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Exporting the Korean Alphabet (Hangeul) to Indonesia

One of the bigger news stories from last month was the announcement that an Indonesian tribe, the Cia-Cia from the area around Bau-Bau on Buton Island, will adopt the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) as its official writing system. This decision, undertaken after consultation with the Hunminjeongeum Research Institute, made it into several media outlets here, and for those curious in how the subject was originally presented there's an online piece available here from Yonhap News. The story was revisited a couple of times over the weekend, with both Annalog and Brian in Jeollanam-do writing on the subject.

While this is certainly an interesting development, the impression that I get is that many of the comments to these entries come from people with little background in linguistics or anthropology, which influences how they look at the matter. For example, one should avoid the misconception that alphabets are stagnant entities impervious to change. However, this has been brought up a couple of times in regard to the case in Bau-Bau - see here for one instance - about how there's no guarantee that Hangeul will accurately represent the sounds needed to preserve Cia-Cia. But this ignores the crucial fact that language - both oral and written - is a dynamic force that changes to suit the needs of its users.


As I posted in a comment to Brian in Jeollanam-do's entry, if one looks at the languages that use Latin-derived alphabets it's possible to see a fair bit of variety. French uses ç, é, and î; German has/had ß, ö, etc.; Icelandic includes use of Ð/ð and Þ/þ; and one can find ã, õ, etc. within Portuguese. During the French occupation of Vietnam the writing script was changed from one based on Chinese (a combination of Hán tự and Chữ Nôm) to one based on Latin (Quốc Ngữ) -- and you can tell just by the names I've included here that 'new' letters were incorporated into the alphabet to cover sounds not represented by European letters.

Similarly, the brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius of the Byzantine Empire either created or promulgated (depending on which view you ascribe to) the use of the Glagolitic alphabet, which later evolved into Old Church Slavonic, and, eventually, modern-day Cyrillic. As Russia endeavored to increase its borders in East Europe, Central Asia, and the Far East the Cyrillic alphabet was used for a large number of unrelated languages -- Slavic languages such as Serbian and Bulgarian, other Indo-European languages like Tajik, Uralic languages like Udmurt and Khanty, Caucasian languages like Chechen, Turkic languages such as Uzbek and Chuvash, the Altaic languages of Evenky and Buryat, and the Chinese language of the Dungan living in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. That's quite the mouthful, but it's there to show what a disparate group of languages one alphabet has been called upon to serve.


Russian Dolls Lined Up by sunnyUK


And how does Cyrillic fare across this wide cross-section of Eurasian languages? Well, it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that a lot of new letters were added to represent phonemes (pronunciations) found in local languages. You can check out a nice list through Wikipedia that lays it out in an orderly fashion. Of note, the letter Г shows up in all of the languages in the list, but Ukrainian added Ґ, Macedonian added Ѓ, Tajik added Ғ, and Yakut added Ҕ for related sounds that couldn't be incorporated under Г. The modern Russian alphabet has 33 letters while Archi has almost three times as many at 97 -- obviously some work was done to expand the Cyrillic alphabet and make it compatible with other languages. With that in mind, I see no reason why non-Korean languages should be tied to only using the Korean letters currently in use now.

Branching off from that, the Korean alphabet actually has several letters (jamo) that have fallen out of use over time. I've asked a couple of friends and my Korean teacher about this and no one has been able to give me a reason for the change, but at one point Korean did have letters approximating the sounds /f/ (ㆄ), /ff/ or [v] (ㅹ), and /z/ or [ʝ͂] (ㅿ). I see no reason why these - and the couple of others I didn't list - can't be (re-)introduced into the Korean alphabet for use in Bau-Bau or elsewhere. (For that matter, I'd love to see them re-introduced within Korea, too, to help with pronouncing loan words.)

In fact, a discussion on Language Log last month includes a comment from David Marjanović on how contrasting vowel lengths and glottal stops could be represented through obsolete jamo and unused consonant clusters that are commonly encountered within Middle Korean (i.e., "ᇏ, ᇓ or ㅵ").

