October 16, 2005

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Abiola Lapite and Bill Poser gush over the linguistic value of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. I'm willing to give King Sejong, and his scholarly team, all the credit they deserve for both creating the alphabet and defending it against aristocratic reaction.

In 15th century Korea, as almost everywhere else in the world, literacy was restricted to a small elite - most people were illiterate. Furthermore, Korean society was extremely hierarchical. It consisted of three tiers, nobles, commoners, and slaves. It was almost impossible for a slave to become free, or for a commoner to become a noble. Until 1444, when King Sejong forbade the practice, a slave's owner had the right to kill him at whim.

The dominant ideology was Confucianism, a philosophy based on the relationships between ruler and subject, parent and child, older and younger, man and woman, and friend and friend, the first four of which are conceived as inherently unequal. Women could not inherit property. In short, 15th century Korea was a highly stratified society rigidly controlled by a small elite in which those who were not elite and not male had few rights.

Indeed, there was strong opposition to the introduction of Hangul on the part of King Sejong's court, so strong that they presented a memorial in opposition and debated with him verbally. The reasons they gave were in part that it was wrong to deviate from the Chinese way of doing things, and in part that such a simple writing system would lead to the loss of aristocratic privilege. Their motives may have been wrong, but they understood the effects of mass literacy all too well. After King Sejong's death, Hangul was very nearly suppressed. It took much longer to come into wide use than he had intended due to the opposition of the aristocracy.

I wouldn't call him a humanitarian, though. More like Machiavelli's legislator, King Sejong deserves ample credit for being a nationalist. His lead was not followed until the 20th Century, when the Korean language freed itself from Japan's colonial education policies. Also, Hangul is useless without Korean grammar and ocabulary, which is at least 50% Chinese. Despite documentaries played for local reinforcement where South Korean scholars teach indigenous people in some exotic location the magic of Hangul, Hangul is not Esperanto. Korean study still requires Chinese, and the grammar and regional dialects frustrate proficiency. But, Hangul has facilitated astoundingly widespread basic literacy in South Korea.

So, hail the great nationalist, King Sejong!

Cross-Posted at Barbarian Envoy

posted by Infidel on 10.16.05 at 11:12 AM in the Koreas category.


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