Hangeul for Cia-Cia, part II

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Back in August, I posted a report about how the Hangeul alphabet had moved beyond the Korean Peninsula.  Now, nearly half a year later, it may be worth taking a look at how things are progressing in this novel attempt to introduce the Hangeul alphabet to members of a 60,000 member Indonesian tribe called the Cia-Cia.

Ben Zimmer called my attention to an article by Jon Herskovitz and Christine Kim entitled "Indonesian tribe turns to Korean to save language" that was made available by the AlertNet of the Thomson Reuters Foundation on December 23 and has appeared elsewhere as well.

"For members of an Indonesian tribe visiting Seoul for the first time, the winter cold was beyond belief, the high-tech gadgets seemed to come from another world yet the language was eerily similar."  Thus begins the article, but it's not the languages that are similar, merely the scripts.  As one of the members of the visiting delegation from the town of Bau-Bau on Buton island, a boy named Samsir, exclaimed, "It's a little uncomfortable being here. I can read what's written but I can't understand it."  This contradicts another newspaper account of the visit in which Samsir is reported to have said that it was easy to learn Korean.  See "Cia-Cia Students Pay Visit to Great King Sejong Memorial," by Kwon Mee-yoo in The Korea Times for today (December 24).

This slippery ambiguity of Hangeul as a script for Cia-Cia and Hangeul as a vehicle for the propagation of Korean is but one of the questionable assumptions surrounding the adoption of Hangeul by the Cia-Cia.  In this and other reports, there seems to be an expectation that learning Hangeul for the purposes of writing Cia-Cia (an Austronesian language) will somehow make learning Korean language (perhaps Altaic, but perhaps not) easier.

This is linked to another dubious assumption, namely, that providing Cia-Cia with a written form will somehow save it.    Manchu had its own script and the Manchus ruled over the whole of China for more than two and a half centuries, building an enormous empire whose vestiges still survive in the People's Republic of China, but that did not prevent their language from dying out.  The same has happened to many other languages that once had a written form.  In other words, it's not just unwritten languages that go extinct.  Granted, though, a language that once had a written form is far more likely to experience a spoken revival (witness Hebrew, and efforts are also being made to resuscitate spoken Manchu).

Anyway, is there evidence that Cia-Cia is in danger, imminent or otherwise, of dying out?  Apparently, some members of the Cia-Cia tribe were opposed to committing their language to writing, preferring instead to continue to transmit their language orally as they have always done.

Just as I was about to wrap up this post, I stumbled upon some rather stunning information about Lee Ki-nam, who is the driving force behind the efforts to get the Cia-Cia to adopt Hangeul to write their language.   Ms. Lee is a retired real estate agent who claims to be a descendant of King Sejong (1397-1450), the inventor (in 1446) of the Hangeul alphabet, which was originally called Hunminjeongeum (훈민정음 [modern Korean] / 훈민져ᇰᅙᅳᆷ [original name] / 訓民正音 [Chinese characters]; The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People).  Ms. Lee founded the Hunminjeongeum Society (also called Hunminjeongeum Research Institute) for the purpose of propagating Hangeul to all the unwritten languages of the world.  It turns out that Ms. Lee had formerly been unsuccessful in getting the Tungusic Oroqen (distant cousins of the Manchu), the Tibeto-Burman Chepang / Tsepang of Nepal, and the Lahu  (also Tibeto-Burman) of Chiang Mai (Thailand) to adopt the Hangeul script for their languages.  So she had to go further afield before locating the Cia-Cia on a remote island of eastern Indonesia.

The Language Museum Blog offers some interesting discussion of the sensitive issues surrounding Ms. Lee's project.  Despite Ms. Lee's motivation for spreading Hangeul to all the unwritten languages of the world, it's still too early to tell whether it's going to make a difference for the Cia-Cia.  So far, all we know is that some textbooks have been printed and that students can read and write sentences in Hangeul Cia-Cia.  Moreover, several of them who are in Seoul right now can uncomprehendingly mouth the sounds of Korean that they see on signs and in books.  As to what happens with Hangeul back in Bau-Bau during the coming months and years, stay tuned for Cia-Cia, part III.



