One rhetoric that is often employed by Korean Hangul supremacists against Hanja is that Chinese characters are somehow a Japanese legacy. Just to give to examples, the statistic that Sino-Korean words account for 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is routinely denounced as a Japanese fabrication implanted by the Japanese colonial administration and Hanja-Hangul mixed script is often condemned as a Japanese creation imposed upon the Korean populace — presumably because of its similarity to modern Japanese orthography. While both are demonstrably false, this type of rhetoric is so common that one could easily come away with the impression that Hanja is a Japanese creation from reading their materials.
More distressingly, these baseless assertions can be found from people of relatively respectable positions in Korean society. One notable example is the head of the Hangul Society (한글학회), one of the most influential and well-established Korean language associations, who shares similar sentiments:
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…
Remember, this is not some random troll in a dark corner of the Internet. This is the head of a major Korean language association spewing conspiratorial rantings. And he is not an isolated case. Hangul supremacists can be found at protests screaming at the top of their longs accusing those who want to expand Hanja education as being pro-Japanese collaborators. Professors from top universities give interviews on television shows stating the same, minus the hyperventilation.
Ironically, Hangul supremacists will not condemn actual collaborators that they perceive contributed to the advancement of Hangul. No, they brazenly genuflect in front of them. For instance, they praise Yi Gwangsu (李光洙, 이광수, 1892-1950) for being the “Father of Modern Korean Literature” and one of the earliest proponents of the “pure Korean script.” Hangul supremacists happily overlook the fact that he was a zealous supporter of Japanese policies for assimilating Koreans. Even hyper-nationalist North Korea does not mind his collaborations with the Japanese colonial government, and has enshrined him at a cemetery in Pyongyang with other Korean independence activists.
This dissonance partly has to do with their view that Hangul is an embodiment of “pure” Korean-ness, under which the fact that the Japanese would have had any hand in the script is unfathomable. Any efforts to aid Hangul is deified and any attempts at expanding Hanja is unforgivable perfidy.
A Brief History of the Development of Korean Spelling Rules
But Hangul too has been heavily influenced by Japanese colonial rule. To get of sense of the degree of influence, today’s Korean spelling rules are almost identical from the ones promulgated by the Japanese colonial General Government. (While this fact might be lost on many Hangul supremacists, most Korean sources on this subject do not deny this.) A look at how Korean spelling developed from its inception through the early modern period will make this point evident.
Korean Spelling from King Sejong to the Late 19th Century
In 1446, King Sejong introduced Hangul with the publication of Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음). This work laid out twenty-eight letters. In order, they were:
- Consonants (17): ㄱ (g), ㅋ (k), ㆁ (ng), ㄷ (d), ㅌ (t), ㄴ (n), ㅂ (b), ㅍ (p), ㅁ (m), ㅈ (j), ㅊ (ch), ㅅ (s), ㆆ (ʔ, glottal stop), ㅎ (h), ㅇ (null), ㄹ (r/l), and ㅿ (z).
- Vowels (11): ㆍ (aw), ㅡ (eu), ㅣ(i), ㅗ (o), ㅏ (a), ㅜ (u), ㅓ (eo), ㅛ (yo), ㅑ (ya), ㅠ (yu), and ㅕ (yeo)
The work also explicated how each letter is to be pronounced and how the letters are to be combined to form syllable blocks. It even specified provisions for sounds that did not exist in native Korean, but Sino-Korean and vernacular Chinese (e.g., ㅱ for “w”). The Proper Sounds, however, did not give any detailed spelling rules. Its examples assumed that Korean would be spelled phonemically using the new alphabet (i.e., how they sounded). The only concrete spelling rule it proscribed was the Eight Terminal Consonants Rule (八終聲可足用, 팔종성가족용). Under this rule, only ㄱ, ㆁ, ㄷ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㄹ were to be used in the terminal position of a syllable (받침).
