A Dartmouth grad's contribution to the development of Hangul

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The current issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine includes an article by Karl Schutz and Jun Bum Sun that made me sit bolt upright:

"The Chosŏn One:  The influence of Homer Hulbert, class of 1884, lives on in a country far from his home" (Jul-Aug, 2015).

Homer Hulbert was the great-great-grandson of Eleazar Wheelock (1711-1779), who founded Dartmouth College in 1769.  Hulbert went to Seoul in 1886 to help set up an English language school, the first in the country.

Once in Korea, Hulbert dedicated himself to learning the country’s language and history. He found the simplicity of its phonetic alphabet, Hangul, extraordinary. While the country’s elite at the time wrote exclusively in Chinese characters, commoners used Hangul, which was created in the 1400s during the Chosŏn Dynasty. Hulbert believed that Hangul’s accessibility could improve literacy and empower the people.

As part of his belief in the democratizing power of Hangul, in 1895 Hulbert published Samin P’ilchi, a gazetteer of the world, the first textbook written entirely in the Korean alphabet. Ten years later, in 1905, he published in English his History of Korea, the first comprehensive history book on Korea written by a foreigner with direct access to Korea’s imperial archives. (Original copies of both books are available in Rauner.)

Hulbert also proposed certain grammatical conventions that became important components of today’s Korean writing system: spaces between words, commas, periods and writing from left to right. One of his students, Ju Si-Gyeong, would go on to become a great modernizer of the Korean language, adapting many of Hulbert’s ideas to his mother tongue. Hangul went on to replace Chinese characters during the 20th century.

Just as Homer Hulbert helped in the establishment of Hangul as the official orthography of Korea, perhaps another son of Dartmouth will make a contribution to the realization of digraphia in China.


  1. Jongseong Park said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 4:02 am

    Thanks for the link. Hulbert is very well known to Koreans, but chiefly as a supporter of Korean independence and as an educator.

    I was largely unaware of the extent of his contributions to the promotion of hangul and the adoption of modern orthographic conventions such as the use of spaces, punctuation, and writing hangul horizontally from left to right. I suspect many Koreans, if quizzed about these developments, would guess that they were first proposed by Ju Sigyeong 주시경, probably the best-known Korean language scholar of them all. It looks like in fact, Ju was not the originator of these ideas but was rather championing the ideas of his teacher.

    I also certainly didn't know about Hulbert's Saminpilji 사민필지. Apparently the first edition (ca. 1891) used the forms 엥길리국 Enggilliguk ("Country of Enggilli") and 합중국 Hapjungguk (a calque of "United States") for England/United Kingdom and the United States respectively, which were replaced by the modern forms 영국 Yeongguk and 미국 Miguk from the second edition (1906) on.

  2. J. M. Unger said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 8:05 am

    Hulbert was also the first (1905) to compare Korean with Dravidian languages. (A more recent attempt of that kind was by Morgan Clippinger.) Other Westerners, such as the Canadian J. S. Gale, played a role in the spread of han'gul literacy. The most prolific and influential Korean linguist of the late 20th century was Samuel E. Martin, whose Reference Grammar of Korean contains a lot of historical information about these matters.

  3. 번하드 said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 8:30 am

    @ Victor Mair – thank you for the link. Fascinating read.
    @ Jongseong Park – glad to see a Korean posting here. I might try asking you a few linguistics-related questions about Korean when there is an opportunity, our teacher frowns upon such as it would be "distracting".

    It feels good to read about people getting to know another country and kind of falling in love with it. Strangely enough, I know that feeling, including "I want to be buried here".
    But that man also showed admirable courage.

    His story reminds me of a Korean who is remembered in my hometown Munich,
    Dr. Lee Mirok, 이미륵 박사. He was also very courageous, he is said to still have visited his friend, Professor Kurt Huber, at a time when his own family didn't have the courage anymore because they knew that he would be arrested for his role in the Weisse Rose.

  4. Jongseong Park said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 10:08 am

    @번하드, thanks for bringing up Mirok Li 이미륵. I hadn't heard of him but I recognized his autobiographical novel Der Yalu fließt ("The Yalu flows") under the title of its Korean translation, 압록강은 흐른다 Amnokgang-eun heurenda.

