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Past & Present: 13
Hangeul: A Reassessment
By Alan Timblick
President of The Seoul Times
Hangeul, the Korean Alphabet — Hangeul or Hunminjeongeum (訓民正音) is world's most scientific and easiest alphabet to learn. The Korean phonogram was made in 1446 by King Sejong of Korea's Jeoseon Dynast. The king wanted illliterate common people to use hangeul instead of Chinese letters whcih was used by noble class. Hunminjeongeum literally means "the correct sounds for the instrruction of the people.

Our last chapter of "past and Present" promised a revised view of the utility of Hangeul in today's Korea. We hope it is read in the well-intended spirit with which it was composed!

The wonderful creation of the unique phonetic script invented (or at least commissioned) and promulgated by the great King Sejong has been touted as a global solution to rendering any language in written , esy-to-read, phonetic form

At the risk of being labeled an iconoclast, I would like to make a plea for a more objective, up-to-date assessment of this achievement.

While Hangeul certainly fulfilled its objective, resulting in Korea having one of the highest literacy rates worldwide and helping to create the egalitarian society we have today, the advocates of hangeul as a global solution to representing any spoken language in writing need to observe a reality check!

Reality is that the script is fully appropriate for representing today's spoken Korean. However, it was not intended to be used as a tool for teaching how to pronounce sounds which do not exist in today's Korea.

Its misuse for that purpose in schools goes a .long way to explain the poor pronunciation of English words by young koreanswho are (supposedly) well-qualified and fluent in English.

However if it is used that way the result is that many Koreans speak their own version of English which is incomprehensible to native english-speakers, thus:-

F becomes P or H, resulting in "hamily" and "corn-plakes.

Z or a hard S becomes J, making "mujic, seajon, reajon ... and zone becomes Joan."

R and L become interchangeable, hence loyalty=royalty.

There is no "th" sound in korean so it becomes a "d" or an "s." But this is common for speakers of other languages, such as German, which also have no th.

Other characteristics of korean are more problematic. The absence of long vowels, and closed consonants leads to please becoming plis, lunch becoming lunchee and other idiosyncrasies. Also the predominance of American.

Pronunciation can cause confusion such as the popular rice and vegetable dish becoming " bibin bob!

Which goes to argue in favor of using more native English speakers in our schools?

Alan Timblick serves as President of The Seoul Times. He grew up in England, graduated from Oxford University, and has lived in Seoul for over three decades. A former banker, he also worked for the Korean government as head of Invest Korea and for Seoul City as head of the Seoul Global Center.






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