On Hangul Supremacy & Exclusivity – Severe Limitations to Vocabulary

Gwanghwamun Protesters

Hangul exclusivity protesters at Gwanghwamun (光化門, 광화문).

This is one post in series on Hangul Supremacy and Hangul Exclusivity. Hangul Supremacy (–優秀主義, 한글우수주의) is the widespread belief that Hangul is superior, especially in opposition to Chinese characters. Hangul Exclusivity (–專用, 한글전용) is closely related and refers to writing exclusively in Hangul. The purpose of these posts is to introduce Anglophone readers to the Korean debate over Hangul and Hanja. 

Severe Limitations to Vocabulary with Hangul Exclusivity

Claim: Hangul exclusivity has made reading and understanding Korean easier.

Rebuttal: Just because you can read something, does not mean you understand its meaning. The lack of Hanja education has decreased Koreans’ vocabulary and thus made reading and understanding Korean writing more difficult.

The Ability to Create Words

One of the advantages of Hanja is the ability to easily forms words. Sino-Korean words, unlike English or Latin or even “pure” Korean words, are by design “Frankenstein”: they are often made up of characters which in themselves are words. Even with knowing only 100 characters, one could potentially create 10,000 bisyllabic words. It is therefore no surprise that words that represent more complex things such as “Individualism,” “Semiconductors,” and “Aesthetics,” are Sino-Korean words and are written as Gaeinjueui (個人主義, 개인주의), Bandoche (半導體, 반도체), and Mihak (美學, 미학). In contrast, words that represent simpler things such as “tree,” “leg,” and “sound” are “pure” Korean words and are respectively Namu (나무), Dari (다리), and Sori (소리). Korean words are typically not joined to form compound words, except in vulgarisms, again words generally referring simpler things. Thus, when Chosun scholars critical of Hangul called the alphabet, “children’s script,” or Ahaetgeul (아햇글), they were not completely off the mark. The forcible eviction of Hanja education from Korean education has led to a decrease in vocabulary used by is speakers and as a result to a noticeable infantilization of the Korean language.

Change in Perception on the Difficulty of Words

With the lack of Hanja education, there is different perception on which words are considered “easy” and “difficult.” To a Korean that does not know Hanja, words that are considered difficult in Korean are those that do not occur frequently. “Simpler” words do tend to occur with more frequency than more “complex” words, and tend to be “pure” Korean words. This perception, however, changes with a Korean that knows Hanja. Such a Korean would think in general words that have Hanja that are quite common as simple. This is because he sees words as combination of Hanja, and thus his measure of difficulty is different. Furthermore, as a Korean speaker, his view of “simpler” words also includes that of the Korean that does not know Hanja. Some commonly occurring words contain Hanja that are actually quiet difficult (e.g., “chwalyeong” (撮影, 촬영), meaning “to shoot photos” or “to film” and “pyeomha” (貶下, 폄하), meaning “to disparage”). Therefore, a Korean who knows Hanja  is much more likely to have a vocabulary much more expansive than one who does not.

To illustrate this point, take the words “mirae” (未來, 미래) and “jangrae” (將來, 장래). Both of these words mean “future,” although they have slightly different meanings. To a Korean that does not know Hanja, since the word mirae occurs with greater frequency than jangrae, he would think that the former is easier than the latter. (In fact, this blogger knows a few Koreans that do not know the word jangrae, and surmises that vast majority of the ones that do know the two words do not know the difference in nuance.) To a Korean that does know Hanja, however, both these words are very easy, because the characters 未(미), 來(래), and 將(장) are quite common. In fact, they are levels 4-2, 7, and 4-2 respectively on the Hanja Proficiency Test, which rates characters least common (“difficult”) to most common (“simple”) from levels 1 to 8. It can clearly seen why the vocabulary of a Korean that does not know Hanja is much, much, more limited. This is because he cannot easily conceive permutations of Hanja characters to form words. 

Real World Ramifications

This is not just speculation. Due to the lack of Hanja education, certain technical fields have tried to simplify the jargon used, with varying results. For instance, a number of years ago, a Korean medical association tried to “simplify” medical jargon, only to return to the original Sino-Korean words a year later. The most recent effort is by the Financial Supervisory Service (金監院, 금감원). There are some words that are difficult because the meanings use Japanese meanings of the characters, but others are perfectly fine that do not rely on such meanings. Here are some of the recommended simplifications:

  • Seoro eogeutnada (서로 어긋나다) (“To be mutually incompatible”) ← Sangwi (相違, 상위) – 相 (level 5-2), 違 (level 3);
  • Dununeul ddeuda (두눈을 뜨다) (“To open both eyes”) ← Yang’anshi (兩眼視, 양안시) – 兩 (level 4-2), 眼 (level 4-2), 視 (level 4-2);
  • Dapeul allyeojuda (답을 알려주다) (“To inform [someone] with the response”) ← Hoebo (回報, 회보) – 回 (level 4-2), 報 (level 4-2).

As indicated above, it can be seen why a Korean that does not know Hanja would find these words difficult: they do not occur often. However, note that all of these are not difficult for a Korean that knows Hanja. In fact, a Hanja-educated Korean high school student should know find them easy, as characters that are categorized as level 2 through 8 are supposed to be sufficient for Korean vocabulary for a high school student level. Also note that the Hangul-only representations make the same expression longer, within lines of what this blogger said in an earlier post.

Some Hangul advocates and Korean language purists argue that it is possible to replace these words with “pure” Korean words, thereby lessening the need for Sino-Korean words. The problem, however, is that words they recommend — or could possibly create — are highly ambiguous. For instance, the word that the Hangul Language Society (–學會, 한글학회) recommends replacing the Sino-Korean word “gaetong” (開通, 개통), which literally means “to open a passage” and specifically refers to opening of a road to traffic or a subway or bus line, with the more ambiguous words “yeollim” (열림), meaning “to open,” and “Ddullim” (뚫임), meaning “to poke a hole.” These two words are “simpler,” since they occur with higher frequency, but are highly ambiguous because they are not specific to the same context. Furthermore, they make the same expression needlessly long, because taken out of context these words are ambiguous and consequently more words are needed to be supplied to give context and clarify the meaning. That is, the expression “to open a road [to traffic]” has to be “도로를 열다,” not just simply “열림.”

4 comments
  1. Anno said:

    Wow, very interesting that some people didn’t know 장래. I feel very good about my Korean vocabulary ability now. kk

    I did meet a whole bunch of people who didn’t know the word 장모 (丈母) and they were like in their mid thirties and forties — I have no idea how they went through life not knowing it.😦

    • 歸源 said:

      Yes, you’d be surprised how bad Korean native speakers are at their own language. (That’s probably why they use Konglish so much).

      That is surprising. I’ve heard the term 장인 used a lot too.

  2. Perhaps they could call Gwanghwamun as “바뀌는 빛이 열리닫히는 뚫림” (“opening and closing penetration of changing light”)😀

    Until its recent restoration, the sign since 1968 was written in hangul by Park Chung-hee!

    • 歸源 said:

      I mentioned the cognitive dissonance of some Hangul exclusivity activists in an earlier post: many of them of the liberal political bent and support a policy a Park Chung-hee started, which eroded expressive freedoms. Another cognitive dissonance apparent in the photo above is their use of spaces and western punctuation, neither of which are Hangul.

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