Monday, October 09, 2006


As some of you may have noticed, today is October 9th. It's the 282nd day of this year, 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tishri, 16th day of Ramadan, the first anniversary of the general ban on smoking on the UK rail network (those damn fascists!), the feast of St. Denis, Leif Erikson day and many other anniversaries and holidays.

But most importantly to us, today marks the 560th anniversary of the publication of the edict 훈민정음 (Hunmin Jeongeum), by which the king Sejong the Great (1397-1450) established the Korean syllabary eonmun, also known as hangul (한글). There are a few things about hangul and its history that have always fascinated me - the very concept of the Hall of Worthies, the phonetician king, the design of the letters based on articulatory phonetics and the derrogatory names given to hangul by its opponents ("vulgar script" and "women's script") are but a few. But the one thing I find particularly noteworthy is the number of similarities between the genius Sejong was and a certain other historical figure who also set out to create a form of writing for a people who had none. The first of them is the statement of purpose, the introduction to Hunmin Jeongeum where Sejong explains his motivation. To quote from Hunmin Jeongeum Haerye (훈민정음 해례), the commentary on Hunmin Jeongeum:

The language of our country is different from the Chinese language and so the Chinese letters are not appropriate for our language. Therefore there are many uneducated people who cannot express their thoughts properly, whether in speech or in writing, though they wish to do so. Since I have pity on those people, I have set out to create 28 new letters hoping that each and every one will be able to easily learn them and use them in their everyday lives.

Reading this, I could not help but think of Constantine (St. Cyril), one of the apostles to the Slavs and the creator of the Glagolitic script. In Proglas (Прогласъ), the Foreword to his translation of the Gospels, he writes:

For naked are all nations without books
they cannot defend themselves without weapons

True, there are many differences between Sejong and Constantine (and Rastislav, who was the political force behind Constantine and Methodius). Constantine was inspired by the desire to bring the Gospel to the Slavs (and the weapons were to be used against the devil) and Rastislav wanted to break the hold the German and Austrian bishops had on his territory. But to find that somewhere between politics and religion, Sejong and Constantine found time to stand up for the little guys, that's somehow comforting.

And secondly, as expected, both Sejong and Constantine faced considerable opposition by the elites. In Sejong's case, it was Choe Manri who spoke out against hangul quoting Confucian scholars:

Though western barbarians such as the Mongols, the Tangut, the Jurchens, and the Japanese all have their own script, but it is a matter of being barbaric and does not merit consideration. It is our way to convert the barbarians, not to be changed to their ways. Through its various dynasties, China has always taken us to be the decendents of Gija, the legendary Chinese Viscount of Ji because our artefacts, customs, and rituals are similar to those of China. Now if we follow the barbarians to create Eonmun and desert China, we shall be ‘deserting the fragrant herbs for the excrement of insects’, and obstruct the development of our civilization!
The ancient Confucian sages say: ‘The various diversions take their toll on the spirit.’ As for writing, it is the most relevant business to a Confucian scholar. But if it becomes a diversion, it will also take its toll on the spirit.

As for Constantine, he was summoned by Nicholas I. to appear before a council of bishops (whose strings were probably pulled by the Archbishop of Salzburg), where they (so Vita Cyrilli XVI)

attacked him using the three-tongue heresy, saying: "How dare you create a writing for the Sloviens and teach them in letters noone has invented, not the apostles, not the Roman Pope, not Gregory the Theologian, not Jerome and not Augustine? For we know only three tongues in which it is appropriate to praise God - Hebrew, Greek and Latin."

I do not know what Sejong's answer to Choe Manri and others was, but Constantine's reply is recorded in what is probably the most famous passage in Vita Cyrilli:

Does the rain not come down from God equally on all? Does the sun not shine on all? Do we all not breath the same air? Do you have no shame only to accept three tongues and order every other nation and tribe to be dumb and deaf? Tell me why you make God powerless if he cannot give it or envious if he does not want to? But we know of many nations who have their alphabet and praise God each in their own tongue: Armenians, Persians, Abazgs, Iberians, Sogdians, Goths, Avars, Tyreans, Chazars, Arabs, Egyptians, Syrians and many others.

And so, my friends, let us remember king Sejong and all the others, both known and unnamed, who have given all of us the gift of writing and a voice to those who cannot speak. 만세!

Oh and happy birthday, Snežka :o)

UPDATE: Jane writes:

And let's remember also Shong Lue Yang, the tragic and inspired inventor of Pahawh Hmong. This script proved a rallying-point for Hmong people. He provided them with a voice, and so he was hunted by the CIA, the Communists, and then murdered in 1971, apparently by government agents.

Hear, hear! Thank you, Jane.


Anonymous said...

And let's remember also Shong Lue Yang, the tragic and inspired inventor of Pahawh Hmong. This script proved a rallying-point for Hmong people. He provided them with a voice, and so he was hunted by the CIA, the Communists, and then murdered in 1971, apparently by government agents.

Smalley, William A., Vang, Chia Koua, and Yang, Gnia Yee. 1990. Mother of writing: the origin and development of a Hmong messianic script. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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