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.