After the Proper Sounds, the next seminal work on Korean spelling the Collection of Chinese Characters to Teach the Ignorant (訓蒙字會, 훈몽자회) published in 1527 by Choe Sejin (崔世珍, 최세진, 1468-1542). The Collection of Characters systematically listed some 3,360 Chinese characters by their Korean pronunciations and meanings. Although published eighty-one years later, the work laid out different spelling rules than those of the Proper Sounds. For example, the letter ㆆ had dropped out, the distinction between ㅇ and ㆁ was lost, and some of the specific provisions for Sino-Korean and vernacular Chinese sounds were absent. It also added new rules and provisions to Korean, such as listing the alphabet in a different order with names:
- Voiceless Consonants: ㄱ(其役, 기역), ㄴ(尼隱, 니은),ㄷ(池末, 디귿), ㄹ(利乙, 리을), ㅁ(眉音, 미음), ㅂ(非邑, 비읍), ㅅ(時衣, 시옷), and ㆁ(異凝, 이응)
- Voiced Consonants: ㅋ(箕, 키), ㅌ(治, 티), ㅍ(皮, 피), ㅈ(之, 지), ㅊ(齒, 치), ㅿ(而, ㅿㅣ), ㅇ(伊, 이), and ㅎ(屎, 히)
- Vowels: ㅏ(阿, 아), ㅑ(也, 야), ㅓ(於, 어), ㅕ(余, 여), ㅗ(吾, 오), ㅛ(要, 요), ㅜ(牛, 우), ㅠ(由, 유), ㅡ(應, 응),ㅣ(伊, 이), and · (思, ㅅ·)
The Collection of Characters, however, maintained some of the rules as laid out in the Proper Sounds. It kept the Eight Terminal Consonants Rule and still assumed that Korean was to be spelled phonemically.
In the subsequent three centuries, Korean spelling rules only saw incremental changes, largely aligning with changes in how Korean was spoken. Some of the changes included:
- Disuse of the letter ㅿ and ㆁ
- Adding of ㅺ, ㅼ, ㅽ, ㅾ, and ㅄ for tense sounds (된소리), which probably did not exist in 15th century Korean (while ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ did exist, they did not originally denote those sounds)
- Disuse of ㄷ as a terminal sound (solely using ㅅ) by a substantial number of Korean writers
One characteristic that did not change was that Korean throughout this period was still spelled phonemically, although there were discrepancies between the spelling and pronunciation.
1894, Hangul Finally Becomes the National Script of Korea
Phonemic spelling of Korean, however, did not eliminate ambiguity. The same word could be spelled many different ways. There are actually accounts that Hangul-only texts were more difficult to read than mixed script texts. For example, the word 덮으면 (“if one covers”) in modern spelling could be spelled at least three ways under the conventional spelling of this time: 더프면, 덥흐면, 덥프면. How a Korean word was spelled was up to the whims of the individual printer for that particular day or hour.
With Hangul becoming the “National Script” (國字, 국자) of Korea in 1894, the necessity of a clear, set spelling rules became soon apparent. This need was compounded by the fact that there were several, different attempts at formulating such rules by private individuals. One notable individual was a doctor named Ji Seokyeong (池錫永, 지석영, 1855-1935) who submitted his own rules to the court. His proposals (新訂國文, 신정국문) included:
- Spelling of tense consonants with ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ
- Adding ᅄ and ᅋ to denote “v” and “f” sounds
- Replacing arae a (·) (아래 아) with =
The controversy grew. Some wanted Korean to be spelled morphophonemically (somewhat phonetic spelling reflective of the underlying etymological root). Others wanted Korean to be spelled like the European languages in a string. The only notable development that was widely adopted and stuck around was word spacing.
In 1907, the Korean government (now a protectorate of Japan) responded by establishing the National Script Research Committee (國文硏究所, 국문연구소) to examine this problem. Its members, some of whom were pro-Japanese collaborators, met several times to discuss standardization of Korean spelling. In 1909, they laid out their plans in the National Script Research Committee’s Proposals (國文硏究議定案, 국문연구의정안). At the time, these were considered radical:
- Maintenance of the formation of letters into syllable blocks
- Not restoring the use of obsolete consonants (ㆁ, ㆆ, ㅿ, ◇ , ㅱ, ㅸ, ㆄ, and ㅹ )
- Adoption of spelling of tense consonant as ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ , ㅆ, and ㅉ
- Maintenance of the letter ㆍ
- Adding a dot to the side of a syllable to indicate vowel length
- Allowing the use of ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅎ as terminal consonants
- Adoption of the names for the consonant letters as 이응, 기윽, 니은, 디읃, 리을, 미음, 비읍, 시읏, 지읒, 히읗, 키읔, 티읕, 피읖, 치읓
- Adoption of the order of consonants as ㆁ, ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ , ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅈ, ㅎ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅊ
- Adoption of the order of vowels as ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ , ㅗ , ㅛ , ㅜ, ㅠ, ㅡ , ㅣ, ㆍ
These spelling rules never officially adopted. Within months of the release of the 1909 Proposals, Korea was annexed by Japan. The debate over Korean orthography would, however, continue.
