Terebess Asia Online (TAO)


Gábor Osváth, PhD. I.
Language Policy, Language Planning in Korea
(A Historical Survey)

I. From the invention of hangul until 1945

The Korean phonetic alphabet called now hangul is a very early example of conscious language planning in the world history. All decisions concerning language planning of any Korean government are connected with discussions about the role and scope of use of this script: it is the reason why the analysis of this alphabet is interesting from a sociolingvistic point of view.

Hangul was invented relatively late; earlier the Koreans only used a foreign script: Chinese characters. The use of this very complicated writing system caused very serious problems, because Chinese (monosyllabic) and Korean (polysyllabic) are rather different languages. The Koreans adopted the Chinese writing around the first centuries A.D., and the classical Chinese language (in Korean hanmun) became an official language. Together with the Chinese characters (in Korean han-cha) Korea adopted (or later developed itself) Chinese character words (han-cha-o). Now these words represent around 60 percent of the Korean vocabulary (the same process happened in Japan and Vietnam a little later).

Because of the impossibility to write pure Korean words without any modification of the reading and forms of Chinese characters, the Koreans explored ways of recording their native language with the help of the Chinese script. In that process they utilised sounds and meanings attached to each character. The result of their efforts devoted to writing their native language was idu (‘official reading’) and other principally similar writing systems. This device was surely a predecessor of the Japanese writing system named Katakana because idu - like Katakana - simplified the strokes of Chinese characters.

In 1443 a phonetic script (hangul) was formulated by a few scholars centering around King Sejong (they belonged to a government office called Chip’yonjon - namely the Pavilion of the Assembly of Sages). The new script, originally of twenty-eight symbols, was royally promulgated in 1446 in a little book entitled hunmin-chong-um (‘correct sounds for teaching the people’). There were a lot of theories about the origin of the shape of hangul letters, but the discussions stopped in 1940 when a royal document called Hummin-chong-um hae-rye (Explication of the correct sounds for teaching the people 1446) was found because a detailed explanation of letter forms can be read in it.

According to many Korean and foreign linguists hangul is one of the most simple and scientific writing systems of the world, but because of the strong cultural influence of China, it became widely used only in the 20th century as a symbol of modern national identity and independence. Now it is considered the most noteworthy event in the cultural history of the Korean people.

Hangul consonants were made after the patterns of the mouth in pronouncing the sounds. Consonants were grouped into five kinds according to sounds; the softest sounds in each of five groups were selected; the mouth patterns in pronouncing these softest sounds were simplified and five basic consonants were made. Among the five basic consonants /k/ is a simplified form of the mouth - velar - with the back of the tongue on the soft palate of the open mouth, /n/ - alveolar - with the tip of the tongue touching the upper alveoli; /m/ - bilabial - the form of the mouth using both lips; /s/ - dental - the working of teeth in pronunciation, /ng/ - glottal - with the use of glottis in pronunciation. Based on these five consonants, consonants in the same group were all made in similar forms, adding one more stroke to the letter of the basic consonant. The letters for vowels were made from an entirely different angle. That is according to the oriental philosophy, the three most important elements of nature were symbolized by a vertical line (man), a horizontal line (earth) and a round dot (heaven), making them the figures of the basic vowels.

Sejong and the inventors of the hangul certainly did not foresee the role that was to be played in the development of Korean nationalism by the Korean language and Korean literature. They did not conceive of their movement as rejecting Confucian education or Confucian morality, which they considered to be the firm basis of good government. On the contrary, the vernacular script which they devised was considered to be a particularly useful means to simplify the Chinese classics through commentary and translation for the common people and women.

The excellence of the new script was proved soon after the invention: in 1446 the king ordered the compilation of the Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (Jongbi o-ch’on-ga), the oldest extant literature using hangul. Later on many outstanding works of Korean literature were written in hangul but the authority of Chinese characters remained very strong: only around 5 percent of Korean literature was written not in classical Chinese but in Korean (with the help of hangul).

In 1897, the twenty-sixth king of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), acting under the influence of western ideas and prodded by the Japanese, declared himself Emperor of the Han (an ancient name for Korean tribes, not to be confused with the Chinese dynasty of the same name), thus proclaiming his equality with the Emperor of China and asserting political independence. A new name for the country was coined: Tae-han-che-guk (‘Great Han Empire’). The official status of classical Chinese was abolished and Korean became the only official language (kug-o), and its former pejorative names (onmun ‘vulgar language’, pangon ‘dialect’ etc.) went out of fashion. Nevertheless, the teaching of classical Chinese continued in schools and under the influence of Japanese writing system the so called mixed script (The combination of Chinese characters and Korean letters) was used. The first Korean language newspaper Tok-rip Shin-mun ‘The Independent’) was published by So Chae-p’il in 1896.

Hangul played a very important role in the development of the modern Korean literature: the first contemporary novel (Li In-jik: Hyol-ui nu ‘Bloody Tears’) was written in 1906.

During the Japanese colonial rule (1910-0945) the Japanese government attempted to assimilate the Korean people: even the Korean language elementary school education was prohibited in 1940.

II. The Language Policy in South Korea after 1945

In South Korea the use of Chinese characters was cancelled in 1948 but for a transitional period their use was tolerated. The transitional period proved to be very long: even now we can find Chinese characters in several newspapers. Nevertheless almost all works of literature, school textbooks, government documents, many journals and newspapers are published in hangul. The most influential dailies (Chosun Ilbo, Hanguk Ilbo, Tong-a Ilbo) are written in a mixed form (the Chinese character words are written in Chinese characters and the pure Korean words and suffixes in hangul). The proportion of Chinese characters is decreasing continuously even in these newspapers: now only 10-20 percent of Chinese character-words are written in Chinese characters.

