Korean Language Society Marks Centennial

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jul 31 13:57:46 UTC 2008

Korean Language Society Marks Centennial

By Chung Ah-young
Staff Reporter

Many people know hangeul, the Korean alphabet, was invented under the
reign of King Sejong (1397-1450). But few might know the term hangeul
was coined by Korean linguist Ju Si-gyeong in 1910s. The Korean native
script was designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and
write easily, as the majority of Koreans were actually illiterate
before the introduction of hangeul. But it was harsher to preserve the
Korean native language from outward pressures than it was creating it
from scratch. The Korean Language Society struggled to keep the Korean
language alive during Japanese colonial rule, which attempted to
eradicate the native language and culture. Now the institute will
celebrate the 100th anniversary of its establishment on Aug. 31.

Kim Seung-gon, president of the Korean Language Society, said that the
association has survived against all odds. ``We are proud of the long
history of our association. The society was created in the middle of
the hardest time historically and economically,'' Kim said in an
interview with The Korea Times. He said that the centennial
anniversary is particularly meaningful as the association played a key
role as the first private-run academic institute during the colonial
period by providing educational tools to ordinary people. ``At that
time, the incapable Joseon Kingdom to rely on Japanese power, such as
their military forces, to curb revolts from people against the ruling
class, which ultimately gave a clue to the Japanese later,'' he said.

Kim said that under Japanese influence, Ju, the founding member of the
institution, thought it was urgent to help people learn hangeul so as
to unite for liberation.. Ju and other founding members began teaching
students in a small class in 1907 and then officially opened the
language research institute in Sinchon on Aug. 31, 1908. Ju used the
term hangeul to refer to the system of the Korean alphabet in 1912,
which means ``great script.'' But even after Ju, who invented Korean
grammatical terms, died in 1914, the activity has continued to today.

Kim said that among the activities the association has done so far,
the publication of Korean language dictionaries was the most important
achievement for language development. During Japanese colonial rule,
there were no manuscripts for making a dictionary, which could put the
language in order and standardize it. But society members laid the
basic foundations for making a dictionary and despite disturbances and
torture by the Japanese government, the unified hangeul orthography
was made public in 1933. Its members standardized language principles
in 1936 and finished the orthography of foreign languages in 1940.

Sponsored by the U.S. Rockefeller Foundation, members finally finished
the massive manuscript titled "the Grand Dictionary of the Korean
Language", a complete set of six volumes finally published on Oct. 9,
1957, Hangeul Day. The project for the grand dictionary lasted
approximately 28 years. ``It was the first dictionary we made with our
own ability, and laid the foundation for researching and studying the
Korean language,'' Kim said.

The dictionary, which contains 164,125 lexical entries and includes
dialect, obsolete words, and technical terms, was the first to be
published since the "Hunminjeongeum (Proper Sounds to Instruct the
People)", the Korean writing system, was promulgated in 1446.
``Korean language scholars such as Choi Hyeon-bae, president of the
then Korean Language Society, devoted himself to making the
dictionary, a basic tool for keeping Korean culture through
language,'' he said. Concerning the recent craze for English
education, Kim said that Korean cannot resist the trend of the global

``But the thing is that we should not put the cart before the horse.
We should not educate our children, who cannot speak even Korean, with
English. The Korean language should be first, not English, in public
educational policy,'' Kim said. However, Kim pointed out that the
Korean language contains many remnants of the Japanese language.
``Many people don't know how much we use Japanese words in our daily
language,'' said Kim. Kim said that the association tries to globalize
the Korean language, but it is more important to set up the principles
of narrowing the difference between the two Koreas.

``The two Koreas have evolved their own language styles over the past
decades. So we have to research the language differences between the
two Koreas,'' said Kim. The association has supported about 35-40
overseas Koreans who teach Korean language to foreigners by inviting
them to Korea for the training every year in an attempt to make the
language global.  ``Learning Korean language is becoming more
important in Asian countries as it is easy to learn and suitable for
the digital era given the simplicity of the script,'' he said.

Since the creation of the institute in 1908, it has changed its name
to the Joseon Language Research Institute in 1921, the Joseon Language
Society in 1931 and finally the current Korean Language Society in
1949. chungay at koreatimes.co.kr


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