Using Sinitic characters in Korea

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S. Robert Ramsey is professor of East Asian linguistics at the University of Maryland and author of the excellent book titled The Languages of China.  I often consult with Bob on matters pertaining to Korean and Japanese; he is a reliable source of information on these languages as well as on Chinese in its many varieties — both in their current circumstances and with regard to their historical evolution.

In a recent communication, Bob described a ceremony he attended in Seoul.  Since it touches on a subject that we have often discussed on Language Log — digraphia — I thought that I'd share it with colleagues here.

Younghi and I went to Korea a few weeks ago on short notice because I was suddenly informed that I had been voted the winner of the Ilsuk Korean Linguistics medal. I can’t say it was a surprise, but when I entered the auditorium where the ceremony was taking place, I found lavish use of Sinitic characters—as you can see from the photos I’ve attached. All distributed documents, including the one presented to me, were the same. It just goes to show, I think, that formalities (notice, e.g., the required white gloves at the ceremony!) still call forth old traditions in some cases.

At the same time, however, I have to point out to you that Korea seems to be far less stodgy about such awards than some other countries. I was the first non-Korean ever to receive such a medal from Korean scholars, and it seemed to mark a new era for this arch-conservative organization, as was noted in some of the speeches that followed.

I really have to say I’m amazed at how Korea has moved ahead in this way—in spite of this orthographic turning back by an old-school organization!

Perhaps I should note that the awarding organization is based at Seoul National University, which has long been a center for mixed-script writing — in sharp contrast with the Hangul-only history of Yonsei University!


  1. Sam said,

    July 3, 2015 @ 7:40 pm

    What I find especially interesting about that banner is that it precisely inverts the usual relationship of Hangul and Sinitic characters: most of the Sinitic characters you would ordinarily encounter in Korea are basically ornamental, while in this case all of the meaning-conveying text is in Sinitic characters, while the hangul is basically ornamental.

    I'm fairly sure I've seen banners that are the exact digraphic inverse of this, with "경축" written as "慶祝" and all other text in Hangul.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    What “Sam” says is quite true.

    About decorative script, though: Notice that the background pattern behind the writing is an image from the 訓民正音諺解—that is, the Korean translation of Sejong’s original handbook. This translation was published a decade or so after the handbook’s 1446 promulgation, and it’s what pretty much everybody in Korea reproduces nowadays for public display instead of Sejong’s original text. People obviously must think that the translation better reflects the Koreanness of the text and the importance it has for Korean history and identity.

  3. Mark S. said,

    July 3, 2015 @ 9:38 pm

    Congratulations on the award!

    It's interesting that although they may have been so old fashioned that they used Sinitic characters, they opted to write the characters horizontally and left to right.

  4. J. Goard said,

    July 4, 2015 @ 1:04 am

    I would think, rather, that the background is just an image commonly used in different types of presentation, and thus whose text could not be changed.

    Nobody is mentioning 및, though?

  5. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 4, 2015 @ 3:09 am

    Apart from the inscription in sinitic characters (Can all Koreans read this?) I'm struck by the sun symbol, which I associate with Japan.

  6. Young-Key Kim-Renaud said,

    July 4, 2015 @ 7:51 am

    Congratulations, Bob!

    The round "dot" is not the "sun" symbol. It represents "Heaven," one of the Three Powers (三才), Heaven, Earth, and Man, in East Asian cosmology, the symbols of which were used in creating the vowel letters of the Korean alphabet.

  7. shubert said,

    July 4, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    @Adrian: the "sun" symbols contain "fortune" , etc. are on Chinese dresses.

  8. K Chang said,

    July 4, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    @J Goard:

    Nobody is mentioning 및, though?

    Isn't that just "and/also"? or 和 in Chinese?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2015 @ 8:59 pm

    From a professor of Korean history:

    As I'm sure you already know, the setting as described (and shown in pictures) definitely leans toward the linguistically "conservative" end of contemporary South Korean culture. Other than a small percentage of those who are better educated and/or older, I'm afraid most South Koreans would have some difficulty reading all the Sinitic characters shown. On a related note: I also find that the quality of Korean history education has reached a low point in South Korea as far as the historical knowledge of its younger population goes.

