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Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

Musing on the power of convention

Howard Wainer

Unhooked on Phonetics

One would think that the speed with which convention is overturned depends strongly on how much of an improvement the unconventional technique provides—and how much evidence is available to support the replacement. Would that it were so.

A powerful final example further demonstrates the obstinacy of convention and provides the connection with the raven in the title.


pronounced Ka-ma-gui, is the Korean word for raven, written in the remarkable Hangul alphabet. To understand the relevance of this example, we must go back almost six centuries. China's culture dominated Asia for centuries, so it isn't surprising that the written Korean language of the 15th century used Chinese characters. Yet because the Korean language uses inflections and suffixes to add or modify meaning, whereas Chinese sentences are qualified with particles, the use of Chinese characters was far from an ideal match. In addition, Chinese characters, known as hanja, were complex, numerous and so difficult to write that literacy was reserved for aristocrats.

Sejong the Great (1397–1450), the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty (1393-1910) apparently deplored the fact that common people, ignorant of Chinese characters, were practically forced into illiteracy. He felt that this deficiency had important practical consequences, for they had no way of submitting grievances to the authorities for possible redress. Nor could they record their thoughts or experiences for posterity, placing obvious severe limits on the breadth of Korean science and art.

The%20phonetic%20alphabet%20HangulClick to Enlarge ImageTo ameliorate this situation, King Sejong set about creating an alphabet especially suited for the Korean language, and his success provided a model for others. It is far beyond the goals of this essay to explain the details of the Hangul alphabet. Instead let me choose a few of its distinguishing features.

First, it is completely phonetic. Thus, if you can already speak and understand the Korean language, all you need to do to be able to read and write is to memorize the symbols representing the 10 basic vowel sounds and the 14 basic consonant sounds. Apart from a few minor exceptions, the phonetic value of each symbol is invariant. Thus, any letter string, even if unfamiliar or nonsensical, can be sounded out instantly and accurately. There is never a need to consult a dictionary for sounds or spellings. Contrast this with how the sound 'f' is represented in English—fat, photo, laugh; how the same vowel, say 'a,' can have many different sounds—fat, farm, face, fall, hurrah; and some letters in English have no sound at all—psalm, indict.

Each Korean character usually consists of two or three components: (1) a consonant plus (2) a vowel, or (1) a consonant plus (2) a vowel plus (3) a consonant. Thus, each Hangul character is of one syllable structured as:Click to Enlarge Image




The accompanying table lists the Hangul letters and their approximate pronunciation in English. To see how easy it is to spell and read in Hangul, consider the two-syllable word "Hangul" which is written


Use the table to sound out the written word.

Second, great effort was expended to aid memory. Each consonant sound is constructed to look like your mouth when you say it! In English, only one letter has this characteristic ('o'). In Hangul all consonants have this characteristic. Sometimes the letter looks like the shape of the mouth viewed from the front (for example,


the letter 'mium', which is an "m" sound pronounced with the lips spaced a little apart). Often the letter is a stylized drawing of the mouth when looked at from the side after a vertical cut down the center of the head, where the location of the lips and tongue indicate the letter. For example,

the letter 'nium,' an 'n' sound, depicts the outline of the tongue touching the upper palate.

And pronouncing the letter


'shiot' requires that the tip of the tongue and the upper teeth be brought close together; it is created by blowing through that narrowed passage.

In addition, the very names of the letters provide information on their pronunciation. So, for example, the letter 'rial'


is pronounced as an 'r' at the beginning of a syllable and as an 'l' when it appears at the end of a syllable. Compare with mium, which has an 'm' sound at both ends of a word.

It was generally agreed that a clever person could learn the entire alphabet in a morning and so go from illiterate to literate by lunchtime. Contrast this task with the 20th century Chinese requirement that children must learn at least 2,000 hanja characters by the end of high school to be considered sufficiently literate.

It would seem that this wonderful innovation would be adopted rapidly, but alas the power of convention prevailed. Confucian scholars of the 15th century believed that hanja was the only legitimate writing system. Choi Manli, a senior scholar of the time, presented a petition to the king criticizing the new alphabet:

Since the new alphabet is so easily understood, I fear that the people will fall into laziness and never make efforts to learn. Those who do not use Chinese characters but other letters and alphabets, such as Mongols, Sohans, Jurchens, Japanese and Tibetans, are all barbarians without exception. To use new letters would make us barbarians ourselves.

He continued,

Why does Your Highness seek to alter a language that has been used since early antiquity and has no ill effects, and place alongside it a set of coarse and vulgar characters of no worth at all? Is not this script, moreover, a mere transcription of the words spoken by the peasants, without the slightest resemblance to the original Chinese Characters?

Despite opposition of this sort, Hangul's use as an official Korean alphabet grew in fits and starts, although it took fully 500 years before it became widely accepted as the Korean alphabet.

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