Korean university students show little knowledge of Chinese characters

A group of 384 freshmen at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea were tested on their knowledge of hanja (Chinese characters, as are sometimes used in writing words in Korean). Although this sample isn’t particularly large, I haven’t seen any indication that anyone believes it is not representative of Korean university freshmen as a whole. The results — at least for those who believe that Chinese characters still play a major role in literacy in Korean — are fairly dramatic:

  • 20 percent couldn’t write their own names in Chinese characters
  • 77 percent couldn’t write their mother’s name in Chinese characters
  • 83 percent couldn’t write their father’s name in Chinese characters
  • 71 percent couldn’t write “new student” in Chinese characters
  • 96 percent couldn’t write “economy” in Chinese characters
  • 98 percent couldn’t write “encyclopedia” in Chinese characters

And as for reading Chinese characters?

  • 93 percent couldn’t read the word for “ambition” as written in Chinese characters
  • 96 percent couldn’t read the word for “honor” as written in Chinese characters
  • 99 percent couldn’t read the word for “compromise” as written in Chinese characters

Remember, this refers to students at a prominent university.

A pro-character editorial in response to this states:

Seventy percent of Korean words including most conceptual and abstract nouns are made of Chinese characters. Terminology used in humanities, social studies and natural science are mostly Chinese characters. It is difficult to understand the meaning of words by pronunciation alone, without learning about the meanings of the Chinese characters that represent them. Words such as “recurrence”, “repatriation” and “homing” contain the Chinese character that stands for “return.” Without knowing that character, you must memorize each of those words separately by sound.

Whoever wrote that needs to be sent to the board to write “Chinese characters are not words” one hundred times. But I don’t know what it would take for the author to realize that learning words by sound rather than Chinese characters is entirely normal — exactly what native speakers of languages the world over do.

For a little more information on the complications in the use of Chinese characters with Korean, see Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma by William C. Hannas, especially the sections on the so-called homonym problem and the supposed transitivity [of Chinese characters] across languages.


See also Occidentalism’s thread on this, which already has more than thirty comments.

Korean romanization — again

It’s not just Taiwan that can’t seem to get its romanization situation resolved well. “Calls for a revision of the current Romanization system for the Korean alphabet, Hangul, are gaining more ground as confusion continues on the roads, signboards and government documents after the introduction of the current form in July 2000,” reports the Korea Times.

Some 75 percent of South Koreans think the government-enacted Romanization system does not reflect the original pronunciation of Hangul properly, a survey conducted by the Yoido Institute, a think tank of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) showed yesterday.

Of the 2,150 adults polled last week, 66.1 percent wanted the current system to be revised despite the expected financial cost, according to the survey conducted on the occasion of the 560th Hangul Day which falls on Oct. 9.

I make no claims of knowledge of which romanization system would be best for Korea, so be sure to read my comments with that in mind. But I do know to be wary of polls conducted by political parties.

Hangul was first Romanized using the McCune-Reischauer (M-R) system in the early 20th century, when a number of foreign missionaries came to the Choson Kingdom. But the country’s Romanization system underwent flip-flopping policies in the following decades.

“Confusions we experience today have been caused largely due to the arbitrary attitudes of armchair linguists and some misguided government officials,’’ said Kim Bok-moon, professor emeritus of Chungbuk National University.

Scraping the traditional M-R system, which had prevailed in the past decades, the government adopted a new system on July 7, 2000, shifting “Pusan,’’ “Kobukson (turtle ship) and “kimchi’’ into “Busan,’’ “Geobukseon’’ and “gimchi.’’

The English-language media, including the state-funded Yonhap News Agency, had resisted the change for a period of time. But, as time went by, all the news media gave in to the new system except The Korea Times, which has maintained the M-R system concluding that it is the most similar to actual pronunciation.

Let alone the tremendous cost of the revision, the main problem of the current system is that it does not ensure the exact pronunciation of the original sound of various Korean words.

No romanization system — or any other script, for that matter — ensures the exact pronunciation of the words of a language for people who do not know how that system works. It seems unlikely that the South Korean government would have promulgated an inherently unworkable system, such as the bastardized version of Wade-Giles is for Mandarin Chinese. (Proper Wade-Giles, of course, could work perfectly well for Mandarin, though I certainly don’t recommend it.)

And the author shouldn’t have written “the exact pronunciation of the original sound of various Korean words” but simply “the exact pronunciation of Korean words.”

Kim, who serves as president of the Research Institute for Korean Romanization (KOROMA), has made sole efforts to end the confusion, submitting a petition to then President Kim Dae-jung and presenting a Constitutional petition.

In a seminar at the National Assembly yesterday, he presented the disastrous result of an experiment that he conducted along with KBS TV about the new system in Itaewon, downtown Seoul, and at the Kimpo International Airport.

