Language Purism in Korea

by Mark S. Lovmo

The idea that the Korean language needs to be purified of various 'foreign elements' is, and has been, popular among certain influential private organizations, governmental organizations, and individuals for at least the past century. Language purism in Korea first came into being at the turn of the century with attacks against the use of Chinese orthography and, later, the corresponding words of Chinese origin, Sino-Korean words, became targets after liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Japanese and English language which came into the Korean vocabulary during and after the Japanese colonial period have been vehemently opposed by purists. The aim of this paper is to describe the history and scope of the efforts of language purism in both North and South Korea. In this explanation of Korean language purism, a focus will be placed on those features that have become the main targets of the purification movements in the North and the South.

Chinese Characters

The issue of the use of Chinese orthography in Korea has long been the target of Korean language purists. It is the issue that really began the purist crusade at the end of the Nineteenth Century, and in South Korea, it is the most contentious of all the debates over language purism to this day. Due to its very strong influence in Korea's literary history, the use of Chinese characters has continued in both North and South Korea amidst the constantly changing policies of both governments for, and against this writing system. Language purists have had a very difficult struggle over the issue of Chinese characters, and in the South, it seems their influence on a long-held 'Hangul (native Korean orthography)-only' policy in that country is rapidly slipping.

The first to hold aloft the torch of language purism in Korea was Chu Si-Gyung. Chu was the first of the language purists, and called for the eradication of Chinese characters (and their replacement with Hangul as the only medium of writing) in editorials he had written for Korean daily newspapers in 1897(Park, 118-119). Up to this time, Chinese language and characters had been serving as the H(igh) language of the aristocratic elite and literati for hundreds of years, while Korean, and its Hangul alphabet, were considered L(ow) language(H and L in the terms of Fishman,1967 and Ferguson, 1959; cited in Song, 206). Chu and other language purists in Korea, based their promotion of a Hangul-only policy on a belief in the superiority of native Korean language over foreign languages(Park, 118). With Korea's independence from Chinese political hegemony at the turn of the century, the Hangul-only movement grew with a rise in Korean nationalism, only to be slowed down by the fifty-year Japanese colonial period (1910-1945)(Song, 206). In the years after 1945, language purism, and indeed all aspects of Korean language planning, took place within two separate political entities stemming from the division of the Korean nation into the North and the South. With Korean nationalism back in vogue in both halves of the peninsula, purists again looked to the elimination of Chinese characters, this time, from various cultural, political, and practical perspectives.

North Korea pursued a total purification policy with regard to Chinese characters as a part of its government-controlled 'Eradication of Illiteracy' movements that took place during and after the formation of the North Korean state under the leadership of Kim Il Sung(Kumatani, 90-91). The issue of illiteracy was quite serious in the young socialist country. In 1945, only 35% of school-age children were attending schools in Korea(90). A full one-fourth of the population in North Korea, (2,300,000 people), were counted by the government as illiterate(Song, 208). Due to the speed at which the North wished to pursue its 'Eradication of Illiteracy' movements, the abandonment of Chinese characters was obviously essential. The much easier-to-learn Hangul phonetic alphabet was chosen as the sole writing system for this very practical reason(Kumatani, 92). The elimination of Chinese characters was also seen as keeping in line with communist ideology, since Chinese orthography was considered as "property of only a few, [and as]...feudalistic"(C.Kim, 1978: 167, quoted in Song, 208). For North Korea, the elimination of illiteracy (and Chinese characters) was "an essential prerequisite to enable the party and the government to spread their policies among the people"(Kumatani, 91). In 1947, newspapers began printing without the use of Chinese characters, and by 1949, Kim Il Sung had ordered the total eradication of the orthography, making temporary exceptions only in the case of classical references, scientific and proper names, and then only in parentheses(92). The government evidently understood the necessity to augment people's understanding of the meaning these Sino-Korean words through the temporary use of Chinese orthography. The efforts to get rid of Chinese orthography during this period supposedly helped with the North's literacy campaign, since illiteracy is said to have been eliminated by the end of 1948(Song, 208). North Koreans who were opposed to the full abandonment of Chinese characters (because of the resulting confusion in the vocabulary system) were dealt with by being publicly denounced as "the remains of the overthrown exploiting class, sectarian factors deeply influenced by flunkeyism, doctrinism, and reactionism"(93).

