For The Common People

There's a middle aged man living in Hawaii.  Nothing special there, but the one I'm thinking of just happens to be the last heir of the Chosun Dynasty - the kings of Korea who ruled the country from 1392-1910.   Why did they stop in 1910?  In 1910 the Japanese took control of Korea, and forced the "rightful" heir to marry a Japanese princess.   So they had a son, Yi Ku, born in Tokyo in 1931.   He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in civil engineering, married an American of Russian origin and became a U.S. citizen himself.   For a while Yi Ku, who returned to Korea with his parents, taught in universities and ran a construction company.    However, his business ended in bankruptcy, and he pottered around for a bit after that.  

Thus ended the glorious history of the Kings of Korea, on a somewhat less than glorious note.  I'd never want to live in a Monarchy myself, but, it's a sorta sad story all the same, isn't it?  Especially for a country like Korea, whose people take pride in remembering their past and honouring their ancestors.

I say he's living in Hawaii, but that's just what a tour guide in the DMZ told me.   Unleashing the power of the internet, I see that he's living in hawaii, or possibly Tokyo, or possibly Korea.   So I don't knw where he's living, but nevertheless he's definately making it well up onto my list of the people I'd most like to have at a dinner party. ;-)  His ancestors have all been Kings of Korea, and now, now, he's just ... some guy whose construction company went belly up.    Now he's not royalty, now he's just one of the common people.

But that's just a little sidenote that I thought I'd slip in there.  What I really want to talk about here is one of Yi Ku's more important ancestors, King Sejong.  King who?  King Sejong, King of Korea, back in 1446.  One day he said to himself.. hey, the hell with these Chinese squiggles, I want a real writing system, get me some wise men!  A short time later, a new alphaebet was born:
"Because of their foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings.   Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings.    Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters.   The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people."
King Sejong
Hunmin Chong-um

The Correct Sounds For The Instruction Of The Common People

  The common people of Korea couldn't write with the Chinese characters, in use amongst the literati of the day, so the good King Sejong decided to create a new writing system, a new alphabet, that would be easy for the pesantry to understand.

This didn't go down too well with the intellectuals, who referred to the new alphabet variously as

  • Ach'imgul (morning letters):  In other words... I've wasted years learning these crappy Chinese characters and now you're telling me to use an alphabet that can be learned in a single morning?
  • Amk'ul (women's letters):  It was so bloody simple that even women could learn it.
  • Eonmeun (vulgar script):  Eh, screw you and your "alphabet"!

Nevertheless, the alphabet idea was brilliant, the wise men (in the Chiphyonjon group), had done a great job  They considered human sounds as being more than mere physical phenomena.   They assumed that an invisible yet more powerful principle was the controlling force behind these phenomena.    They adhered to the principle that human sounds and all universal phenomena are all based on yin-yang (positive-negative) and ohaeng (the five primary elements:metal, wood, water, fire and earth).   Hence, they thought it natural that there be a common link between sounds and the changing of the seasons and between sounds and music.

Pretty highbrow stuff, but since the idea was to educate the masses, they also applied some more scientific principles and a very simple design philosophy to the whole thing.    The basic vowels are chosen to represent the Sky, Land, and Man.  

  • So "." represnets the roundness of the heavens,
  • "" represents the flatness of the land, and
  • " " represents an upstanding man.   
Pretty neat stuff, and they can be combined in lots of ways to get the full system of vowels:
The nice thing about this system is that all the vowels have exactly one pronunciation, so you don't have all the problems you have in English with different sounds from the same letters.  For example, the "o" in "hot", and in "go" have differnt sounds, but we use the same letter.  The Korean system is much more scientific.  Different sounds, different letters.

So much for the vowels representing Sky, Land and Man, what about the consonants?   This is where things get really funky.  For a start they look much simpler and are easier to write than our letters, or cyrillic script or pretty much any other alphabet I've seen.But the supercool thing is that the shape of the letters is chosen to mimic the shape of the mouth when making that sound!   For example, here's the letter "niun",, basically equivalent to our "n".   The tip of the tounge touches the back of the top teeth.  So they made the letter the same shape as your tongue when you say the sound!  Simple, but unbelievably clever, compared to our script!

Here are all the consonants, with equivalent pronunciations in English.

So it's unbelievably simple, but when I first looked at it I was intimidated.   Why?  Because it looks complicated.  Partly because it was new and strange, but mostly just because the letters aren't written one after the other from left to right like ours.   Rather they're written in syllable blocks that run either horizontally or vertically!  Here's an example:

And something a little more complicated:
And the English version:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.   They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

At the start I thought they were all meaningless pictures.  At first glance that looks like so many unlearnable chinese characters, but looking closer you can see that it's just a small set of alphabetic letters cunningly arranged in syllable blocks.  Very slick.  Now the advantage is that, unlike with our alphabet, you can always tell where syllables start and end.  The downside is that while you use a space to seperate syllables, many people just seem to use a single space to seperate whole words as well.  So you can tell where syallables are, but not where the words start or end. :-)  May be th is is n't mu ch of a prob lem if you spe ak Ko re an, but it sucks if you don't!

Koreans are a really patriotic bunch, and they're proud of a lot of their history.    One korean friend told me that in school she was always told to be proud of these Korean letters.    But he never really "got" it until afterwards.    Why be proud?    The Japanese have their alphabets, the Chinese have their symbols, the Russians have a different alphabet, and english yet another one.    It wasn't until he grew up that he realised how special the "Hangul" alphabet really is.    Most alphabets are developed over time, but this is unique to Korea, and invented by a King's scholars intent on improving the lot of the people.    That's pretty cool.   

Plus they live up to the old insult of Ach'imgul (morning letters) - a fool could learn them in even a single morning.    I did. :-)


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