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    July 5, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    Yup, I think my knowledge of hanja would be pretty typical for my generation (late 20s to early 30s), and there was one character I didn't recognize at all: 施 시 si as in 施賞式 시상식 sisangsik "award presentation ceremony", though I was able to guess it from the context.

    If I'm being honest, I would have had trouble figuring out several more of these characters in isolation, because I have a passive reading knowledge of them where context is essential. I might blank on 所 소 so if I see it by itself, but when I see 場所 장소 jangso "place" I can immediately recognize it. And if there are too many Sinitic characters in a row, it slows down my reading dramatically and it's almost like figuring out a rebus. You can figure out what most of it says in the end, but it doesn't jump out at you immediately.

    The transcription if anyone's interested:

    第13回 一石國語學賞 및
    第6回 一石國語學學位論文賞 施賞式
    主催: 一石學學術財團
    日時: 2015年 6月 9日 午後 6時
    場所: 一石紀念館

    제13회 일석국어학상 및
    제6회 일석국어학학위논문상 시상식
    주최: 일석학학술재단
    일시: 2015년 6월 9일 오후 6시
    장소: 일석기념관

    Je sipsamhoe Ilseok gugeohak sang mit
    je yukhoe Ilseok gugeohak hagwi nonmun sang sisangsik
    Juchoe: Ilseokhak haksul jaedan
    Ilsi: icheonsibo-nyeon yu-wol gu-il ohu yeoseot-si
    Jangso: Ilseok ginyeomgwan

    The 13th Ilsuk Korean linguistics prize and
    the 6th Ilsuk Korean linguistics graduate thesis prize award ceremony
    Hosted by: The Ilsuk academic foundation
    Time and date: 9 June 2015, 6 pm
    Place: Ilsuk memorial

  11. Doc Rock said,

    July 5, 2015 @ 9:45 pm

    The first newspaper in Seoul in the late Choson period, the Hanseong Sunbo 漢城旬報, was written entirely in Hanja.

  12. Jongseong Park said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 2:07 am

    The 漢城旬報 한성순보 Hanseongsunbo (1883–1884) was written in literary Chinese (漢文 한문 hanmun), not in Korean (despite what the English-language Wikipedia article seems to think). It therefore reached a very limited audience.

    It was the 漢城週報 한성주보 Hanseongjubo (1886–1888) that replaced it that included Korean in a mixed script style (hanja and hangul), at least in parts (it was partly also in literary Chinese).

    It is impossible to write grammatical Korean entirely in hanja, as only Sino-Chinese words can so be written and not any of the native linking words. It would be like trying to construct English sentences only using latinate vocabulary.

  13. Terry Hunt said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 9:52 am

    @ Jongseong Park

    ". . . It would be like trying to construct English sentences only using latinate vocabulary."

    This sounds like a cue for someone to write the counterpart to Uncleftish Beholding, :-).

  14. Jongseong Park said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 4:21 pm

    @Terry Hunt, it's not that hard to write a few things in English like Uncleftish Beholding, though making it longer is trickier.

    The inverse—constructing full sentences only using latinate vocabulary—is pretty much impossible though.

    It's similar in Korean. I can keep on spewing out sentences that avoid Sino-Korean vocabulary altogether, but there are plenty of things I can't really express without giving in to some Sino-Korean terms. I was thinking of trying to "translate" the banner above into indigenous Korean, but got stuck on 賞 상 sang "award"—I can't think of a simple indigenous word to express this concept. That's an example of where the writer of a counterpart to Uncleftish Beholding would have to be imaginative to find little-known words or to invent them from indigenous elements.

    Writing full sentences only in Sino-Korean is a non-starter though.

  15. Kuiwon said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 7:29 pm

    Use of Hanja in ceremonial settings, such as the opening of a new store or a funeral, is still fairly common.

