The World Alphabet Olympics

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"Hangeul wins gold in World Alphabet Olympics", Korea Times 10/9/1012:

Korea's Hangeul writing system has won the gold medal at an international contest of world alphabets, organizers said Tuesday.

Hangeul earned the top honor beating India's Telugu alphabet and the English alphabet at the 2nd World Alphabet Olympics held in Bangkok on Oct. 1-4, according to the organizing committee of the competition in Seoul.

Scholars from a total of 27 countries with their own writing system or using borrowed alphabets from other countries took part in the contest, according to the organizers.

This marks hangeul's second straight win in the competition following the first in 2009. In the first Olympics held in Seoul, silver and bronze medals went to Greece and Italy out of 16 countries with their own alphabets.

Despite being deeply sympathetic to politico-alphabetic fantasies, I'm drawing a blank in trying to imagine what the events at that Alphabet Olympics might have been. Synchronized Scrabble? Marathon Crosswords? Beach Anagrams?  The Korea Times article offers a hint:

Lee Yang-ha, a former Korean ambassador to Lebanon and the chief organizer of the event, says that hangeul is superior to all other alphabets in its ability to convey information in a short period of time.

"While 26 letters of the English alphabet can only express 300 or more sorts of sound, 24 letters of the Korean alphabet can carry 11,000 kinds of sound in theory and 8,700 sorts of sound in practice," Lee said.

Perhaps some readers can tell us how to get from 26 to 300 — is that perhaps supposed to be the number of consequential digraphs and other orthographically-special sequences in English?  It seems like a low estimate, if so. The numbers for Hangul pretty clearly come out of the arrangement of basic elements in "morpho-syllabic blocks":

Except for a few grammatical morphemes prior to the twentieth century, no letter may stand alone to represent elements of the Korean language. Instead, letters are grouped into syllabic or morphemic blocks of at least two and often three: (1) a consonant or a doubled consonant called the initial (초성, 初聲 choseong syllable onset), (2) a vowel or diphthong called the medial (중성, 中聲 jungseong syllable nucleus), and, optionally, (3) a consonant or consonant cluster at the end of the syllable, called the final (종성, 終聲 jongseong syllable coda). When a syllable has no actual initial consonant, the null initial ㅇ ieung is used as a placeholder. (In modern Hangul, placeholders are not used for the final position.) Thus, a block contains a minimum of two letters, an initial and a medial. Although the Hangul had historically been organized into syllables, in the modern orthography it is first organized into morphemes, and only secondarily into syllables within those morphemes, with the exception that single-consonant morphemes may not be written alone. […]

Not including obsolete letters, there are 11,172 possible Hangul blocks.

I'd like to observe that the binary alphabet can easily top this — with only two "letters", it manages to represent 4,294,967,296 sorts of anything at all — sounds or whatever else — in a 32-bit integer.  But the Digital Nation will not have a chance to compete for the gold, because (as The Korea Times informs us)

Lee said this will be the last of the World Alphabet Olympics since letters do not change as easily as spoken languages.

[Tip of the hat to Shane Roberts]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 9:38 am

    "Lee said this will be the last of the World Alphabet Olympics since letters do not change as easily as spoken languages."

    I guess they want to quit while they're ahead.

  2. John Wells said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    \for an earlier episode, see

    [(myl) Wow. I'm hurt that I wasn't asked to help judge this year's event!]

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    In a message to me, Shane Roberts mentioned that this alphabet Olympics reminded him of "the Cia-Cia thing."


    See "Cha-cha Cia-cia: the last dance" and the references therein:

    "Organizing committee chairman Lee Yang-ha added that several national university professors from African nations, who attended the event as observers, relayed their hopes of introducing Hangeul to their countries with no alphabets of their own. The participants announced the 'Bangkok Declaration' on the last day of the Olympics and agreed to promote Hangeul by setting up Korean language departments and courses in their universities."

    from "World Alphabet Olympics"

    All of this reminds me of the expression "Yèlángzìdà" 夜郎自大, which I used to hear Chinese people say with reference to North Koreans (in just this type of situation) when I first began travelling in the PRC back in the early 80s.


    Parochial arrogance


    ludicrous conceit of the king of Yelang — parochial arrogance; as cheeky as Yelang, who thinks himself the equal of the Son of Heaven; be self-assertive; be sheer parochial arrogance; Every dog's alien at home.; get too big for one's boots; get [become] too proud of onesself; ignorant presumption [boastfulness]; pass oneself off as an important person; play the great man; think no small beer of oneself; Yelang people think their country is bigger than China — ignorant boastfulness.

