(539) Use of Hangeul
By Andrei Lankov
One of things which often come as a complete revelation to foreigners is the fact that most modern Koreans cannot really read some 95 percent of texts written in Korean before 1900. But this really is the case.
Indeed, for centuries Koreans did not write much in their native language. Korean texts, written in Hangeul, were sometimes despised, sometimes ridiculed, but normally ignored as primitive, perhaps suitable for women and lesser orders, but definitely beyond the dignity of the educated elite males ― the only group which actually mattered in the affairs of politics, business and high culture.
The educated expressed their thoughts in a foreign tongue, in Classical Chinese, the language of the Confucian canon which was derived from a language spoken in China some 25 centuries ago. Early education in old Korea was about mastering this ancient and difficult language.
A similar situation existed across the region. The educated people in Vietnam, Japan, Okinawa (then an independent state) also communicated in the language of Confucius. The Chinese were not that much privileged as well: by around the 10th century A.D. the language which was actually spoken in China had diverged much from the ancient tongue, so children of the Chinese elite also spent years mastering what essentially was a completely foreign tongue to them.
Chinese characters began to spread across East Asia shortly before the beginning of the Christian era. The earliest Chinese inscriptions discovered in Korea so far are roughly 2,000 years old, and by the fourth or fifth century A.D. all educated inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula (a tiny minority of its population, of course) could read Classical Chinese fluently.
Actually, they had no other way to convene their thoughts in writing. They developed some ingenious ways to write the sounds of the Korean language.
But this early system, based on Chinese characters, was cumbersome and could only be learned by people who already had a command of Classical Chinese. Hence, it was largely used to write poetry.
In the 15th century, Hangeul, the phonetic Korean script, was invented. The Japanese developed their phonetic writing system earlier while in Vietnam the Nom script appeared roughly contemporaneously with Hangeul.
However, for centuries all these phonetic scripts did not play a major role in cultural life. They were used for popular fiction and poetry, but nearly all “serious” texts were still composed in Classical Chinese and written down in Chinese characters.
There was nothing peculiar or unique in this language situation. The tiny educated minority of medieval Europe also seldom used the language of the common folk, the languages which became foundations for present-day German, English or Italian. They wrote in Latin instead. Meanwhile, Arabic played a similar role in the Middle East while Sanskrit served as the major means of communication in South Asia.
This use of a common elite language made possible a very high level of cultural unity. A Korean scholar could easily read a book published in Hanoi or exchange letters with a Japanese colleague.
But it also created serious obstacles for mass education. Once new technologies began to develop, it became clear that one could not realistically expect many children to master a dead language.
In Europe Latin was gradually pushed out from the 14th century, but this process took centuries, so only by the 1800s did the “vernacular” languages firmly establish themselves in all fields, including scientific and other specialized publications.
In East Asia changes were much more rapid. After the 1868 Meiji Restoration in Japan, vernacular Japanese began to spread fast, pushing Chinese aside (actually, in Japan vernacular was used more widely than in most of the countries of the region).
At the same time, the French took over Indochina and began to promote the use of the Roman script in Vietnam (actually, such a script had been in use since the 17th century, but in the pre-colonial times it had been used only by Vietnamese Christians).
In China, the old script remained in use, but the language itself changed: from the 1910s the Chinese switched to the spoken language which is as different from Classical Chinese as, say, modern French is different from Latin.
These changes were driven by three major factors.
First, the obvious inability to resist foreign pressure and newly revealed technological backwardness made East Asian intellectuals quite skeptical of and hostile to traditional culture, including its linguistic dimension.
Second, the need for cheap mass education meant that teaching had better be conducted in the language children learned at home.
Third, most intellectuals believed (erroneously) that Classical Chinese was intrinsically unsuitable for convening modern terms and ideas.
Against such a background, the Korean situation was quite typical, and throughout the 1890s the large-scale switch to Hangeul and Korean took place.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.