A few weeks ago one of our readers made an off-hand comment about language being technology and I’ve been thinking about that periodically since then. This is a level of discourse that I can get behind because I’m frankly not much of a techie. I tend to buy an electronic device, take it home, set it in a corner for a few weeks, unpack it and then grudgingly learn to use about 5% of its capabilities. Old-tech, however, I get. One of the best examples I can think of with regards to language being technology is the Korean alphabet, known as ‘hangeul’. “Big woop”, you might say, “we’ve all got alphabets”. But what makes hangeul unique is the way it came into being.
About five hundred years ago the Korean nation was fortunate enough to have a good and smart king (very likely their only one, ever). This king, Sejong the Great, recognized that the Korean language was not well-served by the Chinese writing system which they’d used for centuries because they’d had none of their own. One reason Chinese characters didn’t always work so well for Koreans is that Korean and Chinese are linguistically unrelated, even though Korean has taken on Chinese loan-words in much the same way that Anglo-Saxon became heavily contaminated with Greek and Latin. In addition, Chinese, known as hanja, takes years to learn to read and write.
King Sejong, in his wisdom, decided that his people should become literate and stop wasting so much time studying hanja. He set top men to the task, and within a few months they had the makings of an incredibly useful and time-saving tool. So effective was hangeul that instead of taking years to learn, it took anything from a few hours to a few days to learn. One key factor is that hangeul is a series of letters, like the Roman alphabet we use, rather than kernels of concepts, like the Chinese writing system. The alphabet was drawn to mimic in a way the shape of the mouth and tongue needed to produce the sounds they represent. Visually hangeul can seem similar to Chinese characters because it is constructed in phonemic blocks: one word can have from two to four letters in one little box.
Not everyone appreciated the efforts of Sejong the Great, or his ministers. The wealthy, literate class (virtually all male), felt that hangeul undermined the scholarly grandiose of taking years upon years to become properly literate. They were clearly threatened by a tool that could bring literacy to the entire populace. As such, the alphabet was repressed after Sejong’s death and it took centuries for hangeul to be widely adopted. Even into the 1980s one needed a significant knowledge of hanja to read a Korean newspaper. Today, however, hangeul is the only alphabet one needs in Korea. Hangeul has become a major source of pride for the Korean people, who like to remind everyone that their’s is a “scientific alphabet”.