  5. Apollo Wu said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 10:15 am

    Chinese Digraphia is creeping forward despite the lack of strong governmental support. Chinese elite again tends to favor the traditional Chinese script, but commoners increasingly use Pinyin or alphabet. They do not resist the use or the appearance of alphabetic scripts. In many Chinese shopping malls, alphabetic signs almost completely replace the Chinese scripts. The megatrend of Chinese language changes seems to be more and more people fail to write the Chinese script. They use keyboards with Pinyin input to enter Chinese text. A kind of Chinese writing mixed with more and more English words may very well become acceptable in Chinese society.

  6. 번하드 said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 11:52 am

    @ Jongseong Park – that book was the first really useful bilingual material for me, I bought one edition in German and one in Korean that was a special translation targeting elementary and middle school students. And it was a real joy to read. Before that, I only had a bilingual bible, but that's not the kind of book one wants to learn practical language from.

    It was and is painful that more often than not I have go through English for studying Korean, because there is not a lot of usable literature in German.
    And (of course?) I encountered a lot of material that was buggy/unreliable regardless of the language it was written in.

    "Korean phrasebook", Lonely Planet Publications, 3rd edition, p. 83:
    Is this taxi free? —> 이 택시 무료에요?
    Apart from that one, the book is recommendable:)

    iriver Dicple D100, Korean->German dictionary knows '아마', but not '혹시'.

    Some book from Yonsei University Press(!) that advanced the theory that there are no pieup-irregular adjectival verbs. (ㅂ 불규칙 형용사(sp?))

    I could add more examples but don't want to be a bore:)

    P.S.: I seem to have had some technical problem with this post, despite refreshing, clearing cache etc. the new comments only turned up in my inbox, the count on the board index page and the RSS feed, but not on *this* page.

  7. David Morris said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 6:04 pm

    Very interesting. I will be teaching at a university in South Korea from August, and am trying to brush up on my minimal Korean before then.

    The transliteration 'hangul' gets many times more ghits than 'hangeul', which is the RR transliteration. Indeed, when I search for 'hangeul', Google asks 'Did you mean hangul?'. The National Institute of the Korean Language's website uses 'Hangeul'. The MR is, in full, 'han'gŭl'. The Wikipedia page currently uses 'hangle' once, but prominently.

  8. 번하드 said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 6:37 pm

    @ David Morris – ah, the troubles with romanization of Korean. I recommend to forget about that as quickly as possible and learn hangeul instead. In our class we had a guy who self-taught himself Korean up to a certain point, using a book with only romanized text. He had to relearn all his vocabulary:) More to the point, quite a few different romanization methods have been developed and promulgated over the years. McCR seems to be standard for bibliographic citations, but one problem with this system is that people who don't have 'ŭ' for 으/ㅡ just use 'u' instead, which is also the romanization for 우/ㅜ. Same for 'ŏ' vs. 'o'. Thereby adding ambiguity which not a good idea for this language. The eu/eo notation for 으/어 is, iirc, from MCT2000 standard.
    One possible reason for the existence of different romanization standards are the tradeoffs involved. Will foreigners be able pronounce words in a way that can be understood? Will native speakers be able to produce romanized words? Which foreign language do you target? etcpp.

    But now, please forget about romanization and just start at, e.g., http://langintro.com/kintro/index.htm
    You will find that you can learn hangeul over a glass of beer or two. After all it was designed to be easy to learn.

  9. David Morris said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 4:06 am

    @번하드: Thanks, but your advice is about 9 years too late. I lived in South Korea for two and a half years from 2006 to 2008 and learned the basics then. I can decipher hangeul as well as anyone else who hasn't actually learned – it's just that I don't know what most of the words mean, or most of the grammar. Newspapers and magazines use words not found in 'Korean made easy for beginners volume 1'.
    Two years ago I applied for a job at 'Kyungpook National University'. I looked at the university's website in English, was interviewed and decided not to proceed before I looked at the university's website in Korean and realised that it was the word I was accustomed to reading as 'Gyeongbuk'.

  10. KWillets said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    The Korea Herald had a piece on Hulbert a few weeks ago: http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150608000413

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