Despite its early rhetoric against Chinese characters and their supporters, the government reversed its policy in 1966, citing the necessity of 'understanding the literature of the South', and in 1968, they began the teaching of a small number of the characters as "foreign orthographic symbols"(Kumatani, 93). Kim Il Sung also determined that understanding Chinese characters was necessary in the event of reunification with the South, and since this time, a standard set of three hundred characters have been taught in North Korea(Song, 207). Even with a top-down approach to the elimination of Chinese characters by a strong central government, purist forces in the North had to finally agree to the necessity of using Chinese orthography, even if in very limited numbers.

In South Korea, the language purists' push for an Hangul-only policy has been a much harder sell. Official policies have many times tended toward exclusive use of the Korean orthography, only to be reversed again and again due to public criticism. Whether the official policy in the South was for a mixed Hangul and Chinese character orthography or for the exclusive use of Hangul, the public continued to use Chinese characters throughout. In spite of public preferences, language purists in South Korea were active in pursuing the eradication of Chinese characters from the very beginning in 1945. Purists attempted (unsuccessfully) to convince the U.S. Military Government in Korea (1945-1948) to enforce the teaching of an Hangul-only curriculum in primary and secondary schools(The Korea Herald, "Recurrent"). Later, the newly formed government of the Republic of Korea (1948) was influenced enough by purists to create a law that ordered all official government documents and publications to be written only in Hangul, although it was not easily enforced due to the continued habit of using a mixed writing system of both Chinese and Hangul("Recurrent"). 1957 saw the enactment of another Hangul-only law, only to be reversed in 1964 due to intense criticism by those in the media and education, from which a list of 1,300 Chinese characters was assembled for instruction starting in the primary grade-levels(Song, 206). The language purists rallied, and applied enough pressure to change policy again with the government proclamation in 1968 of an exclusive Hangul-only law to begin in 1970 that applied to all printed materials under the control of the government("Recurrent"). Although this law was put into place and enforced, by 1972, concerns in education over the fact that high school graduates could not read newspapers (most of which use the mixed orthography style) created another reversal that resulted in the making of a new basic list of 1,800 Chinese characters, and it is this list that is being used today(Song, 206-207).

Through it all, the language purists have kept up their opposition to any inclusion of Chinese characters in common use. The fundamentalist purist group most responsible for this opposition over the years is the Hangul Society, presided by Huh Woong, a student of purist Choi Hyun-Bai, who was a student of Chu Si-Gyong(Park, 119-120). The Hangul Society is different from other purist groups in that it advocates the outright ban of Chinese characters(120). The rhetoric of organizations like the Hangul Society against Chinese orthography follows the arguments of the pragmatic needs for universal literacy and economy in reading and writing, both of which they say can be realized through the ease of learning and using Hangul(Park, 129-130). Purists also argue some nationalist viewpoints. They like to remind Koreans that Hangul is the 'most scientific system' of writing in the world, and that the Hangul-only movement defended Korean culture during the Japanese occupation period(Fouser, 1999). Despite their failure to affect the complete eradication of Chinese characters in the South, they have been quite successful in pushing the government to eliminate difficult Chinese characters from government documents and educational texts, and continue to make sure that those Chinese characters that do remain are always parenthesized and appear alongside the Hangul transliteration(Park, 123). Their message against Chinese characters has also reached the public sector. For example, advertisers use less Chinese orthography than in the past, especially on billboards(125). This also points out the possibility of less-premeditated forces of purism in consumer demand and in the different genres of literature. Literary writers and magazine editors generally publish without the use of Chinese characters, as do publishers of children's literature, women's magazines, and even some of the most anti-purist newspapers have chosen to use less characters to accommodate ease of reading(134-135). Less serious genres of literature (sports pages, cooking magazines) tend to be much freer of Chinese characters than more serious genres, like historical and cultural literature(136).