  1. J. Goard said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 8:39 am

    Ms. Lee is a retired real estate agent who claims to be a descendant of King Sejong (1397-1450), the inventor (in 1446) of the Hangeul alphabet

    LOL. As certain as we can be about anything, every ethnic Korean is a descendant of Sejong the Great. He had 25 kids, and his descendants continued to be powerful and polygynous for many generations. One great-grandson alone (King Seongjong) had 28 kids, and he was probably one among 1000. The better question is what percentage Sejong a given Korean is.

  2. J. Goard said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    On-topic thoughts:

    (1) For a serious adult Korean learner, increased exposure to Hangeul ends the honeymoon when your eyes get tortured daily by all the syllables that are barely distinguishable in small print. What's worse, some such cases involve two auxiliary verbs and/or sentence endings that are both plausible in context. For everything it gains in phonological regularity, it loses in visual perception. The presence or absence (and direction) of a tiny horizontal line crossing a vertical line, when the letter next to it itself has a horizontal line at about the same height, leaves something to be desired.

    (2) Nationalistic Koreans may be happy that Hangeul is so valuable, but what are they going to think when the Cia-Cia people internalize the script, ditch the totally superfluous Korean-speaking teacher, start calling it "our Cia-Cia writing", try to read Korean and thus frequently joke about how silly Korean sounds, etc?

  3. bunsen_lamp said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

    (2) Why, do English speakers ridicule other languages using Latin script? Does Czech, Afrikaans, Icelandic, Estonian, Portuguese, Turkish sound silly to you?

  4. J. Goard said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 6:00 am

    Does Czech, Afrikaans, Icelandic, Estonian, Portuguese, Turkish sound silly to you?

    Some of them do. :-)

    Seriously, though, the relationship would be very different since there would be only two language communities using the script, one big one actively promoting its most glorious accomplishment and one small one trying to save its culture from extinction. If this comes to pass, you can bet that Cia-Cia will frequently run into dumb people who think that they can speak Korean or have a desire to learn Korean.

  5. Matt said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    Does anybody know about the veracity of Sejong's purported invention of hangeul? I always got the impression that his workshop of linguists came up with it under his supervision and he got the credit. He was also supposed to have invented a water clock of some kind if memory serves, and some other things as well. I always thought the whole thing bore an uncomfortable similarity to the supposed achievements of Kim Jong Il in botany, poetry, filmmaking, etc. Apologies for my skepticism if it's unwarranted.

  6. Karlo said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    I keep coming across comments that the use of hangeul is odd or that the Cia-Cia words don't comply to Korean phonotactic constraints and so on. The same could certainly be said for Roman script, which is especially ill-suited for writing English with its large repertoire of vowels. As for hangeul consisting of hard to distinguish small lines, this is only a problem for adult learners–Korean certainly don't experience problems reading or writing it. Of course, one might ask why a tribe would want to adopt a script of a far-off nation when they could adopt a script based on the Roman alphabet and get advantages learning all the world's languages that use the script. On the other hand, there are some advantages to being small and idiosyncratic. If I'm ever in a boat passing Buton island, I'll definitely have them drop me off for a few hours so that I can read the hangeul signs posted around the village and hopefully buy a local paper as a souvenir if one's available.

  7. J. Goard said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 9:34 am


    Yes, clearly the top-down predictive ability of fluent speakers compensate very well for any deficiencies in visual processing. That's perfectly true for me, too, if I'm reading an easy or fairly formulaic Korean text. But I think that the same would have been true if the letters had been highly arbitrary, rather than using a phonetic-graphical correspondence as they do. My point about tiny lines and similar-looking syllables is that phonetic transparency is only one virtue that would characterize an outstanding script. Another virtue is, roughly, effective use of the possibility space provided by the visual channel and two-dimensional surfaces.

  8. Jongseong Park said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 5:27 am

    I never noticed this post until now, and the original commenters probably will never see this, but I'll leave my comment for whoever stumbles upon this.

    @Matt: Yes, as unlikely as it may first seem, King Sejong in all probability did invent hangul. Most of the cultural accomplishments during his reign were in fact clearly recorded to be the works of other individuals; the invention of the water clock was attributed to Jang Yeongsil, Bak Yeon was credited with the standardization of court music, Sejong's prince (later King Munjong) was recorded to have made the first rain gauge.