    [(myl) Well, Hangul is indeed an excellent writing system. Koreans are right to be proud of it. But this "olympics" business is more than a little weird.]

  4. George Grady said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 10:50 am

    What exactly is "the English alphabet", as opposed to Italy's alphabet? It's hard enough to associate alphabets with individual languages, let alone individual countries. I hope that they at least had good food and drink during the competition.

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    Have the Hangeul's drug-test results been released yet?

  6. Chandra said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

    @George Grady – English may have borrowed the alphabet from the Romans, but it certainly doesn't operate the same way in English as it does in Italian. I would assume that these "Alphabet Olympics" have more to do with the way a particular alphabet represents the sounds of its language than simply with the form of the letters themselves. (And if so the English alphabet should never find itself anywhere near the medal podium, given that our spelling system is spectacularly confounding, as any ESL teacher will attest.)

  7. Oliver C said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

    Here is an attempt to come up with a number for English that may be more comparable to what they counted for Korean:

    Assuming 24 consonant and 20 vowel sounds, there are 11,520 possible CVC syllables, of which 2,756 are actually in use. In all, Barker estimates almost 16,000 potential syllables.

    [(myl) A slightly more liberal counting scheme, allowing initial and final clusters, would find more than 10,000 actual monosyllabic words in English — many of which are regional, obsolete, slang, etc., but still…]

  8. David Morris said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    I suspect that the reporter had too much soju for lunch and had to fill in the afternoon somehow.

  9. Lazar said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    @George Grady: There were some maps published in Imperial Germany which delineated the "German" script (i.e. Fraktur) as distinct from the Latin script.

  10. KWillets said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    The next contest was probably cancelled due to alcohol being added to the list of banned substances.

    Regarding the Korean press, a friend who used to work at Yonhap says they went out drinking every night for three years straight. I found him quite credible, even though he was drunk at the time.

  11. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

    @George Grady: It used to be reasonably common in Italy to distinguish the 21-letter Italian alphabet from the 26-letter English alphabet. There were, and perhaps there still are, primary school textbooks teaching the Italian alphabet and lumping JKWXY together as foreign letters to be learned later. And there are Wikipedia pages for the "Italian alphabet" both in Italian and English:

  12. Keralamique said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    Malayalam script is much better than Hangul:

    you can even write Indian English in Malayalam script ;)

    "Belgium" in Malayalam, so beautiful and curvy, yet much more readable than Hangul:

  13. Mark Mandel said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

    GIYF. Korean Script ‘Wins’ Controversial ‘Alphabet Olympics’:

    News articles bragging about the efficacy of the Korean script (hangul) are hardly rare in the Korean media, particularly since the official Hangul Day has just passed. For one day, it’s tolerable, and understandable: Koreans highly value education and there are still many old people who remember the days when they could not afford to learn hangul. On the face of it therefore, a recent article on hangul winning the World Alphabet Olympics seemed at first glance to be a ‘quintessential’ Hangul Day article.

    However, after further investigation, the Committee of the World Alphabet Olympics and the World Alphabet Academy (the key figures in both organisations are Korean) seems not to be as ‘fair and just’ as they would like Koreans to believe so. Although it looks like the committee invited ‘scholars of various nationalities’ to hold the contest, they seem to have hidden agendas beyond the more menial objective of ‘finding the most competent writing system.’

    According to the official website of the committee, their ‘mission’ is to disseminate hangul and Christianity across the world, a goal they justify by arguing that it was the distribution of a Korean Bible, translated by a British Missionary, that catalysed the ‘March 1st Movement’ and ultimately therefore, Korea’s economic success. Furthermore, they appear to be engaging in fairly comprehensive missionary work, using Hangul, as well.

    In the Reverend/Doctor Bae Soon-jik (chairman of the contest)’s keynote speech of the first ‘Alphabet Olympics’, he solely attributes the growth of the Turkish economy to ‘discarding Arabic and adopting Latin’ as their script, seemingly neglecting to mention the reforms of Kemal Ataturk. In essence, Bae argues that ‘The better alphabet a nation has, the more economic success it will have.’ And, since they already believe hangul to be the ‘best alphabet’ out there, why not take it on a mission to spread a few miracles of both the economic and celestial kind?


