When I think of languages, I first think of the spoken language. It is the dynamic element of language, as we have discussed, the conveyance of thought, and the vehicle of understanding. Quick to follow, in my mind, is the written element, that which records thought and transmits it through time. As a native speaker of English, that is generally my understanding of language. We speak to each other, and we write. We listen, and we read. And for me it is that simple. McLuhan's observations on how the nature of written language, or absence of it, organizes, or limits, our processes of perception and thought interested me. Language doesn't seem so simple anymore. It exists in a cultural context in which it changes to meet the needs of the culture, but in turn, it can define culture through writing or printing or other technological changes. In a passage on the conditions of culture that make possible the use of the alphabet within a language, McLuhan in a footnote mentions 'that the Koreans are reputed to have a phonetic alphabet.'(40) He mentions this in criticism of another scholar who wrote that in 1403, the Koreans 'were making cast-metal type.'(40) McLuhan is pointing out that the other scholar, T.F. Carter, who wrote *The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westward*, was ignoring the existence of the 'reputed' phonetic alphabet of the Koreans. Due to the relative absence of scholarship on Korean literacy in the early 1960s, I would have preferred he made no comment about it at all because by reporting what is 'reputed,' he repays his reader with an incomplete truth, a mistruth actually. The Korean language, in all its forms, serves as a unique and complex example of the relationships between speech, writing, and culture. In this e-paper I hope to elucidate the complexities of the pluralistic and synthetic natures of the Korean language so that, by examining Korean, another perspective may be provided from which McLuhan's arguments can be considered.
The Korean language is a member of the Altaic family and about two thousand years old. Linguistically, it is unrelated to Chinese and quite similar to Japanese, yet distinct. In its present form, there are three basic parts(for lack of a better word) of Korean. The spoken language is called Hanguk-mal, literally 'Korean speech.' The written language exists in two other parts. Hangul is the modern Korean alphabet and Hanja refers to the body of Chinese characters that have been incorporated into Korean (in Japanese they are called Kanji, note the similarity). The vocabulary of Korean is rather small, but to compensate, the Koreans make use of many 'loan words' from China and a surprising amount from the West which are called HanMi, literally Korean-Western, or Korean-American (one example: cham-pu=shampoo). In addition to new vocabulary, the West has also given Korea the alphabet. Roadsigns, train schedules, and even a few newspapers are all printed in Mi-ahl'bhet-gul (Western 'alphabet' alphabet--there is no 'ph' sound in Korean). With two very different writing systems, and a third sort of absorbed, present, Hanguk-mal serves as the time honored constant in Korean culture.
The origins of Hanja, the oldest writing system in Korea, are, of course, in China, but not entirely Chinese. Throughout Korean history, the Korean people have enjoyed only a few, and very brief, periods of self-rule. China lies to the north beyond the Yalu River, and Japan is a short boat crossing away. But with a climate somewhat more favorable than its neighbors, Korea has been a crossroads of imperial armies. The Chinese ruled Korea for centuries. As a natural result, the Chinese ideogramic system became the written language of business and government. Only the most educated Koreans could actually speak Chinese, though. Hanguk-mal remained the spoken language not only out of ignorance of Chinese speech, but also out of pride. Thus developed the system of Hanja as it exists today. Chinese ideograms are written to represent the same idea which they represent in Chinese, but are pronounced as Korean words. To the medieval scholars in Korea, Hanja appealed because of its aesthetic qualities and for its ability to express abstract ideas in a manner of simplicity and elegance. Yet, these very scholars who clung to Hanja were creating an elitist caste whose cultural loyalties were questioned by the people. Those very men who were supposed to preserve Korean culture were abandoning it, but Hanguk-mal offered no written alternative.
