9 July 2008

Hangul and accents

Hangul is a written script for the Korean language. It was created around 1444 CE in order to overcome the complexity and ambiguity resulting from using the Chinese Hanzi script. Hangul allows the writer to represent the Korean language phonetically--part of each letter is a simplified illustration of how the sound should be formed in the mouth--and so has been described by computational linguist Geoffrey Sampson as one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind.

For the hundreds of years since its introduction, Hangul has battled the supremacy of the tradition driven by scholars and priests of using the Chinese script. Today, in South Korea, writing consists of a mix of Hangul, hanja (the Korean name for Hanzi), and Latin loan words. The Chinese script has slowly lessened in importance. During this transition, the script has also moved from primarily phonemic to a mix of phonemic and morphologic, that is: from sound-centric to sound- and word-centric. Although it seems odd for the users of a script to choose ambiguity over phonological precision, the benefit is that sounds that change across regional accents and dialects become less important within the script itself.

This is a benefit in English and other languages that use the Latin alphabet. Although spelling may not match pronunciation, words do not change spelling across regions. "Yard" in Boston (/jɔːd/) is still spelled "yard" and not "yaughd" like "caught" (/kɔːt/) and certainly not like "cough" (/kɔːf/). If we wanted phonetic precision, we'd use IPA or some other equivalent system.

[ posted by sstrader on 9 July 2008 at 2:15:48 PM in Language & Literature ]