1912, Primary School Use Korean Script Spelling Rules
(普通學校用諺文綴字法, 보통학교용 언문 철자법)
Less than a year after Korea’s annexation, the Japanese took up the issue of Korean orthography. This was because the Japanese colonial general government needed to legitimize its rule. Hangul offered a medium acceptable to Koreans. Japanese colonial authorities tasked a committee of four Korean scholars and four Japanese officials with formulating spelling rules for use in their textbooks. In 1912, they completed their work and released the first official spelling rules in Korean history. Their rules were based on the following framework:
- The Seoul dialect is to be standard dialect.
- Korean is to be spelled phonemically. Whenever the current pronunciation is different from the traditional spelling, avoid using them.
- When writing Sino-Korean words in Hangul, adopt the traditional spelling norms.
Specifics of the 1912 Spelling Rules included:
- Abolition of arae a (·) and replacement withㅏ for native Korean words
- Use of ten consonants and consonant clusters as terminals: ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅇ, ㄼ, ㄻ, and ㄺ (e.g., 살다 → 삶다)
- Change in spelling for palatalized syllables for native Korean words (e.g., 댜 → 자, 쟈 → 자, 샤 → 사, 탸 → 차)
- Removal of /j/-diphthongs for native Korean words (i.e., 젹다 →적다)
- Spelling of tense consonants as ㅺ, ㅼ, ㅽ, ㅾ, and ㅄ
- Addition of a mark next to the syllable to indicate a long vowel (ー)
In many aspects, the 1912 Spelling Rules preserved traditional Korean spelling conventions much better than the 1909 Proposals. Some Korean linguists, many of them pro-Japanese collaborators, found the 1912 Spelling Rules lacking. In particular, whether Korean should be spelled phonemically or morphophonemically became a point of contention.
1921, Outline of Primary School Use Korean Script Spelling Rules
(普通學校用 諺文綴字法大要, 보통학교용 언문 철자법 대요)
In response to the controversy, the Japanese colonial General Government commissioned a second round of Korean spelling rules for use in its textbooks in 1921. The 1921 Rules largely affirmed the 1912 Rules. There were, however, a few notable differences:
- Explicit repudiation of the Initial-Sound Rule (頭音法則, 두음법칙) (e.g., 님금 instead of 임금) (Pronunciation of such words in some dialects may have changed as early as the 17th century)
- Use of -히 and -이 for adverb markers separate from the root word (e.g., 높히, 나란이)
- Adoption of middle siot (사이시옷) between the two stems of a compound word (e.g., 동짓날, 문ㅅ자)
- Differentiation between the root words in inflected words (e.g.,드러간다 → 들어간다, 머것소 → 먹엇소)
- Abolition of the mark indicating vowel length
The committee’s framework again explicitly stated that Korean spelling is to be phonemic. Regardless, the 1921 Rules signaled a shift in Korean orthography from phonemic to morphophonemic, with some words now spelled phonemically and others morphophonemically. This incomplete transition still left advocates of Korean spelling reform wanting, again leading to more controversy and debate over this issue.
The Japanese colonial General Government established another committee to address the issue in 1928 to address the controversies over Korean spelling. The committee was composed of Japanese officials and Korean scholars, including some from the Chosun Language Society (朝鮮語學會, 조선어학회) (the predecessor of the previously mentioned Hangul Society). They finalized their discussions in 1929, and a few months later in 1930 the first textbooks for colonial schools were published using the new spelling rules:
- Expansion of permissible terminal consonants: ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅇ, ㄷ, ㅌ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅍ, ㄲ, ㄳ, ㅄ, ㄵ, ㄾ, ㄿ, ㄺ, ㄻ, and ㄼ (allowed for morphophonemic spelling, e.g., 갑슬 → 값을)
- Adoption of verb ending marker 여 for words that end inㅣ, ㅐ, ㅔ, ㅚ, ㅟ, or ㅢ (e.g., 되여, 이여)
- Spelling of adverb markers following palatalized consonants (e.g., 끝치)
- Change in spelling for palatalized syllables and /j/-diphthongs also covers Sino-Korean words (e.g., 젹당(適當) → 적당)
- Adoption of names of consonant letters: ㄱ(기역), ㄴ(니은), ㄷ(디귿), ㄹ(리을), ㅁ(미음), ㅂ(비읍), ㅅ(시옷), ㅇ(이응), ㅈ(지읒), ㅊ(치읓), ㅋ(키윽), ㅌ(티읕), ㅍ (피읖), ㅎ(히읏)
- Adoption of double consonants for tense sounds: ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, and ㅉ
- Adoption of ᅁ, ᅂ, ᅄ, and ᅅ to spell Japanese words (this effectively overrode the use of ᅄ and ᅋ to spell “v” and “f”)
Most of these rules will appear very familiar to Koreans today. Korean schoolchildren even today recite the names of the consonants introduced by the 1930 Rules. At the time, however, many considered them to be a radical departure from conventional Korean orthography. In particular, the drastic expansion of permissible terminal consonants in concert with the full adoption of morphophonemic spelling was a complete paradigm shift from the traditional phonemic spelling. So radical were these changes that many prominent Korean intellectuals actually protested.
