LINGUIST List 10.1385

Tue Sep 21 1999

Disc: Universal Word Order/Korean Writing System

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Universal Word Order [and Writing Systems]

Message 1: Universal Word Order [and Writing Systems]

Date: Sun, 5 Sep 1999 12:32:54 -0400 (EDT)
From: Young-Key Kim-Renaud <>
Subject: Universal Word Order [and Writing Systems]

Dear List,

I am glad the Korean writing system is receiving the serious attention
from linguists that it deserves. I should like to add some comments to
the debate which was begun in LINGUIST 10.1290.


Young-Key Kim-Renaud
Professor of Korean Language and Culture and International Affairs
The George Washington University


[Peter T. Daniels]

Are you aware that Korean writing incorporates a considerably body of
Chinese characters, which are used for the extensive Sino-Korean
component of the vocabulary? Are you aware that, however much North
Korea claims to do without them, they are taught in school so the
children will understand how the alphabetic script represents them?
(Hannas, Asia's Orthographic Dilemma)


Yes, Korean writing CAN and DO mix Chinese characters. However mixing
Chinese script is not obligatory, as in the case of Japanese. Sino-Korean
roots and words made of them can be written entirely in the Korean
alphabet, known as han'gul today. Whether Koreans should or should not mix
Chinese script within Korean writing has been a topic of ongoing debate,
often becoming a heated, political issue. The most convincing argument
for the continued use of Chinese characters has been avoidance of
ambiguity, because many homonyms were created, as Korean, which is not a
tone language, borrowed heavily from Chinese. Another argument has been
that because Korean literati continued writing in Chinese (as Milton wrote
in Latin), or mixed Chinese when writing in han'gul even after the
invention of the alphabet, to understand classics, it is necessary to know
quite a few Chinese characters. Abandoning Chinese is a bit like
disconnecting oneself with Korean tradition, they claim. A third, new
argument is that learning and using Chinese characters is crucial in
Koreans' current "globalization" effort, as a huge portion of humanity
uses Chinese characters.

However, many Koreans consider these arguments more rhetorical than
substantive. In Japanese, for example, one Chinese character can get a
variety of readings including many different polysyllabic ones, and
Chinese characters can make sentences clear and concise. In Korean,
however, a Chinese character gets only one, one-syllable pronunciation,
which came from China with the written symbol. Therefore, even if one
writes only in Korean, the context would usually make the meaning of
Sino-Korean words clear. Thus, neither the problem of ambiguity nor the
convenience of short forms would call for the use of Chinese characters.
Sino-Korean is Korean. Its origin may be Chinese, but most of the
Sino-Korean vocabulary is so nativized that few words need disambiguation
by written symbols, and only a few cases of neologism do. Many new words
made for computer software today are written completely in han'gul. And
there is no doubt that, for Koreans, learning to read and write Chinese
characters is a thousand times more difficult than han'gul. From my long
experience in teaching Korean as a foreign language, it is also the case
that foreigners also find han'gul far, far easier than Chinese characters. 

For a century and more, practically all fictions, novels, short stories,
poetry, and the like have been written in han'gul only, a few authors
offering Chinese equivalents in parentheses to avoid ambiguity in certain
cases. In scholarly writings and official reports, Koreans have been
freely coining new words based on Sino-Korean roots or simply borrowed
from the neologisms made by the Japanese or less frequently from the
Chinese. In such cases, writing these words in Chinese characters was
felt-and indeed was-necessary, as the words were often idiosyncratic
and/or arbitrary. In practice, however, even such new expressions are
understood when spoken, as in conferences and interviews. In fact, even
scholarly papers and reports, let alone e-mail messages, are almost always
written exclusively in han'gul today, especially because most people type
han'gul directly on the computer keyboard, owing to the great convenience
of a 24-letter alphabet. 

Writing only in han'gul does not make one illiterate or half-literate, not
only in North Korea but also in South Korea. Almost all signboards and
ads in Korea are written only in han'gul today. For many Koreans, if they
still learn and use Chinese characters, it is for the sake of general
education and for something extra which will help in improving one's
Korean (something like studying Latin to improve English). In other
words, studying Chinese would be in addition to the essential
han'gul--that seems to be the rationale in teaching Chinese characters in
North Korea, too (Actually one of the arguments Kim Il-Sung used when he
mentioned the necessity of learning Chinese characters was reunification
of the peninsula, in which case Kim felt North Koreans should not be too
different from their Southern compatriots.).


