Globalizing the Korean alphabet

A group of linguists in Korea are looking into giving people with no written form of their language ways to write using the Korean alphabet (hangŭl), according to this article.

A number of communities they visited in Indonesia were keen on using hangŭl to write their languages and plan to send representatives to Korean to learn the alphabet, who will then to teach it to their communities.

The Korean alphabet is currently used only to write Korean, so it will be interesting to see how well it will work for other languages.

22 thoughts on “Globalizing the Korean alphabet

  1. Hangul is such an interesting writing system. I learned about it recently with my Korean tutor. I don’t know much about the Indonesian language(s), but I wonder how well it translates. Maybe they will be changing the sounds of some of the Hangul parts to make it work? It’ll be interesting to see the changes, and I hope you post more about it if more info comes up!

  2. I love Hangeul since its featural and pretty-looking. Hangeul has been scientifically commissioned and developed for use with Korean, so I doubt it will work for many languages, unless they have similar phonologies. I mean, look at how English words get butchered being put into Hangeul. Spa becomes “seupah”, dream becomes “deureem” and tracktor becomes “teuraktoh”.

  3. I also think Hangeul is a clever system, however, there are several peculiarities that are applicable to Korean language only. For example,

    In Korean L/R are allophones – if ㄹhas a vowel either side it is said /R/ but otherwise it is said as /L/
    In Korean /NG/ only occurs at the end of a syllable so the character ㅇ can double as a ‘place filler’ – or a ‘silent letter’ at the beginning of a syllable.

    These are Korean peculiarities – not necessarilly the case in other languages. I think many Indonesian languages would have “NG” initial syllables, and they probably differentiate between L and R all the time.

    This is not to mention double consonants!

    This is all very well and good when hand writing but Hangeul fonts now require precomposed syllables – time consuming!

    Unless Hangeul can be applied phonemically accurately to the language without altering the script, I think this is unfair on the language community to burden them….

    Having said that – I’m all for diversity in scripts!!! I wish i could write them all!!!

  4. My indonesian mate does love to write indonesian using hangeul (dunno how to spell it), but she told me once that the sounds of Indonesian and Korean are very different…
    It can work, though…. (although some words would sound weird… I agree with AR)
    In indonesian languages (Bahasa Indonesia and other hundreds of local languages), ‘D’ and ‘T’ are sounded differently, while in hangeul, they sound almost the same. (my friend even told me that in hangeul, ‘D’ is replaced by ‘TT’. What’s more, indonesian has distinctive rolling ‘R’ sound…
    I myself love to write indonesian using Thai characters (can’t work really well though – I have problems with the tones and consonant endings), hiragana (can’t work too), javanese characters (vowel problems… A and O sounds the same), cyrillic (works very well), greek (works very well), even Quenya and Sindarin (my favourite! works very well and it looks beautiful)
    Cheers, people!

  5. I like the simplicity of hangeul it’s a phonetic way to write Korean language. Bahasa Indonesia has clear vowel sounds. I doubt if there are diphtongs. It’s another soundsystem compared with Korean. Within Indonesia is a divers written history, partly based on brahmi scripts (Java, Bali) and original writing systems. Why not create a phonetic alphabet for this lingua franca based on those traditions?

  6. Once I tried to write Thai using Hangul. It’s quite difficult and there’s not enough jamo for all sounds in my language. I’m not sure which language in Indonesia will be written with Hangul. In my opinion, Indonesian languages is not so difficult to be written with Hangul. But those linguists still have to work hard to create new jamos or adapt old ones for new languages.

    I wonder how many language is there in Indonesia. I think there’s a lot. So that’s why Indonesian still didn’t finish what they should do. For me it sounds a little strange that one language will have totally different and unrelated script with related languages. Like in Thailand, Western linguists came and worked first, so that’s why many languages in Thailand is written with latin script.

    Anyway, it’ll be very interesting to see how it will look like.

    Let me try to write Bahasa Indonesia with Hangul.

    사투, 사투, 아쿠 사양 이부.
    두아, 두아, 주가 사양 아얗.
    티가, 티가, 사양 아딕 카칵.
    사투, 두아, 티가, 사양 세무안야.

    Not quite correct, but it’s the best I can now.

