On orthography, nationalism and language-learning

[note: The first few paragraphs of this post goes over some phonetics of Korean.  It may not be interesting to many, but my real point for the post comes after.  So keep reading! It gets better.]

Recently, Korea claimed the gold medal at the 2nd Alphabet Olympics.  (more here and here).  Indeed, congratulations are due to the Koreans, who have developed a very scientifically nuanced orthography that is both easy to learn and intricately complex.  In science, we call a simple solution to a complex question, elegance.  Certainly a word to describe Hangeul.

Place of articulation for [k] or [g]

Just to give an idea to those who have no idea why Hangeul (the Korean writing system) is so special—From a linguistic-perspective, simply the shape of many of the characters is beautiful and informative.  The character for the roman [k] or [g] is ‘ㄱ’ .  The shape of the character itself informs the reader where the place of articulation is for the sound.  (i.e. the back of the tongue raises to the roof of the mouth at the velum.  [t] and [d] are formed as ‘ㄷ’ in Hangeul, suggesting that the place of articulation is at the front of the mouth (the tip of the tongue seals just behind the teeth at the alveolar ridge).  Beautiful and simple or in a word, elegant.

Now, certainly, not all of the visual designs of the characters in Hangeul are based in phonetic principles.  The velar nasal (the sound of ‘ng’ part of -ing) ‘ㅇ’ doesn’t seem to make much sense aesthetically (and that is ok, none of the roman alphabet has a visual correlation with the phonetics of the language, it’s all arbitrary abstractions).  But take into account another interesting feature of Korean, voicing.  By ‘voicing’ we mean the vibrating in your vocal cords (more accurately the slapping together of the vocal flaps).  As I noted above both [d] and [t] map to ‘ㄷ’, and [g] and [k] map to ‘ㄱ’.  The main difference of [d,g] and [t,k] is what phoneticians call ‘voicing’.

In Korean, voicing does not mark a difference like it does in English.  For Korean, we would say that [k] and [g] are in complementary distribution or, if there were a Korean word ‘gap’ and ‘cap’ they would be pronounced the same way (or they would differentiate with a different sound, such as [ㄲ] which sounds like a [g] to English ears, but actually is a “tensed” version of [g], involving a co-articulation of glottis.)

Korean does use both the [k] and [g] sounds, but it depends on where the ‘ㄱ’ appears in a word.  If it occurs at the beginning like in ‘ 기‘ (cough), it will be pronounced with a [k] similar to the second [k] in the word, ‘cake’.  (note, not the first [k].  Syllable-initial [k] in English is actually aspirated, meaning you add an extra puff of air.  Try it out, say ‘cake’ and take notice of the difference.)  If the velar is between two vowels, ‘감‘, it will be pronounced as a [g].  And, to finalize, if it occurs word-finally, like ‘죤‘ (Jeongok, the name of my town), it will be ‘unreleased’.  Meaning, you will put your tongue in the appropriate place to make the sound, but you don’t ‘release’ it, you don’t let the air blow out.  (This often happens in English when speakers are speaking normally and casually.)

The idea here is, Korean does not need two different letters for ‘ㄱ’ because it doesn’t add information, very elegant.  (The same thing is true of aspiration in English, we don’t need two different letters for [p] in the word ‘pip’ even though the first ‘p’ is pronounced with extra aspiration.  Extra Credit: Korean does differentiate based on aspiration, [k] and [kʰ] in Korean are differentiated by the Hangeul characters ‘ㄱ’ and ‘ㅋ’.  Much to the chagrin of English-speakers learning Korean, even though we have both sounds in our language as well).

–Now, I want to speak to everyone who thinks their language is “the best”.  Yes.. I am talking to you “official English” supporters and yes, I’m talking to basically the entire Korean peninsula (I assume North Korea is as proud of their language as the south is).  You need to keep your nationalism out of my linguistics.  Not just because your extreme delusion doesn’t do you any real good, and not just because your fantasies of a monolingual world go against thousands of years of linguistic evolution.  No, the real reason is this:  when you have concluded that “my language is best” or “my writing system is best” you are only making subjective declarations that don’t give you much empathy or continued understanding.

I just want everyone to maybe think a little broader about why Hangeul is so amazing, and why English orthography might be amazing as well.   (I know the latter idea is almost unthinkable).  But, truly, there are reasons the English writing system is the way it is, and why it may be a better idea to leave it be.  We have discussed some of the elegant features of Hangeul; naturally, Koreans are hoping to help other language communities develop writing systems for their languages using Hangeul.  A noble idea, to be sure and even a great idea, practically! For the reasons listed above, Hangeul would make a great orthography for an oral language to adopt, so why don’t they?

Let me give you one example.   One language, Cia-cia, had been contacted by the Sejong Institute, to help build schools and develop an orthography using Hangeul.  Plans were made, and the initial steps were taken.  Unfortunately, the plan was a failure.  Why?  Well, money for one, culture differences that I’m not really sure about for two and third, the most important part, the National government has passed a law saying any new orthographies for the tribal languages of Indonesia have to use the Roman script!