... I ask whether the syllable structure of Korean is
more or less complex than that of Chinese. My own hypothesis would be that
phonetic writing systems, even ours, arise when writing systems developed
for simple-syllabic systems only badly fit complex-syllabic phonological

[P. Daniels]

Nope, it hasn't happened that way: languages muddle along with whatever
script happens to get handed to them, except in one circumstance: If
there's already a grammatical tradition for the recipient language, the
writing system can get seriously reworked and come out as something new.
I know of three examples: the Indian adaptation of an Aramaic model; the
Tibetan adaptation of an Indian model; and the Korean adaptation of
(ultimately) a Tibetan model. (This was presented in my paper at the May
1998 meeting at Urbana on East Asian literacies, the publication of
which is in limbo.)


As for the question of whether the Korean syllable structure was more
complex than that of Chinese in the 15th century, the answer is yes.
However, the Korean alphabetic system did not simply evolve from Chinese
or some kind of syllabary, which did not fit Korean too well. What led to
the discovery of the alphabetic units directly was a phonological analysis
of a syllable into the Initial (Consonant), the Middle (Vowel Nucleus),
and the Final (Consonant) by King Sejong, who discovered that the Initial
and the Final could be identical. The discovery of the distinctness of
vowels and consonants was such that in Korean the two groups are clearly
recognizable by their distinct shapes. This was a definite departure from
traditional Chinese phonological theory, according to which a syllable was
divided into two parts: the initial (Consonant) and all the rest. 

Peter Daniels's claim for the (ultimately) Tibetan model for the Korean
alphabet relies heavily on Gari Ledyard's Mongolian 'Phags-pa hypothesis.
However, I do not believe that Ledyard draws the same conclusion as
Daniels. For example, Ledyard (in Kim-Renaud 1997: 71) concludes that
"Sejong may have adapted four or five 'Phags-pa letters, but in doing so
he took their bare patterns as graphic and phonological building blocks
and transcended the 'Phags-pa Lama's alphabet completely. The 'Phags-pa
script is a genuine alphabet with discrete letters for consonants and a
small selection of vowels, but its inventor could not escape from the
Indic principle that all consonants contained an implicit vowel "a" that
did not need expression; Sejong, as we have seen, not only made letters
for all his needed vowels, but he conceived them as parts of an
interdependent vocalic system." Ledyard, with Phong-Hi Ahn, also talks
about the influence of Chinese phonological theory, but they both note
that the Korean writing system is an ingenious invention, as "...the
graphic shapes of han'gul depicted the speech organs, for which no
precedent is known." (Kim-Renaud 1997:5). In the same book, I have tried
to show how the Korean alphabet seems to reflect those phonological
features that are most linguistically and psychologically salient for
Korean speakers, as its design features are phonetically and semantically
motivated. Some cases in point are the concepts of consonantal strength
scale, vowel harmony, boundary phenomena, the syllable, and the particular
status of glides and /h/ (Kim-Renaud 1997: 7, 161-192).

The few consonantal letter shapes in point in Ledyard's hypothesis are
contested as "coincidental similarity" by Sang-Oak Lee, as some other
similar letter shapes represent very different sound values in the two
writing systems (in Kim-Renaud 1997: 5, 107). Because Korean letter
shapes are very geometric, they can be "claimed" to have been adapted from
any number of other writing systems, say, Hebrew or even the roman
alphabet. For example, the capital "L" in the roman alphabet is very much
like the Korean letter for [n], The roman capital "H" is very much like
the Korean vowel nucleus [ai] which represents a low front vowel in modern
Korean. The capital letter "T" is like the Korean vowel for [u]. The
roman letter "o" finally is very much like the Korean symbol for a velar
The Korean alphabet is also unusual in that its theoretical underpinnings,
as well as the time and circumstances of its creation, are clearly known
and well recorded. The original copy of the book entitled, like the
original name of the alphabet, Hunmin chOng'Um (Correct Sounds for the
Instruction of the People, 1446), containing the proclamation of the new
alphabet and its theoretical treatises, Hunmin chOng'Um Haerye
(Explanations and Examples of the Correct Sounds for the Instruction of
the People), was found in 1940. UNESCO has recently voted to include it
in the "Memory of the World" register.

It would have been only natural for the learned and responsible king to
consult all foreign writing systems and linguistic theories as he was
designing the new script. Certainly creativity does not necessarily equal
creation ex nihilo. However, if one reads Hunmin chOng'Um Haerye, it will
be clear that the Korean alphabet is an "invention," and not an
"adaptation" from anything else, as some have claimed it to be.

Reference Cited:

Kim-Renaud, Young-Key (ed.). 1997. The Korean Alphabet: Its History and
Structure, U. of Hawaii Press, ISBN 0-8248-1989-6 (cloth), 0-8248-1723-0
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