When he asked foreign people to read “Yeoksam-dong (???)’’ and “Geobukseon (???),’’ the majority of them pronounced them “ioksaemdong (????)’’ and “jiobuksion (?????),’’ far different from the actual sound.

Oh, no. Not another “let’s ask a random and probably clueless foreigner how to pronounce something” poll. These mean nothing. There are plenty of people in the United States who would mangle even the pronunciations of items on a menu in a Mexican restaurant; but that doesn’t mean Spanish orthography needs revision.

Because a committee under Taiwan’s Ministry of Education approved a romanization method for Taiwanese last week, some grandstanding member of the legislature is almost certainly going to force some executive-branch official who doesn’t know the system to read out loud something that was written in it, thus “proving” the system doesn’t work. It might already have happened.

According to Kim, 16 out of the newly Romanized 21 vowels of Hangul are out of sync with actual sounds when they are read by English-speaking people, who have no knowledge about the premise that “eo’’ would be pronounced as “?.’’ He has devised his own system, which he claims ensures the best pronunciations.

“Disasters that many critics expected have already begun. We can easily find serious confusion here and there,’’ Kim told The Korea Times. “We have to correct the mistake without delay before it is too late, and adopt a proper system.’’

Romanization systems seldom work well when forced into the mold of an anglicization. I wonder if romanized Korean is commonly but mistakenly referred to in Korea as “English.”

And, of course, there’s always an appeal to nationalism:

One example of what Kim cited as “losses of national interests’’ was “Koguryo’’ and “Dokdo,’’ which became objects of historical and even territorial rows with China and Japan during the past couple of years.

At a time when China spelled the ancient Korean kingdom as “Koguryo,’’ South Korea’s English-language dailies, except for The Korea Times, wrote it as “Goguryeo.’’ It was later unified into Koguryo as even the UNESCO’s World Heritage called it Koguryo.

A set of South Korean tiny islets in the East Sea, Dokdo had also been divided into “Tokto’’ and “Dokdo.’’ The Korea Times agreed to unify it into Dokdo at the recommendation of the government as an exceptional case. But the foreign news media and Web sites are still left confused between them.

The article closes:

Critics say the Romanization system should be revised in a way that best reflects the characteristics of the Korean language and the reunification of the two Koreas should also be taken into consideration.

North Korea has a system similar to the M-R system, which writes its cities and places in English as “Pyongyang,’’ “Kaesong’’ and “Mt. Kumgang’’ _ not “Pyeongyang,’’ “Gaeseong’’ and “Mt. Gumgang.’’

North Korea once proposed the unification of the different Romanization systems used by South and North Korea in a meeting of linguists from the two Koreas in Berlin, Germany, in 2002.


source: Hangul Romanization Revision Proposed, Korea Times, September 26, 2006

some comments here: More romanization debate, The Marmot’s Hole, September 29, 2006

read about hangul here: Hangul Day, Language Log, October 9, 2005


A sign of change at Gwanghwamun?

The Cultural Heritage Administration is at the center of controversy after announcing plans to take down a sign penned by former President Park Chung-hee located at Gwanghwamun, the southern gate of Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul.

The administration plans on hanging in its place a sign written in hanja (Chinese characters) compiled from the handwriting of King Jeongjo (1752-1800), the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty.

Its head Yoo Hong-jun announced three days ago that it was taking measures to remove the “Gwanghwamun” sign in Park’s handwriting as part of palace restoration projects.

“The current sign does not match with the characteristics of Gyeongbok Palace and compared to the original hanja sign, it is written backwards so we have decided to change it,” said an official at the cultural properties administration, which oversees the restoration and preservation of the nation’s cultural properties. In contrast to modern Korean, signs composed in hanja were traditionally written from right to left or top to bottom.

The administration is drawing fire from conservatives over its decision to replace the marker at Gwanghwamun, considered by many as the spiritual center of the capital. Conservatives are abuzz with suspicions that the decision has political motivations behind it. The Chosun Ilbo, a conservative daily newspaper, featured an article on its front page yesterday claiming that Yoo had likened President Roh Moo-hyun to the reform-minded King Jeongjo.

While giving a tour of Changdeok Palace to the president last October, Yoo was said to have remarked to Roh that he shared three characteristics with the late Joseon Dynasty ruler: upholding reform as his motto, unsuccessfully attempting to move the capital and seeking out the advice of young scholars.

Yoo responded to the newspaper’s allegations, saying, “It’s true that I compared the president to King Jeongjo. But that is not the reason why we are trying to change the Gwanghwamun sign, nor are there any political reasons behind it.”

The administration plans to make the switch on August 15, to mark the 60th anniversary of Liberation Day. The decision must first be approved by a separate cultural heritage board. A sign by Park has already been taken down at Hwaryeongjeon, a palace housing a shrine to Jeongjo in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province.