Despite the arguments for purism and the existence of Hangul-only genres, there is much opposition to the purists' intentions. Opponents of the Hangul-only approach insist that the nation should not break its ties with its classical literature and traditional culture, which for better or worse, are more tied to Chinese orthography than Hangul(The Korea Herald "Shift"). These opponents to the fundamentalist purists also argue that Chinese characters enhance comprehensibility. Due to the many homonyms among Sino-Korean words, the meanings of many of them cannot be determined without knowing their Chinese character equivalents("Recurrent"). The rise of the information age has also heated up the debate over the use of Chinese characters. Purists say that since Hangul is a simple 24-letter alphabet, it is best suited for automation purposes and the computer age, since an alphabet is much easier to use than ideographs(Park, 130-131). Opponents counter this argument saying that the ease in using Hangul is a moot point, considering the innovations in technology such as the Arae-A Hangul word processing program, which eliminates the need for good penmanship skill in writing Chinese characters(Fouser, 1999). This way, Koreans only have to know how to identify Chinese characters, and not need to know how to write them. The most recent debate in the long-running controversy over Chinese characters is the issue of international relations versus purist ideas of 'national sovereignty'. South Korea's ties with China and other Asian nations who read Chinese characters has increased dramatically; approximately 71% of 4.25 million visitors to South Korea in 1998 came from countries where Chinese characters are used(Korea Times "Gov't"). In February of 1999, President Kim Dae-Jung ordered for the "parallel use" of Chinese characters with Hangul on travel information signs in South Korea("Gov't"). The Korean president cited internationalization and better access to Korea's cultural heritage as reasons for including more Chinese characters(Fouser, 1999). The 1970 Hangul-only law that the purists had fought so hard to win, had to be abolished, causing Huh Woong to state in the Korea Times that purists "fear our language will be degenerated to a subsidiary language controlled by foreign languages"("Gov't").

The controversy over Chinese Characters in Korea does not seem to be disappearing by any means; however, the language purists in the South no longer seem to have as much influence as they used to. In a 1998 poll by the Korean Education Broadcasting Service, five hundred people over 20 years old were polled on their opinions of the use of Chinese Characters("Gov't"). 55% of those polled agreed with a large presence of Chinese characters in parentheses, 63% believed that character recognition was necessary, while almost 76% believed training in Chinese characters should begin in elementary school("Gov't"). If this is any indication of public opinion in South Korea, the language purists will continue to have an uphill struggle against the use of Chinese orthography.

Sino-Korean Words

Although Chinese characters have come in first-place on lists of targets of language purism movements in Korea, Sino-Korean words (words translated or transliterated into Korean from Chinese) come in a very close second-place. In either North or South Korea, purists argue against Sino-Korean words on two basic premises: 1. They are 'foreign words' and 2. Many of them are difficult to understand. The purification of Sino-Korean words from the Korean language has been exceedingly more successful in the North than in the South. The Northern purification effort has been so successful that it has caused a radical change in the vocabulary of North Korean in a very short period of time (40 years). The Comprehensive Dictionary of Korean (printed in South Korea) shows that 52.1% of the total of its 163,125 entries are of Sino-Korean origin(quoted in Song, 206). These facts reveal the level of difficulty involved in the eradication of Sino-Korean words, and are a testament to the power of purist forces in the North.

At least two studies on North Korea (Kim 1972 and Kumatani 1990) have agreed that three basic periods have taken place in its language planning. The first period (1945-1954) involved the eradication of illiteracy and Chinese characters, the second period (1954-1964) involved the shift from the Seoul standard to the Pyongyang standard of speech, and the third (1964-present) involved the radical changes wrought by the re-engineering of the vocabulary(i.e., the eradication of Sino-Korean words)(Kumatani, 89). The rhetoric that justified the removal of Sino-Korean words in North Korea was that these words "were attributed to the flunkeyism of our ancestors and to Japanese imperialism"(100). Here, North Korean rhetoric is alluding to the Korean borrowing of Chinese words over the centuries, and to the fact that some Sino-Korean words were borrowed from Japanese along with their accompanying Chinese characters(Tranter, 134). The purification of Sino-Korean words of the third period began in earnest with a language-policy 'dialogue' Kim Il Sung had with North Korean linguists in 1964(88). The 'dialogue' served as a language-policy order for the "refinement of Korean" by deciding how to remove Sino-Korean words in the vocabulary and replace them with more 'pure' Korean words(Song, 209). The removal of Sino-Korean words was part of a larger 'vocabulary maintenance' effort, where all foreign words were targeted for eradication and replacement by pure Korean words(Kumatani, 97). Where pure Korean words were not easily found, North Korean linguists searched through the many different varieties (dialects) of Korean to find replacements(98). They went so far as to revive extinct pure-Korean words, or to create new words based on existing pure forms(Song, 209). Where it was too difficult or inconvenient to replace Sino-Korean words, they were kept, but because there are many homonymous Sino-Korean words with different meanings (and that there were no longer to be any Chinese characters to differentiate them), some of their meanings were dropped or mixed together(Kumatani, 98).

This creation of the new vocabulary was undertaken by an official government organization called the 'National Language Decision Committee', which introduced the new words in 1968 and 1976, resulting in volumes of works that listed a total of 50,000 new and approved words(99). However, North Koreans did not use the words until they were carefully distributed to elementary schools, printers, and press media, and became established in the language of North Korea as the new "cultured language"(99). This process of eradicating Sino-Korean words in the language spoken in North Korea is obviously indicative of the kind of central control that the ultra-nationalist government has exercised there.

