Amidst current geopolitical tensions, it is easy to forget that Northeast Asia, with Korea at its center, has a long history of cultural and technological exchange. Much of this history has been fueled by the dominance of China and, in the last century, the ambition of Japan. In recent years, the central role of Korea has come into focus. Due to the ravages of war—in which the United States played a part—many of Korea’s historical treasures have been destroyed, making it even more difficult to trace the country’s importance through time. One cultural legacy remains unscathed: the Korean language and writing system.
“Korean is what we call a link language,” says John B. Whitman, Linguistics. “It has things in common with all the neighboring languages of the area, as if it’s a sort of middleman between them. We can’t say what modern language Korea is related to in the sense of being descended from the same common ancestor. But we can show it’s unique in that it shares properties with all its neighbors that they don’t share among themselves. It’s a testimony to the historical importance of Korea in the region.”
Exploring the Korean Language and Its History
Many aspects of Korean represent linkages between other Northeast Asian languages. Whitman points out some of these details: vowel harmony where vowels found near each other in words must be pronounced in a form similar to each other, a trait Korean shares with Mongolian and the Tungusic languages; pitch accent, a type of tonal accent where pitch differences occur in some syllables of words, which Korean shares with Japanese and Ainu; and an extremely large amount of vocabulary borrowed from Chinese, which has resulted in some Chinese-influenced grammatical patterns in Korean.
Whitman is the principal investigator of a team of linguists from North America, Europe, Korea, and Japan which has just won a $1.5 million grant over five years from the Academy of Korean Studies to explore Korean’s linguistic properties as well as a broad range of other questions about the Korean language and its historical role in the Northeast Asian region. Through their work, the researchers hope to ultimately help educate the world about the role of Korean culture in general. “When people think of promoting a culture, they usually think of literature, music, art, things like that,” Whitman says. “Language seems neutral. It’s hard to think of language as something that can memorialize the history of a country and its culture. But Korea has been under such an intense influence throughout history, especially from China, that in lots of ways the most important legacy of Korean culture is its language and its unique writing system.”
From the Chinese
With support from the grant, Whitman is currently writing a book with Sungdai Cho of Binghamton University, State University of New York, titled Korean: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2018). The book will cover all aspects of Korean, from the history of the language to its pronunciation, grammar, and unique writing system, called Hangeul. In Hangeul, Whitman explains that words are divided into spaced blocks composed of individual letters. Each block is a whole syllable—having at least one consonant and one vowel. A word is composed of one or more blocks. “The Koreans came up with a writing system that’s syllabic in its shape but uses the components of an alphabet,” he says. “Humans seem to favor syllabic writing systems, but alphabetic systems have the flexibility to represent more sounds with fewer components. The genius of Hangeul is to combine both.”
“In Vietnam, Korea, Japan, even parts of Central Asia, people got their writing or parts of their writing from China. They didn’t have contact with any other written language.”
Whitman’s research also focuses on the connections between the writing systems of the Northeast Asian region, which have been highly influenced by the Chinese system. “In Vietnam, Korea, Japan, even parts of Central Asia, people got their writing or parts of their writing from China,” Whitman says. “They didn’t have contact with any other written language.” In Korea and Japan, the Chinese writing system was originally imported wholesale. People wrote in Chinese even though they didn’t speak it, similar to people in Europe in the Middle Ages writing in Latin. In that time period, reading silently was rare. To read meant to speak the words aloud. “We’ve known for a long time that Japanese and Koreans wrote in Chinese as best they could and then read it in the vernacular,” Whitman says. “The process was almost like interpreting or translating but more mechanical. Reading was really reciting.”
Ancient Buddhist Scrolls—To Be Read in Korean or Japanese?
Whitman has a copy of an ancient Buddhist scroll from the 800s written in Chinese by a Korean author, then imported into Japan. The scroll has been glossed: slight red marks were added sometime after it was written to help the reader read the text in either Japanese or Korean. Scholars are unsure whether Koreans or Japanese added the marks to the scroll and whether they were put there to read in Korean or Japanese, since both languages have similar grammars—both quite different from Chinese. Finding the answers to these questions is important because these uncertainties touch on the history of the region.
In a recent paper, Whitman has made the argument that the text itself and the marks are definitely Korean but that some of the ways the marks are used suggests they were borrowed by the Japanese to read the text in Japanese instead of Korean. “This tells us that this system of marking up the text to read in the vernacular was borrowed into Japan from Korea,” he says. “It turns out this way to mark up the text became the basis of the Japanese writing system they have today, which is a combination of Chinese characters and then phonetic letters, or phonograms, which indicate sounds.”
Historically Linked—the Cultures of Korea and Japan
The scroll and Whitman’s theory are contentious because it brings into question traditional Japanese belief that Japanese culture evolved almost exclusively in Japan with some outside influence from China. “A huge amount of Japanese culture, literature, writing, and the rest of it came through Korea,” Whitman says. “Even Buddhism came from Korea. Japanese scholars all know this, but there’s a huge resistance to it among lay people in Japan. Korea is essential to Japanese culture. Even this way of writing where you mix Chinese characters with phonetic characters comes from Korea.”
Whitman hopes that by showing the historical interconnectedness of Northeastern Asian languages and cultures, especially Korean, he and other linguists can encourage people of the region to draw closer. “Eastern Asia has been in the thrall of Western-style nineteenth century nationalism,” he says. “When you work with scholars, there’s almost none of that nationalism. But when you get to the level of high school text books and popular news, it’s the other way around. One of the reasons I became interested in this particular research, looking at ways to use Chinese to write Korean or Japanese, was because it has involved very close cooperation between Japanese and Korean scholars over the last 15 years. This is very inspiring to me. I don’t know of another field in the humanities where there is such close cooperation between Japanese and Koreans.”