The Chosun Language Society, on the other hand, believed that they did not go far enough and came out with a marginally different set of rules in 1933:
- Further expansion of permissible terminal consonants to include ㅋ, ㅎ, ㅆ, ㄶ, ㄽ, and ㅀ (allowed for additional morphophonemic spelling, e.g., 조타 → 좋다 and 안타 → 않다)
- Clarification of middle siot (e.g., 문ㅅ자 → 문자)
- Clarification of word spacing
- Clarification of spelling of adverb markers following palatalized consonants (e.g., 끝치 → 끝이)
- Adoption of the Initial Sound Rule for native and Sino-Korean words (e.g., 닑다 → 읽다 and 로인(老人) → 노인)
The Society later issued updated versions of the spelling rules, all of which were slight modifications to the 1933 Rules, which in turn is based on the 1930 Rules. It also compiled one of the first modern Korean dictionaries using Korean words to define other Korean words, as opposed to Hanja or Japanese.
1945 and Onward, After the Liberation
With liberation from Japanese rule, the debate over Korean orthography diverged between the North and South. Nevertheless, the spelling rules issued by both governments would primarily center on those issued by the Japanese colonial government.
In South Korea, viewing the 1930 and 1933 Rules as too complicated, President Rhee Syngman (李承晩, 이승만, 1875-1965) launched an attempt to simplify Korean spelling (한글 간소화 방안) in 1949. The new spelling rules issued by the South Korean government included:
- Repudiation of morphophonemic spelling and adoption of phonemic spelling (e.g., 길이 → 기리)
- Reducing the number of permissible terminal consonants back to eleven (ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅇ , ㄺ, ㄻ, and ㄼ).
Though President Rhee stated that his intention was to restore pre-colonial, traditional spelling, the official spelling rules were practically identical to the 1912 Rules issued by the Japanese colonial government. Despite fervent anti-Japanese sentiment among the Korean populace, there was massive push back from Korean intellectuals including the Hangul Society, and President Rhee in response halted his attempts in 1955. From then on, South Korean spelling rule aligned with the 1933 Rules, plus subsequent revisions.
North Korea initially viewed the 1933 Rules as not going far enough in reforming Korean spelling. In 1948, the North issued the New Spelling Rule for Korean (朝鮮語新綴字法, 조선어신철자법). The 1948 Rules introduced six new symbols for consonants designed for spelling irregular verbs (不規則動辭, 불규칙동사) as well as a whole slew of other unprecedented rules. These new letters were, however, never in wide use and the rules were controversial given their associations with a purged faction. North Korea issued another set of spelling rules in 1954 (朝鮮語綴字法, 조선어철자법), scaling back from some of the changes of the 1948 rules. The 1954 Rule adopted almost all of the 1930 and 1933 Rules’ provisions, except the Initial Sound Rule for Sino-Korean words and the middle siot.
As explained above, Korean orthography radically changed from phonemic to morphophonemic spelling with active participation by the Japanese colonial General Government. Despite these undisputed facts, Hangul supremacists regularly invoke the “pro-Japanese” label in protesting against the expansion of Hanja education, accusing Hanja advocates of being collaborators. This rhetoric is stunningly hypocritical: it is a rather odd position to condemn Hanja and mixed script as “Japanese” (which they are not) but not other aspects Korean orthography that have been clearly influenced by the Japanese colonial administration. Not to mention, there are actual grievances from real victims of this period. The gratuitous invocation of this label by these Hangul supremacists undermines efforts at reconciling their painful memories.
One of the purposes of this blog is to introduce the Anglophone world to the debate over Hangul and Hanja in Korea. The contention over Korean spelling rules in this post actually does not stem between Hangul supremacists and Hanja advocates. Rather, it is an argument that Hangul supremacists have among themselves. For example, some ultra-nationalist Koreans ridiculously condemn the Initial Sound Rule as a “Japanese creation.” Many of them not surprisingly prefer to use North Korean spelling that eschews this rule and is portrayed as more conservative than South Korean spelling. As explained here, both the North and South’s spelling rules are based on those issued by the Japanese colonial General Government.