Such ability and/or desire to steer language policy have not existed in South Korea, since Sino-Korean words are still widely used. However, since Southern purists are high on lexical decontamination, they advocate removal, especially in the case of difficult-to-understand Sino-Korean words, or ones that are easily replaced by pure forms(Park, 126). The most ardent advocates of removing Sino-Korean words is the Hangul Society, which gets its fundamentalist anti-Sino-Korean leanings from their late mentor, Choi Hyun-Bai(119-120). These purists have had some influence in the elimination of Sino-Korean words in government documents(123). In fact, the 1970 law that created the Hangul-only policy, also provided for the elimination of difficult Sino-Korean terms in government statutes(130). The fundamentalists' rhetoric generally follows the line that comprehensibility will be enhanced if "opaque Sino-Korean words" are replaced by pure Korean ones(130). However, many in the South have criticized this argument. Park (1989) denounces their stance as "too unrealistic", and he questions the idea of using "overly contrived pure Korean coinages for perfectly natural, well established Sino-Korean words"(137). South Koreans have also criticized the language purism of North Korea and its elimination of Sino-Korean vocabulary as an "unwelcome and really anti-national move"(Lee, 71). They point to the confusion that Southern negotiators had during the 1971-72 meetings with government officials from the North, where "[s]ome words and expressions" that the Northerners used "were totally unintelligible and some apparently familiar words were found to have entirely different semantic connotations"(72). It was the beginning of the realization that "language differences between South and North Korea were much more than dialectal", due in part to their widely divergent policies towards Sino-Korean words(72).

English and Japanese Language Influences in Korea

The common use of English and Japanese in the Korean language comes in the form of loan words. These loans have come into use in the Korean language during the Twentieth Century, when, after being a relatively isolated protectorate of China for hundreds of years, Korea came into contact with both Japan and the West (particularly the United States). The Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) witnessed a large influx of Japanese language into Korean, including many words of the modern age. A great number of Japanese words began being used, especially after 1938, when the Colonial Government switched from a bilingual policy to a Japanese-only policy, effectively outlawing Korean in public life(Rhee, 94-95). English came into Korea during the Japanese colonial period and (especially in South Korea) after, owing to a strong relationship with the United States. Compared to Japanese, English is currently a much more important source of the loan words that are used in South Korean. In North Korea, all foreign loans seem to have been almost thoroughly purified from the language during the government's third period of language planning(Song, 209) . For language purists in Korea, a much harder line is taken against these foreign loans that are not of Chinese origin. On this point, the hard-line purists of South Korea seem to have a much more solid backing from other purist organizations, government, and arguably, the general public.

After 1945, loan words from Japanese were a particular target of purification efforts in Korea. The revival of Korean nationalism and a common animosity toward Japan were important motives. Japanese language had (and still has) negative connotations in Korea, especially because of the monolingual policy that the colonial authorities enforced, which, as Park states, "only served to intensify Korea's hostility toward Japan and awaken the Korean people to the grave danger of extinction that faced their language"(115). In North Korea, language purification efforts against Japanese took place soon after liberation. In November 1946, North Korean officials began a movement (the 'Mass Mobilization for the Foundation of a Republic Movement') with the specific purpose to "eradicate Japanese customs and old habits of language use"(Kumatani, 90-91). Similarly, South Koreans considered the "wholesale influx of Japanese words into Korean" to be a "serious threat to the purity and integrity of the Korean language"(Park, 116). In the South, the language has been largely purged of Japanese words, albeit gradually(Tranter, 135). Although the Southern government over the years has made conscious efforts to eradicate Japanese loans in South Korean, technical jargon and invectives of Japanese origin still exist(Rhee, 88). Japanese words are said to be common in Korean linguistics terminology and in the language of the carpentry and mining trades(Park, 124). In the latter two, both trade members and purists believe a wholesale purification of the language is in order since it is so infested with Japanese expressions, that "outsiders and newly initiated members find it almost totally unintelligible"(124).