    In fact, Hangul is the only thing that is explicitly described as Sejong's personal invention. His announcement that he had invented a new alphabet took his court by surprise. The scholars in his 'Hall of Worthies' became involved only afterwards to refine the orthography and to create the first texts in hangul. It was only centuries later that the popular and seemingly more plausible version that Sejong merely ordered his scholars to create a new alphabet began to be told.

    * * *

    For anyone who is interested and can read Korean, I blogged a while back about the Cia-Cia adoption of hangul, discussing among other things the suitability of hangul for Cia-Cia. At least Cia-Cia doesn't have many consonant clusters, but it has initial /ŋ/, a distinction of /r/ and /l/ initially, initial pre-nasalized stops, a phonemic glottal stop, etc. that are awkward to represent with hangul.

  9. Aori said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    @J. Goard:

    Under the Korean cultural assumption, patrilineal descent is implied when Ms. Lee says she is a descendant of Sejong the Great. And "only" about 10% of the population descends patrilineally from him. :-)

    For the legibility issue you raised, I do not think that the blame could be placed solely on Hangul. It is likely due also to other factors such as font, size, language, and orthography. (I'll ignore reading proficiency and surrounding context, since one's ability to disambiguate does not entail a lack of ambiguity.) If the problem persists after changing these other factors to a favorable state, then perhaps the writing system could be at fault.

    As an analogy, it would be absurd to blame the Latin script for one's difficulty in reading a Gutenberg bible, if the same person easily reads it in an Antiqua font.

    Or if one has difficulty distinguishing the words "done" from "clone" or "modem" from "modern", it is inaccurate to find fault solely in the Latin script. The difficulty is also due to the typeface which fails to provide sufficient distinguishing signs (or fails to eliminate ambiguating signs), the font size which fails to magnify distinguishing signs, the current English lexicon which allows "cl" and "rn" sequences, and the current English orthography which, unlike the Romans, doesn't use all caps.

    Your comments "…barely distinguishable in small print", "…involve two auxiliary verbs and/or sentence endings that are both plausible in context", "…presence or absence (and direction) of a tiny horizontal line…when the letter next to it itself has a horizontal line at about the same height…" seem to support my point. These are really issues with the text size, Korean language, font, and the horizontal writing direction used in current Korean orthography. Granted, the relatively little variety in mainstream Hangul fonts and the strong tendency to associate the Korean language and its orthography with Hangul make laying blames somewhat moot.

  10. Aori said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

    Your overall point WRT current Hangul usage is valid and recognised, as legibility of signs is critical in industrial settings. To borrow your terminology, bottom-up recognition is often necessary, for instance, to decipher unfamiliar place names on road signs. Since 2008, South Korean expressway signs use a font called Hangilche. It is a bold and highly angular typeface, theoretically legible at small sizes or at long distances. To address the issue you pointed out, of short stroke merging with next syllable's horizontal line, the font keeps a wide kerning. The city government of Seoul also designed a set of fonts for the subway and for its own publications. They seem to be generally well regarded. The short stroke in ㅏ is printed pretty high and is thus distinguished well from a subsequent syllable's horizontal stroke. Further, the short lines are often not so short.

    More generally, this kind of graphical ambiguity problem can be solved by disassembling the syllables and rendering the jamo context-dependently. This is already used, albeit in a limited way, to represent syllables without predefined Unicode codepoints, viz. archaic Hangul.

    Therefore, I think "tiny lines" problem is not a Hangul issue, since a font change can alleviate it. On the other hand, "similar-looking syllables" problem you mentioned could actually be an inherent shortcoming of Hangul.

    For glyphs of similar-sounding syllables, it is difficult to expect them to appear very differently from one another, since some of the same jamo are necessarily shared. For this, a true syllabary is needed, instead of a syllabically represented alphabet.

    For glyphs of different-sounding syllables, the fact that Hangul jamo can be distinguished pairwise fairly easily suggests that the problem lieselsewhere, i.e. in the uniform square block representation or in the way jamo are combined. Some recent fonts, such as MS Malgun Gothic, do away with uniform blocks. As for the latter possibility, it is difficult to imagine that a syllable glyph with a significant internal structure change could still be called Hangul.

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