  7. I don’t understand the problem with writing other languages with Hangul – just because different language do not have the same phonologies does not mean that the script cannot be adopted for the new language. After all, the Latin, Cyrillic, and Arabic scripts have all been adopted for use with other languages.

    There is nothing wrong whatsoever with using Hangul with other languages, although some tweaking will probably have to done to accompdate it.

  8. “Strengths” would be transliterated in Korean like 스트렝(트)스. (The syllable in parentheses is the “th” part which may be elided.) But that’s how it would be transliterated into *Korean*: so native speakers can easily pronounce it without twisting their tongues. Another language using Hangul may transliterate “strengths” like ㅅㄷ렝ㅌㅅ, allowing vowelless blocks. Or, new double jamo can be coined and added to Unicode like the already-used ㄾ and ㄼ.

    But the difficulty with “strengths” is really only an argument against using hangul to write English.

    Cyrillic isn’t used precisely the same way to write Russian as it is to write Tajik. The Latin script isn’t used the same way to write English as it is to write Spanish or as it is to write Vietnamese.

    If a language is going to adopt a foreign script, why should Latin be defaulted to?

  9. @ Pavel– “Strengths” is actually a brilliant example of the flexibility of our alphabet—- ask native speakers from different parts of various regions (east/west coast N. America, U.K., Australia, etc.) to pronounce the word aloud and you’ll get an earful of how much linguistic diversity is reflected in this word.

    ‘n’ or ‘ŋ’?
    with or without the ‘k’ in the middle??
    voiceless fricative, slithering ‘sss’ or a staccato ‘t’ sound like Tony Soprano???

    There’s no reason why Hangul can’t be just as flexible as our own alphabet. I definitely agree with Vacker and Stuart.

  10. Pavel

    You’re missing the point – you would not use Hangul exactly as it is used in Korean but it would be modified, exactly as Vacker explains (“But that’s how it would be transliterated into *Korean*: so native speakers can easily pronounce it without twisting their tongues”).

    For the same reason why the Latin alphabet is used differently with different languages – compare Icelandic with Vietnamese with Polish with Norwegian with Irish with Esperanto, all different from each other but all using the Latin alphabet as a base. Similarly, the Devanagari script has been amended and changed to fit the needs to the different languages in the sub-continent.

    If people were serious about adopting Hangul for their script, it would need to be tweaked to fit the INDIVIDUAL NEEDS of that language, exactly what has happened to EVERY other language with a script.

    NB – the upper case is not shouting – just my attempt at emphasis…

  11. Of course the Korean script could be adapted for other languages (Japanese comes immediately to mind, the morphohonemic aspects of Korean spelling might actually be better suited for Japanese than the more surface phonemic based rules of kana imho).

    The question to me is what need is not being met by the current orthographies in Indonesia? Speakers of which languages are so enthusiastic about Hangul? How will literacy be served by using a script that has no infrastructure in Indonesia?

    The history of literacy in Central Asia is one of progress being derailed by constant overturning of scripts for political reasons (most recently seen in the fad for Latin over Cyrillic which seems thankfully to be fading and the unwise, imho, decision to use Arabic script for Uighur in China – not so coincidentally with a generall rollback in publicly supported use of that language).

    Hangul is an amazingly cool script but I’m a little skeptical about randomly exporting it to minority languages.

  12. oops forgot to add, my comments about central asia are meant to be a warning about what minority language speakers should avoid doing (flip flopping on orthographies to suit the latest political winds).

  13. I’m not at all familiar with Indonesian languages, but would this Indonesian-adapted version of Hangeul use the same rules when encountering F, V, TH, clearly-R, clearly-L…? As a native (Canadian) English speaker I find it difficult when these sounds are converted to Hangeul, it really throws me to read ㅎ/ㅍ, ㅂ, ㄹ/ㄹ instead.

  14. Well the Austronesian languages in Indonesia generally have a phonemic structure roughly like the following (with minor additions and/or subtractions according to language and the frequencies will differ somewhat to)

    p t c k
    b d j g
    s h
    m n ny ng
    w y

    i e u
    é a o

    The problems for Hangeul here are ny and distinguishing l and r. Ny (almost?) always occurs before a vowel so it could be n followed by a palatalized vowel, I don’t know what could be done for l and r though.
    Frequent additions (for loanwords) include f, kh, v, z and sy (often replaced by p, k, b, j and s respectively).
    There’s also the question of how (if necessary) to distinguish diphthongs like ai and au from vowel clusters like a’i and a’u (distinguished in Indonesian speech though not in writing).

