You might have noticed this logo on Google Search two days ago. It is Korean for “Google.” Every year on October 9, South Koreans celebrate the Korean Alphabet Day also known as Hangul Day to honor their writing system. According to Professor Robert J. Fouser from the Department of Korean Language at Seoul National University, except for North Korea, South Korea is the only country in the world with such a national holiday (The Korea Times).
But it all makes sense. Throughout the history of Korea, Chinese script has been used as its official writing system. However, because written Chinese demands memorization of thousands of different characters, only elites used it. In the mid-fifteenth century, out of concern for ordinary Koreans who could only speak but not write, King Sejong (1418-50) started a project to create a new alphabet system based on phonetics. The project took three years to complete. In 1466, hangul, which etymologically means great script in archaic Korean, was proclaimed as the new official written language in Korea.
Strictly speaking, although hangul was created more than half a millennium ago, it has only been widely in use for slightly more than half a century. In the old days, it was considered unsophisticated and was often looked down upon by the elites. The only place where it appeared was popular literature, which pandered for the lower rungs of society. To add to that, although it was revived towards the end of the 19th century by reformist nationalists, its popularity was short-lived. In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan, and all of a sudden, hangul was in disuse again. The ban on hangul was only lifted in 1945 after the defeat of Japan in World War II.
Such is the history of the Korean language. As you can probably tell, it is a big part of national pride for Koreans today.
Perhaps this is why private institutions in South Korea as well as individual Koreans who are without ties to the state actively promote their language in a number of creative ways.
Hyun-woo Sun, the CEO of G9Language, has taken it upon himself to announce Hangul Day to the rest of the world on YouTube since 2009. He calls for Korean language lovers to submit their written scripts in Korean to him every year, and he puts them together in a collage video on YouTube. This activity has become so successful over the past two years – with its own blogs and videos – that this year a physical exhibition of participants’ submissions was held at Sukmyeong Women University. Here’s the video:
On his website, Hyun-woo Sun mentions that he launched TalkToMeInKorean.com in 2009. For those who have not had a chance to check it out, TalkToMeInKorean is a great website to learn Korean, and it is free. Lessons on the website are grouped into six levels according to their difficulty, and users can find a great number of supplementary learning materials including well-prepared notes, very interesting videos, and real tutors that offer additional help and guidance.
At the present, TalkToMeInKorean has over 36,000 Facebook fans. This seems contrary to what Prefessor Fouser states in his October 10th article – he thinks that Korean-learning has peaked in the mid-2000s during the prime of hallyu or the Korean Wave, which describes the growing popularity of Korean culture around the world, especially in Asia. Korean-learning has become more organized at the grassroots level instead of going out of fashion. Increasingly affordable technologies and available virtual platforms have only made it easier for people with an interest.
As a note, Google accepted Hangul Day to its holiday logo list only recently, in 2008. Including this year’s logo, there are four only.
The recognition by Google has certainly been a big international advertisement for hangul. But in addition to Google, Sony Pictures Entertainment Networks – Asia (SPENA) has been promoting hallyu too, with its new channel ONE. At the present, ONE features primarily Korean content, such as Korean television dramas, movies, and music videos. And its audience is spread wide across Asia. In Malaysia, ONE can be subscribed via Astro B.yond; in Singapore, StarHub; in Indonesia, Groovia TV and Centrin TV; and just this May, ONE became available in Cambodia on Phnom Penh Cable Television (PPCTV). In countries where ONE is not available yet, like the Philippines, Korean television dramas are being broadcast on local channels and have been extremely popular with the young too.
As of now, thanks to Google, SPENA, Hangul Day, all the anonymous cultural workers who do their part to promote Korean culture and language, and all the interested parties and fans of Korea, it looks like that hallyu is not waning but has just been warming itself up.