The magic of Hangul

In December 2016 I have been told that I had to visit the Republic of Korea (aka South Korea) for a couple of months at the end of summer 2017 so in January 2017 I started to learn as much Korean as possible.

I’m used to speak the local language when I travel in Europe or in some English-speaking country, like USA and Canada. I’m not a real polyglot but I do speak some French, some German and a little of other languages so I can usually communicate with the local people. More important, I can read the local road signs, the plates and the lettering on product packages and this allows me to take care of myself.

Unfortunately, the Far East is a completely different story. I tried to learn some Chinese and some Japanese, a few years ago, and in both cases I failed. Asian languages are so different from European ones that even learning the most basic vocabulary requires a long, painful, well-planned, deliberate, and disciplined effort. So, when I first approached the Korean language I was already intimidated and full of prejudices. I planned to learn the usual “survival kit” and give up just after that.

Then, I met Hangul. Hangul is the writing system used to write the Korean language (and a couple of other, less-known languages) and is surprisingly… surprising.

The main reason is so fascinating is the way it assembles its syllables. Have a look at this example:

한 , read as “han” and meaning “one, a single, an individual”.

This weird symbol is actually composed of three different characters:

ㅎ , ㅏ and ㄴ (read as “h”, “a” and “n”, respectively)

As you can see, a syllable is bidimensional in Hangul. It is a 2D “tangram” composed by 2 to 4 different characters.

Here an example of a 4 characters block: 닭 (it reads “dalg” or “dhag” and means “chicken”).

Here an example of a block composed of 5 characters:

뷁 (reads “bwaek” and means “damn”. It is actually Internet slang, not real Korean language.)

This is the most common greeting:

안녕하세요 (read as “annyeonghaseyo”. It means something like “hello”.)

This 2D block structure is weird and… fascinating. Frankly, I suspect that Hangul is the real reason why most people get “stuck” to the Korean language after a first contact.

The Korean language is surprisingly hard to learn for an European student. It is spoken by just 60 million people, almost all of them living in north and south Korea, so you will not have any opportunity to use it if you do not visit Korea. The Korean language is not used to publish interesting technical/scientific information because Korean scientists publish their paper in English, like everybody else do. There is not even a significant literature (narrative, essays, etc.) that could justify the effort to learn this language. As a matter of fact, there is not any real reason to study it but, surprisingly enough, a lot of people is actually studying it.

As soon as I begun to search learning material on the web, I discovered a vast, unexpected world of “Korean language hard-core learners”. Most of them are young, creative people with an interest in Korean pop music (aka K-Pop) and Korean drama (K-drama) but you can also find more seasoned people (like me) who just get stuck with the language years ago and now run web sites devoted to this topic. As long as I can see, there are more people studying Korean than studying Italian (even if the population of native speakers of these two languages is comparable).

Unfortunately, Hangul is just a part of the story. The Korean language is an Asian language, like Japanese and Chinese, and still has all of the crazy details of most Asian languages. To begin with, the structure of the sentence is SOV: Subject, Object, Verb, like German. It is weird and unnatural for an Italian native speaker like me (and for most native speakers of most European languages). More important, the same linguistic functions that are performed by prepositions, adjectives, adverbs and other elements of the language in English and Italian are performed by “particles” in Korean: small groups of characters that have to be attach to the referring word to define its role in the sentence and to “fine tune” its meaning. Korean is an “agglutinative” language, like Japanese and Finnish. It works in a completely different way than English and is very hard to dominate.

I’m still studying it. I do not know how much of it I will be able to use for the end of the summer. I do not even know if and when I will stop studying it. For the moment, it is still funny and I keep on studying it.

Stay tuned.

Alessandro Bottoni


The magic of Hangul

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