HYI Working Paper Series: An Yelee

Generality and Distinctiveness of Korean Language Modernization (An Yelee, Yonsei University)

Abstract: This present paper attempts to explore the general and unique characteristics of Korean language modernization in its early stage (1894-1910) in order to rethink the Europe-centered model of linguistic modernity. The main concern of this paper is twofold: whether the vernacularization is the essence of language modernization, and whether the phoneticism is identical to the pursuit of Westernization. It was common that the breakdown of pre-modern diglossia took place during the course of language modernization through the vernacularization; however, this does not mean that there was only one way that the conventional diglossic structure came to be dissolved. Both Europe and East Asia at large witnessed the fall of their classical language and the rise of the vernacular, whereas the Arab nations saw the evolution of the diglossia evolving into triglossia through modernizing its classical language, not the vernacular. The key factors determining the direction of language modernization were not matters of communication or culture, but rather the formation of modern national identity and power struggles. Multiple trajectories are also found when it comes to the matter of implementing phonograms. At the turn of the twentieth century in East Asia, phonetic script was considered the emblem of the civilized world, in other words, the West. The pursuit of phonograms was a shared concern in East Asia however it was only Korea that ended up implementing the phonetic script exclusively. The idea of phoneticism emerged after the encounter with the West, but this impact from the West did not just render East Asia into phonetic world. For the other East Asian countries, the adoption of a phonetic script was something foreign, Western, and futuristic; on the contrary, to Koreans, the idea of adopting a phonetic system was modern but not foreign, as there was a phonetic system, hangul created by its King in the 15th century. Early modern period reformers, on the one hand, encouraged the use of hangul and tried to prove its superiority over Chinese characters, but on the other hand they attempted to glorify King Sejong, and in doing so they insisted that the Korean nation was originally wise and smart, just like its king, but that the Chinese influence was to blame for suppressing Korea’s superiority. Therefore, to the Korean people of the early twentieth century, adopting a phonetic system did not mean Westernization in the sense that it did in other countries, but rather the recovery of ancient glory and cultural pride. Linking the invention of hangul to the innate preeminence of Korean nation has significant importance in terms of creating Korea’s modern identity.

Full paper [PDF]