Comparing writing systems

The 'Great Letters' of the Korean writing system

Korean writing is an alphabet, a syllabary and logographs all at once. Each word is made from alphabet letters that combine into syllables,which are combined into a compact character block.

The remarkable Korean writing system, Hangul, is little known outside Korea, and conflicting statements may be read about it.

The changeover from Chinese-origin hanja characters to the versatile hangul at the end of half a century of Japanese occupation facilitated Korea's explosion of literacy from 1945 on. It could well be a major factor in Korea's massive leap in thirty years from being the backward, semi-medieval, war-torn country that I knew in 1950 to one of the most industrialised and fastest growing economies in the world.

The hangul script, literally, the 'Great Letters', sometimes called Onmun, shows the ingenuity possible when an orthography is carefully designed to be frendly to its users at every point. Letter names signify their sounds, and the shape of each symbol was supposedly designed to represent its phonetic articulation (although others claim anecdotally that the shapes were taken fortuitously from the design of a lattice that happened to be around.)

The simple 24 letters of the script represent the phonemes of the language. They build up logically to make about 120 very common syllables and nearly 400 in common use, making around 2000 altogether of mostly square-framed syllable blocks, by stacking the geometric shapes of the consonants on to the bar shapes of the vowels, either horizontally or vertically, The blocks have the memorable visual qualities of gestalts, like simple Chinese characters, but with very different constituents.

This orthography suits the Korean language, which is composed mostly of polysyllabic morphemes, with an elaborate inflexional system based on suffixes. I. Taylor (1980) found that the three levels of complexity in hangul characters were better for discriminating and recognising syllable blocks than single levels. The syllables then string into words, with wider spacing between the words, and this facilitates word recognition within the sentences. Logical distinctions reduce homographs. Western scholars have admired its phonetic accuracy, perfect match to the language, internal structure and its 'sheer creativeness'. Dictionaries are not needed for spelling.

A language with thousands of syllables (like English) could be represented in this syllabic writing, because it is built up alphabetically. The next stage of building up syllables reduces sequencing errors, and simplifies parsing. For example, the notorious English word 'antidisestablishmentarianism', which is 28 letters in English, would be condensed into ten syllable-blocks if in hangul. Unfamiliar words can be decoded at any of its three levels of sound, syllable and whole-word character, and by either visual or auditory perceptual mode. The different levels of present English spelling, however, operate to make it 'a psycholinguistic guessing game' (Goodman, 1976).

In South but not in North Korea, the visually distinctive Chinese hanja characters are also often still used as a useful discriminant in mixed text, to represent traditional Chinese loan words. They continue links with Chinese and Japanese culture, as well as being a status symbol of better education. In 1956 Gray's Korean subjects read this type of mixed script faster than the pure phonetic hangul, but 20 years later, Noh Hwang Park & Kim (1977, cited by Taylor & Taylor, 1983: 90) found that hangul was read faster - a difference which may be due to the decreasing familiarity of hanja.

Korean keyboards of mechanical typewriters have been cumbersome, since consonants can be in both top and bottom positions in syllables, but electronic word-processing is simple. Symbols are simply typed in alphabetically, and automatically packaged and adjusted into high letter-quality syllable blocks.

Learning hangul. A Korean scholar in 1446 claimed that 'the bright can learn the system in a single morning and even the thick-headed can do so within ten days'. Foreign students such as myself could learn it within a day.

Beginners usually have a one-page hangul chart, with columns for the consonants and rows for the vowels. The sound of every syllable appears within the matrix of 399 vowel and consonant-plus-vowel syllables in the one-page chart. In contrast, the rest of the textbook may be taken up with the 2000 hanja characters.

Syllables are found easiest for children to segment out of the sound of words, so young learners are taught to recognise syllable blocks first and the phonemes follow. Children have books to read for meaning from the start, plus drills. By mid-first-year, in classes of around sixty, pupils can read 400 words. Soon they can read independently - which Taylor & Taylor (1983) compare with American norms of about 500 words after one year. Adult illiterates can learn in 6 weeks to 6 months.

Research interest is turning to Korean, for its fascinating possibilities in helping us to understand reading processes. In the future, this interest must surely be extended to possibilities in orthographic design.