Superscript – The country celebrates an ingenious writing system
Economist Oct 10th 2015
“Like trying to fit a square handle into a round hole” is how Sejong the Great, a Korean king, viewed the practice of using hanja, classical Chinese characters, to transcribe Korean. Hanja recorded meaning alone, not sound, and only aristocrats knew it. So the king and his literary circle crafted an alphabet from scratch and started promoting it in 1446. Known as hangul, it consists of 24 elements that can be grouped into blocks of syllables. Some take the shape that lips and tongue form in speech. It is fantastically easy to learn. The 80,000 speakers of the Cia-Cia language are also being encouraged to use the script on the Indonesian island of Buton. Hanja lingered for centuries after the introduction of hangul. Nobles scorned the newfangled alphabet as being for peasants, women and children. But after the end of over three decades of Japanese occupation in 1945, the governments in both South and North Korea promoted hangul fiercely, ordering that hanja be expunged from all texts and no longer taught in schools.
Today hanja pepper South Korean newspapers, while older South Koreans still use them to write their names. Buthangul is a source of patriotic pride. As North Koreans were preparing this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party with the usual display of bellicosity, the South had a day off to celebrate something indigenous, brilliant and pacific—their alphabet. The annual October 9th holiday, scrapped in 1991 at employers’ request, was reinstated in 2013. Woo Eun-kyung, a hotelier in Seoul, feels “pride and gratitude” when Hangul Day comes around. Kim Ki-beom, a young lawyer, frets that Korean is being “destroyed by alien words”. A national day, he says, helps to keep the language intact; he laments a preference for English signs on streets.
Still, Mr Kim admits the holiday is firstly a welcome respite from long office hours. It is also a way to entice South Koreans to splurge. One alien word now doing the rounds isbeulfe, a conflation of “Black Friday”, America’s huge autumn sale, transliterated intohangul. The government has prodded 27,000 shops to slash prices in the first half of October to pep up sluggish consumer spending; in four days Lotte, a department store, sold almost a quarter more than a year earlier. Electronics and clothes are much in demand—another way for South Koreans to express themselves.