The followers of Chinese characters refer to the new slogans of internationalisation (kukchehwa), globalization (segyehwa) and demand the maintenance of Chinese characters in the 6 year elementary schools where their use was abolished by Pak Chung Hi during his modernization campaign in 1970. They think that being a member of the so-called Kulturkreis of Chinese characters (han-cha-mun-hwa-kwon) guarantees the firm place of Korea among the countries of the future Northeast Asian Economic Community (tong-puk-a kyong-che-kwon). They also think that the use of Chinese characters makes the meaning of character-words clearer, and the students get accustomed to disciplined work. Moreover, only the use of Chinese characters can promote a deeper understanding of classical works and the public moral. The opposition to mixed writing (han-cha pyongyong) considers that the above interpretation of internationalization may lead to Japanization (ilbonhwa), because Korea borrowed too many Japanese-made character-words before 1945 and the colonial mentality can survive with the help of mixed writing. They also say that the Chinese characters are not identical in China, Korea and Japan, with both China and Japan using many abbreviated forms. Instead of learning and using character-words, it would be more important to master mother language skills and learn foreign languages, because Koreans have many problems in this field. The classical works of the past must be translated into modern Korean with hangul letters.

The liberation of Korea in 1945 was accompanied by democratization in all the spheres of life. This process also took place in the standard (Seoul) Korean having assumed the shape of purification of its vocabulary from the so-called difficult, actually loaned, non-Korean (including hanmun) words and expressions. It was supposed that such lexems had to be replaced by easier lexical units that consist either of indigenous or lexical elements adopted by Korean and therefore comprehensible to all the speakers.

The purification -substitution process was considerably intensified by the restriction of the number of characters in usage in the South and their total withdrawal from the press and literature in the North since 1949.

III. Language Policy in North Korea after 1945

In order to prevent the infiltration of foreign influence to the country, the Stalinist regime of North Korea chose the policy of isolationism (chuch’e). After realising the lasting character of the division of country and because of ideological reasons, they declared the Pyongyang dialect the new standard language, „the language of workers and peasants” instead of the former Seoul-centred standard language (p’yojun-o). Sometimes they call their new language policy „language revolution” and the newly appointed standard (Pyongyang) speech is called „cultural language” (munhwa-o) Due to the interesting fact that munhwa-o contains many elements of the Seoul-centered standard Korean, the language divergence between South and North is not considered relevant yet.

Language planning of North can be divided into three periods:

The period of democratization (1945-1948): the most important task was the abolition of illiteracy and it was accomplished.

The period of normalization (1949-1963): The new rules of orthography were compiled at the newly established language research institute. The new spelling rules are slightly different from that of South, which basically preserved the old rules of 1933. The order and name of letters, the orthography of word initial liquids and word initial /n/, the rules of spelling as one or two words, among others are different. At the beginning of this period (1949) the use of Chinese characters was fully abolished.

The period of munhwa-o (1964- ): in 1964 a new language movement (maltadumgi undong ‘language regulation movement’), started, which, in many respects, shows the characteristic features of a political campaign. The main task of this movement is the substitution of difficult foreign lexical elements: it reveals many common features with the different South Korean purification movements (the equally strong nationalistic sentiment in both countries is the explanation to this phenomenon).

The main theoretical document of the maltadumgi is a speech of Kim Il-sung delivered at the conference of leading North Korean linguists in 1964. The main points of his speech are as follows: the loan words which are difficult for comprehension for working people must be replaced by pure Korean words. The most difficult task is the replacement of complicated Chinese character-words. Concerning these words he suggested the following treatment:

If the loan word is perceived as a native one, it is not necessary to replace it with a newly coined word.

If the Chinese character-word has a native Korean synonym, the replacement is advisable.

If the Chinese character-word and its Korean synonym have different shade of meaning the replacement must be avoided.

If Chinese character-word (or other loan word) is not easily comprehensible and it has no native Korean synonym, a new word must be coined.

It must be stressed that the objects of purification both in North and South on the whole mutually coincide, that is almost the same lexical units are considered „difficult” and apt to be substituted by „easier” ones. As to the „easy” lexems proposed instead, they may differ from each other in two aspects:

The undesirable word is substituted by synonyms,

The substitutes are different only from the grammatical point of view (e.g. the same lexical item but with different suffixes)

The political character of language reform in North is evident. The dictionaries contain many desirable (but actually not existing) lexical items and the lexicological interpretation of entry words reveals the political intentions of the compilators. Foreign language learning serves only the political education, too. Personal names became also objects of replacement if they are not desirable, e.g. the women’s name with the cha (‘child’) element is considered a Japanism.

The definition of the language divergence between the two hostile Koreas is not an easy task. According to a South Korean survey the main sphere of the differences is not the grammatical system yet but only the vocabulary: „the difficulty experienced by many North Korean defectors is due in a large part to the prevalent use of English terms in South Korea coupled with their poor knowledge of Chinese characters, which makes it difficult to read most newspapers.”

In the present era of globalization and internationalization the total lack of communication between North and South is historically an anachronism and it must be eliminated in order to bring closer the two variants of the Korean language and their speaking communities.