    Translation of above: Without hangul, the March 1st Movement and Korea’s $10,000 GDP per capita would’ve been impossible and the distribution of this wonderful writing system is attributed to the early Korean Christians. Now it is the mission of the Korean Christian community to make Hangul an international writing system.

    Netizens are raising doubts surrounding the credibility of the committee as well. Although not reflected in the following comments, more reactions can be found here, here, and here.* For further information on their ‘mission’, check out the 1st Alphabet Olympics and the 2nd Alphabet Olympics (revised homepage).


    * See article for links. Those three "here"s are in Korean. So is the 2nd Alphabet Olympics (revised homepage). The 1st Alphabet Olympics page is in English, sort of, but not very informative.

  14. KWillets said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 3:20 am

    The mention of information density is a bit interesting, because I think it's true that Hangeul may be more dense than English. That sounds good, but in practice it means that mistaking one stroke will produce a totally different sound; there's no redundancy to remedy small errors. A given font size will also be harder to read in Hangeul than in English/Latin alphabet.

  15. joanne salton said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 5:34 am

    I agree with Keralamique – as I have written here before any organic and curvaceous script tends to look better than the Korean. Korean is also hard to manipulate – they don't make a lot of games like scrabble using that script.

    If the language log team were to live in Korea for any length of time I feel they might also weary of the constant very subjective and sometimes absurd breast-beating about the alphabet. Recently the Korean press have made a great fuss about the fact that they persuaded an Indonesian minority to use the alphabet in their schools – despite the fact it has all been on a derisory scale.

  16. Assorted links said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    […] 1. Koreans win gold medal in Alphabet Olympics. […]

  17. michael farris said,

    October 18, 2012 @ 4:25 am

    IF we're going to be discussing Indian alphabets let me put in a word for Kannada script which I find _much_ easier to read than the closely related Telugu script.

    The differences are mostly minor but they almost all make Kannada easier for me (more linear, vowel signs are easier to disambiguate in smaller print). There's a little of the cyrillic problem (fewer ascenders and descenders) which can make letters blend into a row of circles (especially m and y) but overall I like it much better.

  18. Peter T said,

    October 18, 2012 @ 5:23 am

    For sheer visual beauty, I have always thought Tibetan wins, ever since I came across it trekking (tries to past sample and fails)

  19. Thiago said,

    October 18, 2012 @ 5:36 am

    "It used to be reasonably common in Italy to distinguish the 21-letter Italian alphabet from the 26-letter English alphabet. There were, and perhaps there still are, primary school textbooks teaching the Italian alphabet and lumping JKWXY together as foreign letters to be learned later."
    In Brazil (and Portugal,I guess), "k","w" and "y" were sacked from the Portuguese alphabet after orthographical reforms excluded them from native words. At school, I was taught the 23-letters alphabet. Now they are back.

  20. Graeme said,

    October 18, 2012 @ 8:15 am

    The metaphor is odd. Saying an alphabet wins gold is like saying archery won the Olympics. If there's any games metaphor, surely it's that each sport and each language and alphabet is a manner to express (physically or mentally)

  21. Stuart said,

    October 18, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    There is a related issue highlighted in this video:
    The Korean teacher says that the reason no Koreans have won a Nobel prize is that the Korean language is too exquisite to render effectively into other languages. (That must be why the subtitles are full of errors.)
    And the reason there have been two Japanese Nobel literature prize winners is that Japanese is a simple and primitive language that is very easy to translate.

  22. George said,

    October 19, 2012 @ 4:52 am

    While we're at it, in Irish we get by with 18 letters (no j, k, q, v, w, x, y or z).

  23. KWillets said,

    October 19, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

    Korean boosterism is so common that it's often satirized within Korea, for instance this commercial video:

    That chol-chol/chul-chul distinction in the @Stuart's video is the exact same example as in my Korean grammar book. The constant repetition of the same memes adds a certain irony.

  24. On orthography, nationalism and language-learning | [wip] said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

    […] Korea claimed the gold medal at the 2nd Alphabet Olympics.  (more here and here).  Indeed, congratulations are due to the Koreans, who have developed a very scientifically […]

  25. Termy Cornall said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 5:48 am

    Of course, the North Korean state media wouldn't miss the opportunity to boast of their national superiority. I first saw reference to this in the (North) Korean Central News Agency today.

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