King Jeongjo did not reside in Gyeongbok Palace but lived at Gyeonghui Palace and later moved to Changdeok Palace, where he established Gyujeonggak, a royal library, in 1776, the first year of his reign. He also built Hwaseong Fortress in honor of his father, crown prince Sa-do Sae-ja.

The current wooden sign hanging at Gwanghwamun is written in Korean characters and was made in 1969. The three hanja characters in Gwanghwamun form the meaning, “Bestowing the great virtues of a king upon the nation and its people.” The original sign was said to have been written by nobleman painter Jeong Hak-kyo (1832-1914).

Placed at the center of a gate’s beam near the roof, signs or “hyeonpan” were typically written by important individuals to denote certain characteristics of a building. Signs were first used during the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-688 A.D.). During the Joseon Dynasty they were used to mark temples, palaces, Confucian academies and even ordinary residences.

The current “Gwanghwamun” sign (above) penned in Korean letters by late President Park Chung-hee and a new sign written in Chinese characters compiled from the handwriting of Joseon Dynasty King Jeongjo


‘Net influences writing in Chinese

Related sorts of Internet-influenced mixed scripts, abbreviations, and loan words are also popular in Taiwan and China among the young.

“よøぎㅎビλĦㅎコ_¤ 읍ㅎF_しち흐ロっㅉヴ”_≥∇≤☆”

This is one of the commonly used words of teenagers on the Internet. It means: “Hello. You are so cool.”

The language used on the Internet is passing over the danger level for breaking down Hangeul, the Korean alphabet.

Up until recently, it was just writing down the words as they were heard or shortening words, like “ban-ga-wo” (meaning ‘glad to see you’ in Korean) to “bang-ga” or “yeo-ja-chin-gu” (meaning “girlfriend” in Korean) to “yeo-chin.” However, lately, it has gotten to the point where words that the general public cannot understand at all are being used.

The language for these words used by some netizens for communication, mixing special characters, Japanese, Chinese characters and Korean, are called “alien words.”

The meaning of alien words such as “㉯㉯납별뉨ⓔ는ⓔ렇퀘글쓰능高☆로㉯뽀게생각안훼 (I, Byeol-nim, do not think using words this way is that bad)”, can be guessed when looking closely, but some seem like codes, such as “읍ㅎ℉를_ㅁ|てつ효_∩∇∩★ (I believe in you)”.

These alien words are becoming popular among some teenage netizens who want to share secrets of their own. They even make community clubs on the Internet and talk with each other in alien words.

However, these alien words are not in the Korean spelling system, and so netizens using this language sometimes misunderstand each other. Accordingly, a translation program for alien words has appeared. It translates Korean words into alien words.

The problem here is that this language used by teenagers on the Internet is continuing into use in everyday life, becoming a serious threat to breaking down the Korean language.

In fact, teachers are pointing out that many students are writing “추카” instead of “축하” and “겜” instead of “게임” during writing classes. (Words are written by the way they sound or by shortening the original word.)

Accordingly, the Education and Human Resources Development Ministry (MOE) has published a teachers’ guide to refine the Korean language and effectively teach students the manners in language for everyday life to be distributed throughout schools on Monday, January 10.

This teachers guide, titled: “Refining Internet Language, Manners for Language in Everyday Life,” was written by the MOE, the National Academy of the Korean Language, the Information Communication Ethics Committee, the Korean Education and Research Information Service and the Teachers’ Clean Media Movement, and will be used during classes starting this semester.

some Xinhua blah-blah-blah on Chinese characters in Korea

There’s some useful information here scattered among the propaganda and party line. It’s also good to know what the other side is thinking.

韩国: 汉字命运新挑战
( 尽管韩国一直尝试用韩文取代汉文。但由于和中国日益密切的联系以及韩文本身的缺陷,汉字在韩国的影响将越来越大。)

预计最早从明年开始,韩国国内法律文本中很难看懂的汉字标记方式将全部被韩文取汽车生活方式大比拼特别关注银屑病鱼鳞病专治各种血管瘤! 免费与美女视频聊天代。



















Hangeul to replace Chinese characters in laws

The Chinese characters that are mixed in with the present 759 laws will be revised into Hangeul from the Hangeul Day (Korean Alphabet Day) of next year at the earliest.

The government held a state council under the supervision of Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan at the Central Government Complex in Sejongro on December 21 and passed the “Special Measure Bill For Revising Law into Hangeul” that enforces the Chinese characters that are used in present laws to be replaced with Hangeul as a rule.

This reflects the reality of the difficulty in understanding the law due to the increase in the number of generations who did not learn Chinese characters during school education.

The government is planning to carry out this plan from the 559th anniversary Hangeul Day of 2005, after revising the Chinese characters into Hangeul collectively through this special measure.