Saturday, May 10, 2014

Korea v China: A Natural Experiment

Until the 15th century, Koreans wrote using Chinese characters. During that century, they invented an alphabet, Hangul, which a linguist of my acquaintance used to describe as the best alphabet ever created.  Learning to read and write in Chinese characters took a very lengthy education. Learning to read Hangul, for someone who knew Korean, should have taken only a few days, long enough to memorize the sounds of the letters. So the introduction of Hangul should have converted Korea from a society where only the elite were literate to a society where almost everyone was.

China retained the traditional writing system. So the history of the two countries ought to provide information on the effect of widespread literacy. In what ways in which the societies were similar before Hangul did they diverge thereafter?

I don't have an answer, but it occurred to me that someone much more expert in the history of both countries might.

11 Comments:

At 6:24 AM, May 10, 2014, Blogger Claudio said...

But this is not the whole story. Japan is another experiment. They imported the Chinese characters but invented two phonetic alphabets to read them (I presume this would be more inefficient by one hand).

So, we have two natural experiments. I mean, two different, but related experiments.

 
At 7:59 AM, May 10, 2014, Anonymous Paul Butzi said...

You might also find Cherokee history before and after the introduction of the syllabary for the Cherokee language to be of interest. My understanding is that with the introduction of the syllabary, the Cherokee went from a culture without writing to universal literacy over just a few years.

 
At 11:16 AM, May 10, 2014, Anonymous Alan said...

Within the past century, over a thousand languages have been given the means of literacy - mostly with a borrowed alphabet but along phonetic lines. Most of these have been for relatively small populations, but some have a sizable constituency. We might get a chance soon to see how this affects the cultures where this change has happened - in both positive and negative ways.

 
At 9:54 PM, May 10, 2014, Blogger Chan-Goo Lee said...

http://m.9gag.com/gag/3968335/learn-to-read-korean-in-15-minutes

Even you can learn a little Hangul in 15 minutes.

 
At 7:19 PM, May 11, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just for comparison purposes, as an adult I was able to finish a K-12 reading education, learning the Chinese characters used in Japanese (about 1,800 characters) in about 12 months of study. Along with focused study of newspaper compounds, I was "literate" enough to read the newspaper (slowly) after about 18 months.

 
At 7:20 PM, May 11, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just for comparison purposes, as an adult I was able to finish a K-12 reading education, learning the Chinese characters used in Japanese (about 1,800 characters) in about 12 months of study. Along with focused study of newspaper compounds, I was "literate" enough to read the newspaper (slowly) after about 18 months.

 
At 6:13 AM, May 12, 2014, Blogger Oakland Hanja said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 6:19 AM, May 12, 2014, Blogger Oakland Hanja said...

The elite did not give up their exclusive knowledge so easily. While there was a flourishing vernacular literature, the knowledge of Classical Chinese was still the basis for passing the civil service exams which were the key to advancement in Chosun society. Classical Chinese was also the common written language of East Asia. Cf Opticks by Newton published first in English (!) in 1704. His publisher must of wondered why he did not use Latin like a normal philosopher.

 
At 11:28 AM, May 14, 2014, Blogger Anton Maier said...

Why did you remove my reddit link?
http://goo.gl/H1R6GV

 
At 2:42 PM, May 14, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got this link from reddit so I'll cut and paste here.

Er, the natural experiment didn't work out because the upper class in Korea effectively denigrated Hangul so much that most people didn't use it...

Hangul came into widespread use only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The first weekly (or rather 10thly, published every 10 days) in Korea was published in 1883 and it was all in classical Chinese. It was in the second weekly paper starting in 1886 that began using Hangul. Ironically this started with Japanese, specifically Fukuzawa Yukichi's, help.

Here's a paper by Inaba Tsuguo at Tsukuba University (but it's in Japanese). http://www.tulips.tsukuba.ac.jp/limedio/dlam/M17/M171781/7.pdf

Here's also an interesting data point that I found. Kimura Mitsuhiko "Spread of Primary Education in Korea 1911-1955" pg 7 of the pdf, pg 79 of the text has a box that summarizes the survey of the colonial government in 1930.

According to this data, the % that CANNOT read Hangul in 1930 are

ages 15-19 Male 50.1% Female 83.5%

ages 20-24 M 44.2% F 85.8%

ages 25-39 M 46.3% F 89.9%

ages 40-59 M 54.5% F 93.5%

ages 60+ M 62.1% F 95.3%

total M 50.1% F 89.8%

So in 1886 (44 years before 1930) we should look at age group 60+. Of this age group 37.9% of the men could read Hangul. Not too shabby. But only 4.7% of the women could read Hangul, and that's pretty awful.

Interestingly Kimura also notes that education was more widespread in the north than in the south.

Illiteracy rates in South Korea after independence plummets: 1945: 77.8%, 1948: 41.3%, 1953 26%, 1955 12%. (pg 12 of pdf, pg 84 in text) So despite all the bad things Syngman Rhee did, it looks like he did manage to get the education system going and provide education for the girls of South Korea.

http://www.shachi.co.jp/jaas/34-03/34-03-03.pdf

 
At 11:11 AM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Natalie said...

I believe that one reason that the introduction of hangul did not make as large a difference as one might expect is that the Koreans continued to use a certain number of Chinese characters mixed in with the hangul, as do the Japanese, in order to distinguish homophones. This was a poor tradeoff to our eyes, accustomed to see the benefits of an alphabet, but not an irrational decision - there are a lot of homophones.

The South still does this (though to a lesser extent than Japanese), whereas the North has gone over entirely to hangul.

Another factor is that traditionally Korean women were very cloistered. Someone writing in the nineteenth century said that he thought Korean women were more cloistered than women in Muslim countries.

Nonetheless (picking up Anonymous' point) some women did learn hangul, because one of the reasons for hangul being considered infra dig was that it was known as 'women's writing' because even a woman could learn it.

All the above comes with the caveat that I do not speak Korean, I'm just someone who became interested in the same question you did.

 

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