There's no need to stop with obsolete jamo from Middle Korean, either. As stated above in relation to the Latin-based and Cyrillic alphabets, there's no international rule that says a language's speakers can't add new letters to make the alphabet meet their needs. An older article (19 January 2008) from the Joongang Ilbo - found through this post on the Joon's Family forum - brings this up in greater detail. It mentions the work of Lee Hyun-bok, "an honorary professor of phonetics and linguistics at Seoul National University", who spent time with the Lahu of Thailand in an attempt to persuade the northern ethnic group to adopt Hangeul as a means to record their oral history. Also of interest in the article is the statement that Professor Lee "invented his own international Korean phonetic symbols [...] On top of King Sejong's 28 characters, Lee created some 109 letters consisting of 80 consonants and 29 vowels." If true, that's already a decent-sized body of work dedicated to phonemes used in languages other than Korean. Definitely a good starting-point should any need to be added as Hangeul gains additional users among the Cia-Cia.


Children of the Lahu by -BlueZ-


In addition to Lee Hyun-bok, the Joongang Ilbo article introduces Jeon Kwang-jin, "a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at Sungkyunkwan University" who works with "the Lhoba tribe, the smallest officially recognized ethnic group in China." Meanwhile, the Wikipedia entry for the Hunminjeongeum Research Institute lacks citations but mentions the Lahu of Chiang Mai, Thailand; Tungusic Oroqen of Heilongjiang, China; and the Chepang of Nepal as groups where Korean scholars have gone to promote the use of Hangeul, albeit without success.

Another comment, from hoihoi51 on Brian's site, points out how Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) has a written form (based on the Latin script and courtesy of the Dutch) and that picking Hangeul means that the Cia-Cia tribe will now have to learn two writing systems to get by within greater society. While that's certainly true, there are two aspects of this that can be brought up. The first is the use of pinyin within Chinese and the fact that schoolchildren in mainland China are educated in two different writing systems without any severe problems. The same holds true for Japan with its three writing systems (katakana, hiragana, and kanji) and occasional use of rōmaji for computer input. The second point involves the (presumed) status granted within Indonesia for using a script other than the standard, Latin-based alphabet.


The Writing On The Wall by poonomo


I first came across mention of this on Got Unicode?, where Elizabeth Pyatt notes that Bau-Bau is predominantly Muslim and goes on to say:

Actually a lot of Muslim communities including speakers of Hausa, Swahili, Malay and Turkish have switched from Arabic to the Latin alphabet. Malaysia and Indonesian are two countries following this trend, although the Jawi/Arabic script is still used in some religious and cultural contexts. There may be a variety of reasons for this including European colonial policy or the perception that the Latin alphabet is easier to learn and enhances literacy (Turkish). A move to the Latin alphabet may also represent a move towards a secular government (as in the case of Turkey).
[...]
Cia Cia is unique though in switching to something other than the Latin alphabet. One reader commented that this may be due to the fact that in South and Southeast Asia, a language gains social status by having its own script. In Indonesia, Balinese, Javanese and Sundanese have their own historic scripts. Although these scripts may not be used on an everyday basis, they do show that there is a cultural tradition having nothing to do with the West.

In theory, Cia Cia could adopt one of these scripts or one from India (e.g. Devanagari would would probably be a good fit), but none would probably be perceived as being unique in Indonesia. On the other hand...no one else in Indonesia is using Hangul. It is very unique. Fortunately, Hangul is probably a good fit. Although the forms are somewhat angular like Chinese writing, the underlying principles are actually very similar those used in India and Southeast Asia (with some differences of course).

There's another benefit to Hangul over scripts like Javanese and Balinese and that's enhanced Unicode support. Korea has been fortunate enough to have the economic and political influence for developers to develop functional encoding schemes, fonts and input utilities for Hangul. Many Southeast Asian scripts are still catching up Unicode wise.


