I’ve driven many times past church signs written in a language I didn’t understand but knew to be Korean. Actually, I’m not sure I knew they were Korean until I married a Presbyterian, and learned about the strength of the Presbyterian church in Korea. Mostly, I still thought of the unreadable symbols as another of those Asian languages that don’t use the kind of letters we do.
Beyond that, I never gave it much thought. I like learning languages, but never had any inclination to learn a language that required learning a new alphabet, except for New Testament Greek (which wasn’t too difficult because I knew much of the alphabet from math and science classes, and many of the letters are similar to those in our own alphabet). I tried learning the Hebrew alphabet once, but quickly lost interest.
I do find the whole subject of linguistics fascinating, however, and for several years, as a teenager, planned on becoming a Bible translator. I knew that it meant having to learn a tribal language unknown to outsiders, and then develop a system for writing it down, before I could even begin translating the Bible, or teach its speakers to read and write their own language. The idea was daunting, yet also an appealing challenge, all the more so because it would bring the Word of God to people who had never heard it.
I never imagined using a completely different alphabet, however. There are languages with sounds that our alphabet cannot represent, but the International Phonetic Alphabet can account for virtually all of them. In college, I took a course in which we studied how different sounds are formed by the mouth, and how to represent them all using the IPA. (I also learned that I don’t pronounce “s” the normal way, and that I have a “lazy jaw” which results in a tendency to mispronounce certain vowel sounds.)
It’s been a long time since I did much reading on linguistics, but I was fascinated to read recently, in the Wall Street Journal, about the effort of some Korean linguists to export their alphabet to other countries. The Cia-Cia language, spoken by less than a hundred thousand people on the island of Buton in Indonesia, has never had a written form. Efforts to use our Roman alphabet to write Cia-Cia produced confusion. The Korean linguists are convinced that their Hangeul script is the answer.
Why, I wondered, would the Korean alphabet be better than the IPA? It turns out that Hangeul was designed specifically to make it easy to learn. Most alphabets evolved over time, but Hangeul was created to replace the difficult Chinese and Japanese characters that had previously been the only way to write the Korean language. Not only do the symbols represent the sounds of the Korean language, their shapes even indicate the shape of the mouth for forming those sounds.
I had never heard of such an alphabet before. I found IPA easy enough to learn, but the assignment of written symbols to sounds is far from intuitive. Anyone used to our Roman alphabet and a language that uses it can learn the IPA easily enough, but that would be no help to a speaker of an unwritten language. An alphabet like Hangeul, on the other hand, would only need slight adaptation to handle sounds that are not part of the Korean language.
Imagine how easy it would be to learn to read and write if the written symbols matched the sounds, and even gave clues as to the position of the mouth and lips. The sounds represented by B and M are both bilabials (made by the lips meeting), but the letters look nothing alike. The pairs P/B, F/V, S/Z, T/D, and K/G are all examples of an unvoiced and voiced version of the same sound, but the only ones that show some similarity and P/B and S/Z.
Curious to learn more, I looked in our local library for information about Hangeul. To my dismay, I found nothing. Even a search of area libraries produced only a children’s book about the creation of the alphabet by King Sejong. Written by Carol Farley, The King’s Secret tells of the wisdom of King Sejong – and of his gardener, who wanted more than anything else to learn to read and write.
I continued my search on the internet, but found that many sites on the subject do not display the Hangeul symbols correctly in my browser. Only those pages showing graphic images of Hangeul writing displayed correctly for me. In the process, I learned a lot more about alphabets in general. Omniglot has a great deal of information about different kinds of alphabets, as well as about different languages and language learning.
I also learned about Gregg shorthand, which also uses similar symbols to represent similar sounds. I grew up seeing a great deal of shorthand, as my mother had studied at secretarial school and was very skilled at taking shorthand. She no longer worked as a secretary, but she used shorthand for shopping lists, reminders to herself of things that needed to be done, and anything else she wanted to jot down quickly.
I always wondered how in the world those scribbles represented English words – but not enough to take a course in shorthand. Few if any schools even offer such courses today, as newer technologies have mostly eliminated the need for it. I can’t read a word of the examples on this page, but they certainly bring back memories of re-used envelopes covered with my mother’s penciled notes.