[Disclaimer: I’m not a linguist or a scholar of East Asian studies. I didn’t major in linguistics or East Asian studies. I just have a thing for languages, particularly those spoken by people of color around the world, whether the languages have always been culturally associated with their region of origin (like Twi and Khmer) or are colonial languages modified by the formerly (or currently) colonized populations (like Caribbean creoles and AAVE). Interesting stuff that barely, if at all, gets covered in school.
If someone with a better grip on the history of Korean reads this, please feel free to chime in with your knowledge!
For the sake of ease, most of the links will be to Wikipedia, but you can dig this stuff up elsewhere.]
Okay, so first off, Korean is a language isolate. Here’s the Wiki definition:
A language isolate, in the absolute sense, is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical (or “genetic”) relationship with other languages; that is, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common with any other language.
Which already is fascinating. And gets even more fascinating once you read the language isolate article’s entry on Korean:
With over 78 million speakers, Korean has more speakers than all other language isolates combined.
Bolded because linguistically speaking, this is fucking amazing. It’s the only language isolate that’s a nation’s official language. It’s spoken not only in its native country, but throughout the global ethnic-Korean diaspora. And given the history of the region, it’s kind of mind-blowing that it exists as it does, considering that…
… Korean used to be written in Chinese characters. Like, for a long, long time. And Chinese characters (or hanzi) are still around in Korea today, just not as heavily incorporated into standard writing as, say, Chinese characters in Japanese. (Which have their own fascinating history, but I won’t digress into that.)
Then in 1446, the Korean king at the time, King Sejong the Great, was like, “Hey, this is bullshit. We are Koreans, and yet we’re writing our own language in somebody else’s alphabet. Something’s gotta give.” So he issues this decree that, in translation, stated the following:
Because the speech of this country is different from that of China, it [the spoken language] does not match the [Chinese] letters. Therefore, even if the ignorant want to communicate, many of them in the end cannot state their concerns. Saddened by this, I have [had] 28 letters newly made. It is my wish that all the people may easily learn these letters and that [they] be convenient for daily use.
Reclamation of language/cultural identity like a boss.
This was also a big deal because before the decree, only elite folks were literate, because learning hanja (Korean word for hanzi) was really difficult. The new alphabet meant that people from all the social classes could learn to read and write the language they already spoke. This is a pretty big deal.
So long story short: a language that basically evolved independently (even though there are linguists who say it’s part of a larger family, this is still a controversial theory), with a unique alphabet that is intrinsic to the nation’s cultural identity, that endured even after Korea’s occupation by a foreign power for a couple decades, give or take.
Does it make sense now why I’m geeked?
Epilogue: I want to study up so that I get the 28 characters and have a little more understanding of the language than I currently do, but I don’t aspire to be fluent. One, because I’m pretty sure I’ll break my brain (this summer I’m starting to learn Twi, plus brushing up on my Mandarin, and there are chunks of other languages floating around in my head as well). Two, because I feel like fluency as a language-learning goal doesn’t resonate with me… I want to be able to communicate with people, to relate to folks in the way I relate to them in English and patois, to be myself in a language. Knowing every last word, or getting all the puns and idioms and other word play, or being able to read scholarly texts, is besides the point of language study for my purposes. Being able to hang out with everyday people and have a cool beverage on a hot day (and maybe tell or understand some jokes) is enough for me.