[This is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey. It is essentially an extended reply to two comments by Joanne Salton [here and here] to my post on "The cost of illiteracy in China". While I have the floor, I would like to point out the remarks by Ray Dillinger (with important qualifications by Julie Lee) which, considering the limited compass, are among the most sensible observations on the history of writing I've ever encountered. And now the floor is Bob's.]
In reflecting on what Salton might mean by saying Korean writing problems are "similar" to those faced by Chinese, one thing she can't be saying is that they're plagued by having to learn a large number of graphs. (Wasn't that one of your main points?) Another is that, as you say, Chinese have problems with forgetting how to write the characters after being away from China and Chinese society for a while. –And that's even true of those who haven't left their character-centered country. (One day, when I was watching an educational program in Japan, the professor teaching the lesson started to write a phrase on the blackboard but stopped in mid-sentence because he suddenly realized he couldn't remember how to write a character! Flustered, he quickly gave a half-apology and moved to change the subject. I'm sure you have many similar stories.)
Of course, now that most Koreans write exclusively in Hangul, they never have those problems any more. Their high literacy rates don't have to be padded. But what they do have problems with are reproducing the "correct" Hangul spellings. As I think you know, Korean writing is basically not phonemic but morphophonemic–and not always consistently so. Moreover, the government has tweaked the spellings at various times, adding to the confusion. Some spellings older-generation Koreans learned as children are now considered wrong (and new word-processing programs will mark them as incorrect). An even more difficult problem for Koreans is word division. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese governments, Koreans (both North and South) decided a few decades ago to introduce word spacing into their orthographies, but few people have mastered all the rules. Even newspapers and other print media vary the word divisions. It's a situation perhaps similar to Yin Binyong's difficulty with setting Romanization standards for Chinese but magnified in practice because the population has yet to assimilate the rules—which continue to be tweaked!
But surely these technicalities can't be what Salton meant. And in any case, they're such a trivial problems compared to those the Chinese have to wrestle with. The Japanese have problems similar to the Chinese, but of course they can always fall back on writing the morphemes in question in kana.
I can't resist adding a word or two about Salton's rather mean remarks about esthetics. But in doing so, let me first say unequivocally that I'm an admirer of Chinese calligraphy as much as anyone (I took lessons for a couple of frustrating years, in fact, because I thought that art form was so beautiful). But here again, there's a historical factor she might not be aware of. When the Korean alphabet first made its appearance in the textual record, the symbols in that first text were structurally different from the letters we see today. In that manual of Sejong's issued in 1446 (the Hunmin chongum) the letter shapes represented geometric ideals—all circles and dots were perfectly round; lines perfectly straight and sharp-edged with no fillips; corners perfectly square. Within a few years, the alphabet took on some of the earmarks of brush writing. But such was not true of that first of Sejong's works. Of course, people who admire the flowing lines of East Asian calligraphy will often be startled by the stark, mathematical simplicity of Sejong's original alphabet. (I dare say analogous esthetic objections were made by critics of Bauhaus architecture.) But to me, as one who admires the beauty of Chinese (and Japanese—and Korean sinographic) calligraphy, the spare lines of Sejong's graphic ideals have a simplicity that I find breathtakingly beautiful as well. Admiration for one does not rule out appreciating the other.
[Above is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey.]