Can Korean scholars save a language?

SEOUL, South Korea — When King Sejong the Great set out to create a Korean alphabet for his people during the Joseon Dynasty in the 15th century, he did so out of the goodness of his heart.

Previously, only highly educated Koreans were able to write using Chinese characters that differed greatly from the spoken language.

“I have created 28 new characters out of pity [for those who cannot express their desires in Chinese], so that everyone can easily learn and use them with ease in their daily lives,” King Sejong said when announcing the creation of his letters.

Little did he know how far that sentiment would stretch.

Today — thousands of miles away, and hundreds of years later — Indonesian schoolchildren on the small island of Buton are setting to work learning his letters. With their unwritten language on the road to extinction, the native Cia-Cia people are making an effort to see if the Korean alphabet, called Hangul, can be their alphabet, too. 

Because the Cia-Cia have a purely spoken language, they were an ideal experimental group for a society of Korean scholars, who specialize in Hangul and were looking to spread their native characters to populations that are still without a written system. “Language is one of the treasures of humankind. It’s like a treasure box that holds the wisdom of its native people. What we’re trying to do by sharing Hangul is to delay that treasure from disappearing,” said Kim Juwon, president of Hunminjeongeum Society, which propelled the adoption of Hangul in Indonesia. Hunminjeongeum is what Hangul was first called in the 15th century.

The project began just over a year ago. After learning that almost six or seven minority groups did not have an alphabet on Buton island, northeast of Jakarta, the group approached one of the native people, the Cia-Cia.

To their surprise, the city government of Bau-Bau, where roughly 4,000 Cia-Cia people reside, agreed to adopt the East Asian alphabet. Most of the Cia-Cia above the age of 40 are able to speak their language fluently, according to Kim, but the younger generations are more likely to only understand what is being spoken to them, and more often communicate in Indonesian.

Indonesian officials were not available to provide statistics on how many Cia-Cia still speak their native tongue.

The Cia-Cia, who are mostly Muslim, have tried over the years to adopt several different written scripts in an effort to preserve their language. There is evidence that they experimented with Arabic, without much success. They are also said to occasionally use the English alphabet to spell out certain words, but they never developed the practice into a systematic way of writing.

So, why adopt Korea’s Hangul?

“The premise always has to be that there is no single alphabet that can express all of the languages across the world,” said Kim, who is also a linguist at Seoul National University. “But Hangul excels in phonetic representation.”

Hangul consists of 24 letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The original alphabet had four extra letters that were later removed due to the lack of use, but despite that, the Korean letters have kept their phonetic rules intact over the years, unlike English.

“[In the English alphabet], if you look at the sound of double 'o's, it has a 'u' sound like in the word 'foot,' ” Kim explained, “so the English alphabet has actually messed up the original phonetic value that each letter had.” According to Kim, the same goes with the “a” sound in the word “face.” It should sound more like "a" in the word “fast” when pronounced with a British accent. He believes the changes over the years have made the Roman alphabet much more challenging to adopt.

As part of their mission to help the Cia-Cia preserve their fading language, a linguist from the Society collaborated with a local teacher to create a textbook using Hangul. The textbook took more than a year to complete, and has only been in use at primary and junior high-schools for a couple months.

But the response, so far, has been good, says a local official. “They really like it, learning Hangul,” Ivnu Wahid, a Bau-Bau city official, who facilitated the project, said. “It’s a good idea for the future, because the community can use the Korean alphabet language, they can also get work in Korea,” Wahid added. Kim and other members from the Hunminjeongeum Society are waiting to see how the Cia-Cia people adapt to their new writing system before seeking out other places to share Hangul.

For now, the targets will primarily be Asian countries, because of the physical proximity and relatively similar cultural values.

“But in the future, we will seek out all places with endangered languages and no writing systems,” Kim said.

According to Unesco, it is impossible to quantify how many of the world's roughly 6,800 languages go unwritten. Though Unesco puts forth that it is safe to say more than 6,000 of those languages are spoken by groups of less than a million people each, with some languages boasting less than 1,000 speakers. In other words, 95 percent of the world's languages are spoken by only 5 percent of its population.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the fact that Hangul was created around 600 years ago, and not thousands of years ago.