A Brief History of Korean Spelling Rules – Introduction

Hangul Protesters

Hangul exclusivists interrupt a Ministry of Education official meeting to discuss on whether to include Hanja in Korean textbooks. Thanks to their antics, the decision is postponed until next year. (Source)

With the rise in popularity of Hanja education in Korea and calls to expand it, Hangul exclusivists have taken to the streets in vehement protest of these developments. They frequently resort to over-the-top nationalist rhetoric. Among their assertions, perhaps the most bizarre is their attempts to link Chinese characters to the Japanese. In fact, if one reads much of their literature, one would walk away with the impression that Chinese characters were somehow a Japanese creation. They have gone as far out to call the expansion of Hanja education “[an attempt to] obliterate the Korean race” and a “legacy of the Japanese colonial period” as if it did not exist prior to that period. This language can be even found from the head of the Hangul Society (한글학회) himself:

한자병기는 일제가 심어 놓은 민족의식 말살 교육정책의 찌꺼기. 지금 일본이 큰소리치는 것은 한국을 너무 잘 알기 때문이다. 일본이 가르친 대로의 친일의 뿌리가 득세하고 있기 때문이다. 한글 관련 사업을 좀 해보려고 하면 친일세력들이 들어와서 판을 흐트려 놓는다…

Hanja-Hangul mixed script is a leftover of the educational policy planted by the Japanese to obliterate our racial identity. Right now, the Japanese shout so loudly because they know Korea very well. It is because the pro-Japanese collaborators who have done as the Japanese have taught them have gained power. If you intend to work on Hangul-related manners, these powerful pro-Japanese collaborators will shake you down…

(For those that do not know, the Hangul Society is a private organization that contributed to the development of Korean spelling rules, and campaigned and lobbied for Hangul exclusivity since the early-mid 20th century. It should be noted that mixed script predates the Japanese colonial period: the very first works published using Hangul were in mixed script.)

This type of language is all too common from Hangul exclusivists. Sadly, what would otherwise be dismissed as a conspiratorial rambling in more civil settings has been very effective in controlling the Hangul-Hanja debate in Korea. In contrast, the pro-Hanja education side does not resort to such nationalist rhetoric as much. Instead, they typically use internationalist or regionalist arguments by simply making the empirically verifiable observation that Korea’s neighbors China and Japan still use the script.

To knock these Hangul exclusivists off their more-patriotic-than-thou high horses, perhaps a refresher in early modern Hangul history is in order. One particular topic that might be of interest is today’s Korean spelling rules, which the Hangul Society contributed to. Today’s Korean spelling rules are largely the legacy of those spelling rules promulgated by the Japanese colonial general government. There are plenty of Korean sources that acknowledge this. (This post merely wishes to introduce the topic in English.) Many of the integral figures in establishing most of these spelling rules were — drum roll — pro-Japanese collaborators. To get a sense of how integral these pro-Japanese collaborationist figures were to the development of today’s Korean spelling rules, one scholar who is often attributed as coining the very name “Hangul” (한글) is Choe Namseon (崔南善, 최남선, 1890-1957). He is officially recognized by the Korean government as a Japanese collaborator for his contributions in the colonial Historical Compilation Committee (朝鮮史編修會, 조선사편수회), which helped to legitimize Japan’s takeover of the peninsula. Ironically, despite his involvement with the Japanese, Choe Namseon is still very much respected for his contributions to Hangul. He is not an isolated example as there are other figures in the early modern development of Korean spelling rules that were pro-Japanese collaborators. Even the ones who are not officially recognized as pro-Japanese collaborators were educated at Japanese universities.

Before examining this topic, it should be emphasized that while there are many Korean sources on the early modern development of Korean orthography, most do not like to admit this — nor does the Hangul Society, who would like others to forget that some of their predecessors were pro-Japanese collaborators. This is not surprising, given that Hangul is perhaps Korea’s most treasured cultural heritage. As such, when such sources do discuss this period, their treatment is rather interesting. They either begrudgingly concede that the today’s Korean spelling rules were heavily influenced by the Japanese colonial government’s own rules or are baffled as to why the Japanese even bothered with coming up with such spelling rules. For example, the National Digital Hangul Museum, which is otherwise a great resource on Hangul including this period, falls into the latter category. In one of the Museum’s articles on this period, stumped, the author wonders whether Japanese involvement in Korean orthography was a cunning ploy:

식민지를 지배하고자 하는 제국주의 세력은 피지배 민족의 글과 말을 말살하거 사용하지 못하게 하는 것이 일반적인 정책이다. 그러나 일본의 초기적 태도는 달랐다. 의도를 정확히 실증적으로 밝혀낼 수는 없으나, 일제 초기의 어문 정책의 일환이었던 표기법 문제는 그들에 의해서 처음으로 이루어졌다. 짐작만을 해 본다면 그것은 고도의 식민 통치 술수였는지 모른다.

The general policy of imperialist powers wanting to dominate their colonies was to prohibit and destroy the language and script of the subjugated peoples. But Japan’s attitude was initially different. We cannot for sure know their intentions by any evidence, but the issue of [Korean] spelling rules that was a part of Japan’s initial language policy first came into being by them. If we were to guess, this might be an clever stratagem of colonial governance.

This blog will cover this and more in the upcoming posts, which will give a brief overview of the history of Korean orthography from the 15th century to the mid 20th century:

  1. The First Four Centuries of Hangul (15th-19th Century)
  2. National Script Research Committee (19th Century)
  3. 1912 and 1921 Primary School Use Korean Spelling Rules
  4. 1930 and 1933 Korean Spelling Rules
  5. Rhee Syngman’s Spelling Simplification Reforms

Note that this series will assume that readers know Hangul at a rudimentary level. For those readers that do not know the Korean alphabet, the Wikipedia article on Hangul has a decent explanation.


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