Now, it seems highly unlikely that the Cia-Cia tribe would choose Hangeul based on its Unicode support, but the earlier section about gaining social status through a unique, individual script does have some merit. It offers a way to distinguish the local culture from greater Indonesian culture and may present opportunities similar to what exist in Quebec, Bretagne, and Wales -- namely, using the local language on public signs and in schools can serve as a powerful tool in the face of an overwhelming majority culture, be it Anglophone, Francophone, or Indonesian.


Cannot read this by Alex Mahan


Of course, despite my arguments on the reasons why it's possible to use the Korean alphabet for other languages, that doesn't necessarily mean that it should be used. There appear to be differing points of view among the Cia-Cia, with this Wall Street Journal piece providing some insight into why:

Lapela, an 84-year-old Cia-Cia community leader who dresses in traditional striped shirts and wears a long wispy beard, says that since the language has lasted 500 years without a script he wonders why it needs one now. The community survived after being forcibly relocated by the Indonesian government from their remote mountainous jungle homes in 1970 and will do so "until the day of reckoning," Mr. Lapela says.
[...]
Amirul Tamin, the mayor of Bau-Bau, is excited by the economic opportunities. He's hoping to build a Korean cultural center in Bau-Bau and plans to export seaweed to South Korea. He dreams of one day drawing South Korean tourists to the island's beaches, despite the lack of reliable air links or major hotels.


It remains to be seen what cultural and economic exchanges will take place as a result of the Chia-Chia adopting Hangeul, but it does offer some interesting possibilities. Korean cell phone companies, for example, will now have a new market to explore in the face of increasing pressure at home from the iPhone and Blackberry. If done right, the residents of Bau-Bau (and greater Buton Island) may have a new source of tourism revenue and could also benefit from scholarships for Korean universities or other academic packages. Maybe one day Kia or Hyundai will open up a factory on Buton Island or neighboring Sulawesi -- cheap land (at least, cheaper than in Korea) in exchange for jobs and infrastructure? Or will this turn into a case of nouveau (cultural) imperialism?

Another interesting aspect is whether this will change how Koreans view their language. While watching the video from this Naver site I was struck by the opening "다른 나라 다른 민족이 우리 한글을 공식문자로 쓴다는게 상상이 되십니까?" or, more precisely, the use of "우리 한글" (our Korean) - though it seems "우리말" (our language) may be more common. Now, the use of 우리 can literally mean "our", but it also serves as a politeness marker; my coworker frequently refers to 우리 남편 (literally, our husband) but that is by no means an indication that she's sharing him with anyone else. Will a new word emerge as a way to refer to all Hangeul-using peoples? Will recent developments generate more interest in the general population concerning Korea's standing vis-à-vis other cultures and states in the region? I have to admit to being somewhat amused by the thought of a Korean equivalent to the Académie française popping up some time in the future.


Académie Française by heedoo


After all this talk about the use of Hangeul in Bau-Bau though, how does the practical application look? Well, there aren't that many images to be found on the internet just yet, but there have been a few posted. Conducting a search for "찌아찌아" on Naver and Daum seems the best bet for finding them. From what I can tell based on that video clip, the Cia-Cia word for umbrella is "빠우", man or child is "바짜", dog is "아우", fish is "아사", and the number seven is "노모로". And for those of you with good vision, there are further examples to be found courtesy of Yonhap News and NewsHankuk. I also came across this site, which has a decent scan from the Bahasa Cia-Cia (바하사 찌아찌아) textbook but also throws in some odd-looking notation systems. (On second glance, those weird notation systems are apparently the whole point of the site.)



Alright, so based on the passage above it looks like all my earlier talk about "using obsolete jamo, yadda yadda" may have been for naught. However, I think it stands as useful background information to the issue and, as such, since I took the time to write it all out I'll leave it included above.

Tags: anthropology & society, identity politics / migration, korean language & vocab, southeast asia
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