On the face of it, this seems like linguistic imperialism AGAIN. (and I would agree in part).  Why such a controlling law?  Well, even though all the language communities in Indonesia want to maintain some semblance of diversity and independence, the thinking goes that if they use a similar script, you streamline the process.  Learning the different languages and, importantly, the dialects doesn’t require learning a new writing system and they will share a writing system with the major lingua franca of the area, English.

One benefit of the Roman script that Hangeul doesn’t enjoy? World-wide usage.  Thousands of languages use one script, with changes here and there to pick out and highlight the differences and nuances of the individual languages.  I wonder, and I invite any Koreans to express their opinion specifically on this topic, how Koreans would feel when a new language community adopts Hangeul for their writing system, but then decide to change Hangeul in some fashion.  Adding a diacritic of some sort, or getting rid of the null-initial syllable place holder, ‘ㅇ’.  As someone who has worked with others to develop writing systems for oral language communities, one thing we keep in mind as designers is: does this language community want to identify with the major-language in the area? Or do they want to distinguish themselves from them?  For the most part, they want to distinguish themselves.   I wonder how Koreans would feel about their writing system being changed, perhaps for no reason other than that the language community wants to distinguish themselves from Korea.

Ok, now, I’m going to get specific about English orthography and not the Roman script in general.  I grant that learning the English writing system is not a pleasant experience for many people. (learning spoken English, on the other hand, is no more difficult than any other language.  And if you can pick up on a few interesting features, like vowel reduction, you can guess the pronunciation of most words pretty easily!).  Why so few letters seem to map onto so many different sounds is hard for people to understand.  And I sympathize.  It is difficult, and there were some real mistakes made in the past when the Orthography was being established.  But let me give you one reason we may want to think twice about re-inventing the writing system.

They used to say “the sun never sets on the British Empire”.  And even though the sun may set on the empire these days, it’s linguistic heritage certainly still doesn’t see the night.  English is used as either a first or second language in every corner of the world, for better or worse.  Let’s leave second-language English aside.  Just first language English speakers range all around the world.  You have what is often called the “inner-circle” English nations, like the United Kingdom (which is itself made up of many native languages like Irish, Celtic, Welsh and others, who have adopted and changed English), The United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and so on.  But there are many other nations who speak English as a native language or bilingually.  Often the English of these areas is considered sub-standard and given pejorative titles.  These nations often implement stringent education reforms to teach “proper” English and rid themselves of their local English dialect.  And while I praise the efforts to educate their population to engage the broader world in the language of English, it pains my linguistic heart to hear people denigrating what is often a first or bilingual language for many of the speakers.  Singapore English is one such example, pejoratively known as “singlish”, African-American English is another, what used to be known pejoratively as “ebonics”.

With So many different dialects, cultures and peoples speaking English, many of whom have just as much of a cultural right to the language as those of us in the United States, United Kingdom or any other inner circle dialect; we are bound to happen upon English speakers who we just won’t understand as Americans, or English.  This was impressed upon me in my Introductory Linguistics course.  My professor played several audio clips of English speakers and we were to first, understand what was said, and two guess where they were from.  There were some obvious ones, like the London or RP accent, Australian.  Some were not so obvious, like the welch accent or Jamaican English.  But there was one in particular that was paradigm-shifting for me.  It was the Shetland Island English Dialect.  It was completely incomprehensible to me, mostly because it has strong influences from Scots and other languages in the area.

To draw this back to orthography, one of the most wonderful aspects of written English is that even though we have all these different dialects of Spoken English, we all share, for the most part, a written English that is mostly unchanged.  Sure, idioms seep through and sometimes cultural ideas don’t translate completely.  Still, even this blog-post will be intelligible to any English-speaker who has learned the English writing system, regardless of dialect.  It is simply a wonderful thing.

Now, let’s say we want to change English orthography.  Where do we start?  Whose dialect do we choose to set up as the standard dialect?  Do we just let every dialect choose to reinterpret the orthography as best fits the phonology, phonetics and phonotactics of their dialect?  Well, ok.  But let’s just be clear about what we are giving up when do this.  The broad, sweeping world-wide understanding that comes from the hard-won ability to read English that gives you access to information and data from hundreds, maybe thousands of publications from all over the world.

Perhaps I am too extreme in my analysis.  Certainly there could be small changes (of which I haven’t looked into well enough to comment), that would be beneficial.  Orthographic house-keeping sounds reasonable to me (Hangeul does it, you’ll never see the character for [z] – ‘ㅿ’ anymore, because it doesn’t exist in the language, except in some trace functions of the Jeju dialect).  So while it may feel good to your national pride to give yourself a gold star every now and again, let’s not let it blind us to the beauty of diversity around us.  We all lose out and empathy certainly isn’t created when we do so.  And if that isn’t enough for you, then think about this: you sound like an ignorant, arrogant, nationalistic asshole when you do it.


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