Today is a Holiday in Honor of the World’s Most Remarkable Alphabet

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy
Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

Happy Hangul Day! October 9th is a South Korean national holiday held in honor of the invention of the Korean writing system, which experts have called the most “scientific” (plus the most “ingenious,” “rational,” “subtle,” “simple,” “efficient,” and “remarkable”) writing system ever devised.

It was created in the 1440s by a committee of scholars commissioned by King Sejong. King Sejong, also known as Sejong the Great, was a fervent supporter of literature, science, and technology in his day. Some 200 years before the founding of the first scientific academy of the enlightenment, Sejong convened a group of handpicked scholars for his “Hall of Worthies.” One of their major assignments was to come up with a writing system to represent the Korean language.

At that time, Korean was written with Chinese characters. Learning to use Chinese characters, along with the adjustments required in adapting them to the Korean language, was an arduous process, requiring years of education and training. This meant that literacy was only available to a tiny elite. Sejong wanted to open literacy to the general population, but that would require a system that was easier to learn.

The system Sejong’s worthies devised used a combination of alphabetic and syllabic approaches. There were independent symbols for consonants and vowels, but they were grouped into syllables when written. You can see this in the modern form for the word “hangul” (pronounced ‘hangeul’):

Each syllable is grouped into a square character

한 (han) 글 (geul)

Each of those characters is composed of symbols for individual sounds

ㅎ h + ㅏ a + ㄴ n =  한 (han)
ㄱ g + ㅡ eu + ㄹ l = 글 (geul)
 

The system provides a simple, compact packaging of information, easy to read and to learn. According to the postscript of the original description of hangul, "a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of 10 days."

What makes the system especially scientific is that it only distinguishes those sounds which are important for the language. Its symbols reflect psychologically relevant features. For example ㄱ g and ㅋ k are basically the same sound, a consonant formed by a closure at the back of the mouth, except that there is a stronger burst of air with the k. (This distinction holds in English as well. Try pronouncing them one after the other.) In hangul, they are also the same symbol, with the air-burst difference represented by an additional line. The same kind of difference holds between ㄷ d and ㅌ t. They are both formed by contact between the tongue and area behind the upper teeth, but t has a stronger burst of air, which is represented by the same extra line in the symbol. Other distinctive features of the language are represented with similar consistency.

Unlike most writing systems, which developed over long periods of time and took on various inconsistencies in the process, the hangul system was consciously engineered and handed down all at once by a royal proclamation in 1446. The date of that proclamation, October 9th, became a national holiday in 1945 (North Korea celebrates it on January 15th, which is considered the creation date). In 1991, because of economic concerns about workers having too many days off, the holiday was eliminated.

But in 2013, for the first time in 22 years, Hangul Day was reinstated as a national holiday. Celebrate by learning to read hangul. You can also play with this hangul generator, but if you use it to see how you might write your name, please do not run off to the tattoo parlor with the result. The proper use of hangul requires a proper knowledge of Korean, the language for which it was specifically, and quite perfectly, designed.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

Scholar Claims the Voynich Manuscript Is Written in a 'Proto-Romance' Language

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons

Various theories have attributed the Voynich manuscript to cryptographers, aliens, and pranksters. The book, written in an unknown text and dating back to the 15th century, has stumped codebreakers since it was rediscovered by a rare book dealer named Wilfred Voynich in 1912. Now, a scholar from the UK claims that the Voynich code isn't a code at all, but one of the only surviving examples of a proto-romance language, Artnet News reports. If true, it would have huge implications on the study of linguistics as a whole, but experts are hesitant to endorse the findings.

Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol in England, describes his alleged breakthrough in a study published in the journal Romance Studies. He claims that the Voynich manuscript was written in a fully formed language Europeans spoke centuries ago. Proto-romance laid the foundation for modern languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Hardly any known examples of it survived in writing because it was mainly a spoken language. Most important texts from the time were written in Latin, the official language of royalty, the church, and the government.

After identifying the Voynich script, Cheshire claims it took him just to weeks to translate the text. One passage next to an illustration of women struggling to give children a bath lists adjectives like noisy, slippery, and well-behaved, according to Cheshire. Another section, written beside pictures of volcanoes, describes islands being born out of volcanic eruptions. The scholar believes that Dominican nuns compiled the manuscript as a reference book for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon—Catherine of Aragon's great-aunt.

Many people have claimed to have cracked the Voynich code in the past, and experts are hesitant believe that this time is any different. After academics expressed concerns over the study, Bristol University where Cheshire works released a statement distancing itself from the research. It reads: "We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned."

If Cheshire's research does prove to be valid, that means he's accomplished something the greatest code-breaking minds in modern history could not. Not even cryptographer Alan Turing could crack the cipher.

[h/t Artnet News]

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