Hangeul marks 562nd anniversary; Korean one of top world languages
Oct 09, 2008
Some 500 years ago, the upper class in Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) wrote only in classical Chinese. This was totally different to the spoken Korean language, causing difficulty for uneducated commoners in communicating with authorities. To help them, King Sejong the Great (1397-1450) created the Hangeul writing system to help them read and write, but most Joseon scholars regarded Hangeul as being only for the lower classes and women.
Nowadays, however, King Sejong’s creation of Hangeul is receiving recognition as one of the most scientific and practical writing systems in the world. Hangeul has helped Korea achieve a nearly 100 percent literacy rate. It is also suitable for sending text messages or online instant messages. Hangeul is even becoming a global cultural commodity, often found in the artwork of world-class designers or on clothes worn by international celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears.
The superiority of Hangeul as a writing system has been noted by several world-renowned institutions. In 1995, the Department of Linguistics, Philology & Phonetics at Oxford University, known as the forefront of linguistics research, ranked Hangeul first, after evaluating 30 writing systems in terms of their rational, scientific and unique characteristics.
Last year, Korean was selected as one of the official international languages by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) under the United Nations. This is the first time it was selected as an official language by international organizations, reflecting the language’s position in the world.
Thanks to international recognition of the country’s economic status and the language, the number of people who want to learn Korean has also shown a sharp increase. The number of non-Koreans taking the Korean proficiency test has more than doubled to 150,000 this year, thanks to the wave of Korean firms’ overseas expansion and growing educational exchanges, according to Korea’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. In 1997, only 2,600 non-Koreans from four countries took the test.
According to Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the number of Japanese schools that teach Korean rose to 286 in 2005 from 73 in 1995, showing a four-fold increase in ten years. In China, 39 Chinese universities now teach Korean, since the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China in 1992, which has raised the status of Korean.
Besides the international popularity, the scientific writing system and uniqueness of Hangeul have also won global recognition. UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme designated Hangeul as a global documentary heritage in October 1997. Earlier, in 1989, UNESCO set May 15, the birthday of King Sejong the Great as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Now UNESCO rewards individuals or organizations that contribute to fighting illiteracy with the King Sejong Literacy Prize, named after Hangeul’s founder.
Renowned U.S. writer Pearl Buck (1892-1973) praised Hangeul in her novel The Living Reed (1963) saying, "Hangeul is the simplest and best script in the world. When 24 consonants and vowels are combined it can exactly vocalize all the different sounds that a human throat can express." The renowned writer also dubbed King Sejong as "truly Korea’s Leonardo da Vinci" in terms of the depth of his gifted talent and diversity in her novel, based on the story of a Korean family involved in the independence movement during Japanese colonization (1910-1945).
According to the Ethnologue index that ranks all languages in the world by number of users, as many as 6,912 languages are spoken in the world as of 2000. Korean, used by 75 million people, including overseas Koreans and North and South Koreans, ranked 13th, followed by French.
Generally, the international status of a language is judged by the number of users and that makes Korean one of the world’s major languages, considering Korea’s economic status as one of the top ten advanced economies, according to Seoul National University Linguistics professor Kim Ju-won.
To globalize the Korean language, the Korean government is using various avenues to promote the language by promoting the dissemination of cultural contents such as movies, TV dramas or online materials showing users, including non-Koreans, speaking Korean or publishing Korean language books. The worldwide "Hallyu," or Korean wave cultural boom beginning with Korean TV dramas or movies in the late 1990s, also contributed to introducing Korean to the world.
Korea’s National Academy of Korean Language plans to build 200 Korean language schools dubbed "Sejong Schools" by 2016 to teach the Korean language and alphabet overseas in order to globalize the language into a growth engine that can act as a bridge between Korea and the rest of the world.
By Yoon Sojung
Korea.net Staff Writer
Department Global Communication and Contents Division