Some successful modern reforms of writing systems

Korean writing reforms

Matching language and writing systems

The Korean writing system has a dramatic history of politics, nationalism, elitism and pragmatic economics. It also shows a transition made without difficulty, expense or fuss between two writing systems that are very different in their script and principles of language representation.

In the first Korean orthographic reform, the benevolent medieval King Sejong sent a committee of scholars abroad to study other writing systems and consult experts. They then, with a characteristic Korean spirit of independence, invented their own ingenious system. This was proclaimed in 1443, and named according to the King's noble aims, Hunmin-jongum, 'correct pronunciation of letters for teaching ordinary people'.

Immediately on his death, however, the ruling mandarins suppressed the new writing system because, they said in alarm, it would enable the common people to read and write. Their power as an elite was bound up with the complex, difficult Chinese script and the scholarship it required. The great new invention survived chiefly as the private script of the court ladies who had no classical education.

In the nineteenth century, the revived and improved script, with the fine title of Hangul, 'the Great Letters', was a nationalist symbol in the face of Chinese literary domination and Japanese conquest. Western traders and missionaries used it for easier communication and the missionary goal of popular education, and it helped Christianity to gain ground in Korea as in no other non-colonial Asian country.

With the expulsion of the Japanese in 1945, hangul gained official status, supported with popular enthusiasm. It had the irresistible combination of being both patriotic and easy, so that it was preferred over the internationally advantageous option of the roman alphabet. Living in Korea, I was able to observe the transition, and to discover myself how easy hangul was to learn and use.

North Korea now uses hangul alone, but in the South, the transition for those already literate was made by first using hangul for the Korean grammar and vocabulary that was not represented by Chinese characters, as with kana in Japan. Mixed text is still common in the South because an acquaintance with Chinese hanja is seen as useful for the many Chinese loan words, and links with other Asian culture, but general education and publications use mainly hangul. The spectacular rise in Korean literacy rates in the past thirty years has resulted from greater educational opportunities and the easy orthography for rapid independent reading and writing, plus the impetus of nationalist enthusiasm. Hangul has been further revised to increase Korean industrial competitiveness.

October 9, the day the Korean writing system was established by King Sejong, is celebrated as Hangul Day.

One could imagine an International English Spelling Day on the same day.