    As for Hanja knowledge, my generation (i.e., 20s-30s) does not know it very well; however, there does seem be an uptick in the interest among current elementary school students so much so that the Ministry of Education is looking into expanding Hanja education. (I hope that they do.)

    As for Jongsong's comments regarding writing mixed writing, I believe he's referring to Hyeonto (懸吐 현토), which are grammatical particles used to connect Classical Chinese phrases.

  16. Jongseong Park said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 2:02 am

    @Kuiwon: By "mixed writing", I simply meant 국한문 혼용 國漢文混用 guk-hanmun honyong where both hanja and hangul are used to write Korean, i.e. some or all of the Sino-Korean words are written in hanja.

    I wasn't familiar with the term 현토 懸吐 hyeonto, but it seems to be more a less a synonym of 구결 口訣 gugyeol, which starts with a text written in literary Chinese and adds Korean grammatical particles to help Koreans make sense of it.

    I don't think this is what is happening with the 漢城週報 한성주보 Hanseongjubo. The mixed-script sections have some content words written in hangul, meaning that they are not simply literary Chinese with Korean grammatical particles added in here and there. Of course, it is in a style that is heavily influenced by literary Chinese and is at a bit of a remove from the vernacular style we're familiar with.

    The Declaration of Independence (독립선언서 獨立宣言書 Dongnipseoneonseo; 1919) by 최남선 崔南善 Choe Namseon is perhaps the most notorious example of such literary-Chinese-influenced style for Korean students. The original text used mixed-script writing, but even if you convert all the hanja to hangul, the meaning remains somewhat obscure to modern students because of the heavy reliance on words taken from literary Chinese.

  17. Jongseong Park said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    I should clarify that 구결 口訣 gugyeol originally referred to the non-hangul marks added to literary Chinese texts to help reading them in Korean. Indeed, the use of gugyeol predates the invention of hangul by a few centuries. The system used Chinese characters or modified (usually simplified) versions thereof, and superficially resembled Japanese kana in certain respects.

    After the invention of hangul, it became possible of course to make these kinds of annotations to literary Chinese texts using hangul, and that's what I was thinking of in discussing gugyeol above. But when we use the term nowadays, we usually mean the non-hangul method.

  18. Kuiwon said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 8:46 pm

    Just to add to Jongseong's comments, Hyeonto is still used in almost all Korean books on Classical Chinese philosophy, whether it is the Analects or Mozi. Here is an example of it in a Classical Chinese textbook for Korean middle school students. (The subject is an elective.)

  19. Terry hunt said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

    @Jongseong Park
    ". . . it's not that hard to write a few things in English like Uncleftish Beholding, though making it longer is trickier.

    The inverse—constructing full sentences only using latinate vocabulary—is pretty much impossible though."

    I agree that that would be close to impossible in English (although one could perhaps cheat and use non-English latinate words (e.g. "et" for "and") that an educated person would recognise.)

    I had in mind something written in a Romance language which ordinarily has a significant proportion of Germanic borrowings.

    And yes, the writer would indeed have to be imaginative and inventive, as Poul Anderson was. When I first read Uncleftish Beholding in its original science-fiction magazine appearance, I immediately realised that Anderson was, by its nature, implying an alternative-history world in which the Germanic descendents of PIE had developed in a complete absence of a significant Italic (and Grecian?) presence.

  20. Kye C Jooba Lee Kim said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 7:50 pm

    Very encouraged to hear this. I have to admit that my experience with students at SNU, Koryo U and Yonsei U using the list from Federico Masini' and Shen Guowei's books were far different.SNU's own test results wer also at variance, if I recall correctly, from Mr. Parks assessment.

    Yup, I think my knowledge of hanja would be pretty typical for my generation (late 20s to early 30s), and there was one character I didn't recognize at all: 施 시 si as in 施賞式 시상식 sisangsik "award presentation ceremony", though I was able to guess it from the context.

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