On Hangeul Day
Google has added Hangeul Day to the list of holidays and memorable dates that it honors with creative logos.
The Hangeul Day logo showed ``Google" written symmetrically in Hangul. Celebrated on October 9, Hangeul Day honors Korea's unique writing system, and Korea is the only country in the world to honors its writing system with a holiday.
The story of Hangeul is well known. King Sejong the Great (r. 1418-1450) assembled a team of schools and worked with them with them to develop a writing system for the Korean language. After three years of work, Hangeul was promulgated in 1446.
To help the new writing system take root, King Sejong sponsored a number of writing projects that mixed Hangeul and Chinese characters. The new writing system spread slowly and eventually took root in poetry (sijo and gasa) and popular novels. Classical Chinese remained the dominant language of the government and educated elite until the end of the Joseon Kingdom in 1910.
In the 20th century, Hangeul became a symbol of Korean national pride during the oppression of the Japanese colonial era. The Korean Language Research Society promoted the use of Hangeul and published a standard orthography in 1933 and started work on a large dictionary that was eventually completed after liberation in 1945. As in the Joseon period, Hangeul thrived as a literary language with the development of modern poetry and novels.
After liberation in 1945, both Korean states developed language policies centered on Hangul. From the outset, North Korea adopted a Hangeul-only policy, whereas South Korea allowed Chinese characters, causing a controversy over the role of Chinese characters in the writing system and in the schools that continues to this day.
In the new millennium, Hangeul has remained a symbol of Korean national pride, but with a twist. It has become one of the ``cultural contents" that Koreans believe promotable as part of nation branding. Efforts to ``globalize" Hangeul and to ``inform" foreigners about Hangeul have sprung up in public and private institutions. The problem with such efforts, however, is that they start with the mistaken premise that a writing system can become a brand.
Linguists and hardcore language learners find writing systems interesting, but most people do not. Most people associate a foreign language with sounds and communication, not writing systems. A few artists and designers, meanwhile, may play with a writing system, but very few develop a career based on writing system art and design.
For something to become a brand, it has to appeal to a large group of consumers and a producers, but the appeal of Hangeul, however beautiful and attractive, is inherently limited because it is a writing system. In the end, Hangeul neckties, scarves, and other trinkets are offbeat conversation pieces, not mainstream products.
A related strain of thought in Hangul nation branding is the idea of promoting Hangeul as a writing system for languages that currently lack writing systems. The idea gained media attention in 2009 when it was reported that the Cia-Cia language in Indonesia would use Hangeul as their writing system.
According to recent reports, however, the project has stalled. The idea of promoting Hangeul as a writing system for other languages has great emotional appeal for Koreans, but may not fit sensitive local conditions in which a national or dominant language uses another writing system (Roman letters in the case of Indonesia).
To promote Hangeul effectively, it needs context, just as literature provided context from the 15th to the 20th century. The appropriate context for ``globalizing" Hangeul is Korean language education. The logic is simple: As more people learn Korean, more people learn about Hangeul. Instead of reading (and being turned off by) national advertisements about the ``superiority" of Hangeul, they learn about it first hand as they learn Korean.
Japan is an interesting example of how the spread of interest in the Korean language raised the profile of Hangeul. The hallyu boom in the mid-2000s stimulated a surge in learning Korean, mainly as a hobby. The number of books on learning Korean greatly increased and most books contain introductions to Hangeul and attractive graphic explanations on how letters are combined into syllables.
The point is clear: Promoting Korean language education is promoting Hangeul; it cannot be divorced from the language that it was designed for. The problem, of course, is that promoting Korean language education is more expensive and more time consuming than advertisements, books, offbeat trinkets, and promotional videos.
Language education requires a sustained effort built around physical and virtual schools that attract students. And it requires cultural sensitivity and a willingness to understand and accept cultural differences. This may not be what Hangeul lovers in a hurry want to hear, but it is the only way to advance their agenda.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean language Education at Seoul National University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.