In the early fifteenth century, the Koreans found themselves under their own rulers. King Sejong of the Yi dynasty, in 1440, commissioned a group of scholars to devise a written language for Hanguk-mal. He sought to provide the Korean people with an identifying bond and a unique *literate* culture to set Korea apart from China. Six years later, the scholars finished their work. They developed Hangul, a phonetic alphabet that was tailor made, from scratch as it were, for the spoken language of Koreans. The Ahjashi Hangul-ae'yo (uncles of Hangul) created a writing system that fit the speech characteristics of Hanguk-mal rather well. There are six basic vowels, twelve vowel diphthongs, ten basic consonants, five stressed consonants, and four aspirated consonants. These letters are then stacked and combined into groups of two or three, rarely four, to form a syllable. The true cleverness of the Ahjashi Hangul-ae'yo lies in the image the syllable creates. For many words, about a tenth of the language, the Hangul syllable resembles the Hanja for the same word. They're not exactly alike, of course, but close enough to aid memory. My knowledge of Hanja is next to nothing, but one example of this principle that springs to mind is the word 'east.' It would of course be easier to illustrate the concept with a chalkboard rather than with a keyboard. But keeping the idea of visual similarity in mind, consider the work of the Ahjashi Hangul-ae'yo to arrive at such a system. Since syllables are grouped together from left to right to form words, the Ahjashi Hangul-ae'yo thought at least one syllable in a word might resemble Hanja and thus aid in the learning process. Hangul, despite all its cleverness, was slow to catch on. The early critics dismissed Hangul because they thought that no one could learn to read horizontally. Scholars, for the next few centuries, insisted on Hanja, for various reasons.
In modern written Korean, a combination of Hangul and Hanja is used. Hangul finally became accepted when the Japanese occupied Korea before WWII. The Japanese outlawed Hangul with a multitude of things that were characteristically Korean, such as kim chee, a staple food. This was a harsh blow to the Koreans because since the 1880s, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic missionaries were teaching Hangul to Korean children in their mission schools largely because it was easier for Americans and Europeans to learn than Hanja. The Japanese effort to erase Korean culture stimulated a renewed interest in Hangul. It became the everyday written language of newspapers, magazines, bibles, menus, etc. in open resistance. After the war, the pendulum had continued to swing in the direction of Hangul so far that, as a result, Hanja was left once again for the scholars. Recognizing the limits of Hangul as well as the advantages of retaining some Hanja, the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea directed Yonsei University in Seoul (the Oxford of Korea) to compile a list of 1,800 essential Hanja which were to be taught in all middle schools and high schools. Thus, modern South Korean is written in a mixed script. North Korea has completely rejected Hanja. They see it as a sort of cultural imperialism which, given their until recently very close ties to China, I have always found ironic. Today, any knowledge of Hanja is seen as a mark of education and refinement, largely because most Koreans don't learn much more than the Yonsei 1,800 unless they attend university.
As Korea entered the electronic age, Hangul posed a problem. Typewriters, computers, and the 110,000 Americans living there (including the 80,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen) all caused the increase of transliterated Korean. Unlike Chinese, Korean is fairly easy to write in the Western alphabet and is done so frequently. Transliteration has given children another 'language' to learn and excludes some of the older Koreans. It has also caused some rather fundamental problems in the language. Hangul was designed to put an image of sound on paper, which it does well. But since the emphasis was on the sound the image was portraying, spelling was never emphatically enforced. The first dictionaries of Hangul were given to the Koreans accidentally. Occidental traders didn't want the Koreans to know that they could understand them.(The aforementioned tale is sort of legendary. I've heard it many times and even read the plaque on the quay in the Han River in Seoul where it is said that a cabin boy, upset with his captain, gave the Koreans the dictionary so that they could hear his captain plotting. Whatever, but the standardized publication of dictionaries wasn't until 1972.) Even with dictionaries, there are still a great number of irregularities in spelling. Until the electronic age, it was never a problem because Koreans read in sound. It is the sound of the word to which they respond. Spelling, alphabetization, and transliteration are beginning to seperate and specialize the senses.(para. McLuhan p34) Thus, in our country, some people see the computer creating a generation gap, whereas in Korea, it's creating a cultural gap. When children are seen writing in Mi-ahl'bet-gul, our alphabet, the elders shake their heads and say Korea is dying.
This e-paper has gone on to be quite a bit longer than I had originally envisioned. I will end with a couple of questions. What does Korean do to McLuhan's observations on alphabet and culture? Does the Korean language, in its changing forms, cast any light, either by comparison or contrast, on the condition of 'literacy' within our culture? I throw these questions out to try to encourage discussion. I don't know the answers. I just know that I don't think Korean fits neatly into any part of the McLuhan mosaic. Thank you for your patience.