    I don’t know what the situation is with non-Austronesian languages mainly (or totally?) restricted to Irian Jaya in New Guinea IINM.

  15. Korean uses one diphthong ㅢ (ui), new jamo could be coined combining ㅏ and ㅗ for the diphthong /au/, and ㅏ and maybe ㅡ. The nondiphthongal /ai/ and /au/ can be distinguish just as in Korean, 아이 and 아오. Tho, if /ŋ/ occurs word initially, then a new null consonant could be coined or not used at all.

    “Ny” and “sy” already occur in Korean, so Hangul is well equiped to handle them, except before ㅣ.

    When English words and names with l’s and r’s are transliterated into Korean, they are distinguishedㅡbetween vowels anywayㅡby doubling ㄹ for /l/ and using only a single ㄹ for /r/. For example, William is transliterated 윌리엄 while Harris is transliterated 해리스. When ㅅ occurs word finally, in Korean, it is realized as /t/. Another language using Hangul could simply use ㅅ word finally for the /s/ sound.

    Maybe another jamo could be coined, say a double ㄹ, for /l/. This would be in the spirit of ㅃ, ㅉ, ㄸ, ㄲ, and ㅆ.

    To distinguist /l/ from /r/, maybe 랴, romanized lya, could stand for one phoneme, and 라, romanized la, could stand for the other.

    I notice the Austronesian languages in Indonesia seem to lack aspirated consonants and affricates. This leaves ㅋ, ㅌ,ㅊ, ㅍ, ㅈ, and ㅉ free to represent other phonemes. Maybe ㅋ could represent /x/ and ㅍ /f/. This assumes, tho, that /p/ would be written with ㅂ and /b/ with ㅃ. Maybe ㅂfor /b/ and ㅍ /p/ would be better. Does the cluster /hw/ occur at all in any of these languages? If not, it could stand for the /f/ sound, like Maori’s using for /f/.

    The non-used jamo could be used in another language totally unlike their use in Korean. Are you aware of what phoneme Parisians use to pronounce? Heck, why not use ㅈ for /l/ in a language lacking affricates?

    Figuring out how to adopt Hangul to a foreign language will be difficult, especially for the very first foreign language to adopt ever. But that difficulty shouldn’t be any argument against trying it at all.

  16. ㅌ could stand for the “th” sound. The point to emphasize is that transliterating into Korean isn’t the same thing as adopting Hangul to another language completely unlike Korean.

  17. “Figuring out how to adopt Hangul to a foreign language will be difficult, … But that difficulty shouldn’t be any argument against trying it at all”

    Oh I agree. I would just caution against over-optimism about the practical effects of hangeul in Indonesia or underestimating the difficulties. A real literacy tradition takes a long time to establish.

  18. seems that the odds of the new script being accepted are greater when the target language has some historical connection or ethnic/social ties with the script being introduced.

    in this case there is zero connection between the peoples of Indonesia and Korea, so I doubt hangul script would succeed there.

  19. Not sure I agree with that Ismael – the Latin script has been introduced to a lot of languages around the world that has no historical connection or ethnic or social ties, not least Vietnamese.

    The reason for adopting the Latin script however is for practical reasons – a global infrastructure exists for printing and it is recognised by many around the world, even those whose language is not written in a Latin script.

    Hangul may be a bit more problematic in this regard. There is nothing “wrong” with speakers of Indonesian languages adopting the Hangul script, this problem maybe in them having the resources to produce stuff using that script. By the sounds of it, there will be assistance from South Korea, and if this is forthcoming then there should not be a problem – people can write their language in whatever script they want and as long as people can understand it then that’s fine.

  20. For all this discussion about modifying the Korean alphabet, you forget one thing: Koreans are so proud of the alphabet that they insist that it captures the sounds of all languages so precisely that it should never be changed or modified. (Yes, I realize that four letters have been dropped since Hangeul’s invention. That’s what makes the assertion even more curious.)

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