someone when you don’t know the answer to his question, but I do know that it took three or four shops — and it took until I was quite annoyed — before I finally called the head office in Seoul and was redirected to the place I needed to go, which was the main office in the city.

Okay, this post went from a discussion of student essays to a rant about made-up answers, but there is a link, I think, so I’m going to leave this intact… for now, anyway, unless I think better of it.

3 thoughts on “The Superiority of Hangeul

  1. One thing I noticed you didn’t mention (maybe because it was obvious) is how Koreans often confuse Hangeul with the Korean language. Hangeul is a writing system, Korean is a language. For the most part it is a harmless confusion, even though it does betray the speaker’s linguistic ignorance. But then you get people talking about how Korean is such a scientificaly designed language. Wrong: Hangeul is a well-designed writing system, but the Korean language is just as organic as every other language–with foreign-language influences and all.

    So, in effect, comparing Hangeul with English is like comparing the works of Monet with acrylic paint.

    I only mention this because it drives me completely insane. People in my department, obviously, don’t confuse Hangeul and Korean, but pretty much everyone else does.

  2. Ooops… Charles, I started the post with the intention of pointing that very fact out. I’ve corrected students on this many times, and they all seem to go, “Oh, yeah.” It’s not really harmless confusion, actually. People say “King Sejong invented Hangeul” and as you point out, then you get this crap about it being a scientific language. Which is nonsense.

    The killer is that people who are that slack about it then go on to explain how their language is superior in precision (because, they claim, there are no homophones in Korean, for example) and so on. If it’s so precise, how come people can’t even sort the writing system from the more general language in common speech?

    Then again, I even catch myself saying, “No, write it in English letters” and then stop and say, “In Roman letters, I mean.” I probably picked that up from students, but still… why facilitate a misconception?

  3. yah, no kidding! i once wrote about how maybe parts of hangeul were derived from the hebrew alphabet (conceivable that it was studied with the korean alphabeet in mind, since hangeul was “invented” in the 1400s, and hebrew is an older language–and there are some letters that look VERY similar and very similar names)…and i got a bunch of very indignant posts from very indignant Koreans who confused hangeul with the Korean language.

    I had made claims about the written language, but they had thought I’d made claims about the language itself.

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