Still, commonly used terms in South Korean are cited as having Japanese roots. During the occupation period, many Sino-Japanese words were introduced into the Korean vocabulary (with their accompanying Chinese characters), where they became pronounced as Sino-Korean words by Korean speakers(Tranter, 135). Many of these words were of modern concepts that did not exist in the Korean language until that time(Rhee, 94). For example, the Japanese word for 'airplane', hikoki, became pihaenggi in Korean; the Japanese word for 'communism', kyosan shugi, became kongsan juui(Tranter, 136). Some place-names are also seen as having Sino-Japanese roots(Park, 133). The author of this paper became aware of place-name purification while in Korea in 1995. It involved the name of a particular city on very recently published maps and on train station signboards in Korea, in which the new 'purified' version of the name for the city was listed, Iksan, replacing the old Japanese one, Iri. In this case, the Chinese characters for the city were changed back to the original ones Koreans gave the city long ago. Another issue Korean purists face is that of Western loan words that were introduced from the Japanese language. These are loans that were not directly borrowed from their original languages (mostly English), but were copied from Japanese, retaining Japanese elements of pronunciation(Tranter, 136). This transfer of Western words via Japanese was helped by the fact that the two languages are quite phonologically compatible(Rhee, 95). South Koreans attempted to get to work after liberation to replace these words with direct copies from the original source-languages(Tranter, 139). For example, the pronunciation of the word 'cement' was changed from the Japanese style of pronunciation, sement'o, to a pronunciation more similar to Korean pronunciation of the original word, shiment'u(136). Unlike direct loans of Japanese words, these hybrid words have taken much longer to get rid of in South Korea, in spite of purist organization and government urgings to purge them(139). In fact, many times the result of their purification efforts has created the coexistence of two or more forms of the same word, since Koreans will commonly use both the 'purified' and old forms(162).

Direct English-language loans seem to have been introduced into South Korean in great numbers over the years, evidenced by the fact that one can see English words on various signs all over Seoul. Nearly 90% of all loan words in South Korea today are from English(mostly direct loans with some English loans from Japanese), and all loan words make up at least 5% of the Korean vocabulary in the South(133). The majority of these loans maintain their original semantic connotations in Korean. Honna (1995) points out a few categories of English loans in Japanese that can be applicable to the Korean situation. The categories of the loans are technical terms, new concepts, euphemisms, and 'fashionable' English(from Tranter, 144). To find examples of some of these in use, one only needs to look at a Korean newspaper, especially the advertising in it. In the two main editions of the Choson Ilbo from August 22nd and 23rd, 1994, at least 27 of the 50 larger-sized advertisements had at least one English loan word, and 14 had more than one(145). For the language purists, the remnants of language introduced from Japanese and these direct loans from English are very ripe targets of attack. With regard to these loans, the Hangul Society is not alone. The Society for Korean Language Education, which does not believe in banning Chinese characters or Sino-Korean words, places most of its purification energies toward the removal of Japanese and Western impurities from Korean(Park, 120). The government of the Republic of Korea also agrees, at least to some extent, with the purists of the nation. In the 1970's the Ministry of Home affairs instructed the Korean National Police to tear down all billboards with "blatant foreignisms"(132). The Ministry of Education is the largest inter-governmental arbiter of purification, approving or disapproving lists of words that are sent to the ministry for purification by other agencies in the government(122). Individual educators and scholars also get involved by carrying out smaller purification projects at schools, with project titles such as the 'Eradication of Foreign and Loan Words'(119).

The mass media of South Korea has, for the most part, come down on the side of purists in this respect, too. Newspaper copy editors make decisions on matters of purification in their work, and it is not uncommon for newspapers to run articles that advocate the eradication of 'foreign' elements in the Korean language(Park, 121). An example can be seen in editorials in the English-language daily, The Korea Herald, one of which attempts to draw readers' attention to "the corruption of the Korean language", and the fact that "linguistic 'pollution' has become unendurable as foreign words are indiscriminately incorporated into the language"("Preserving"). South Korean radio and television make attempts at the purification of their language content and the language content of the public. The Korean Broadcasting Corporation (KBS) airs three weekly purification programs, which includes a 30-minute television program, makes employees attend 'purification meetings', and runs purification workshops for educators in large Korean cities(Park, 121-122). The Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) has attacked the widespread use of English in songs written and sung by Koreans. In 1997, MBC banned songs with all-English content, explaining that "airing songs which are entirely in English do not comply with public sentiment" and that all-English songs might "have an adverse influence on young people"(Byun 1997). Many artists protested against the ban, claiming that the only reason the songs are banned is because Koreans sing them, while at the same time, the network airs English-language songs sung by foreigners without similar censorship(Byun 1997). This brings to light the important point that the attacks by Korean language purists specifically target the language produced by Koreans. Kim Il Sung has attacked his fellow North Korean high officials in their use of foreign language in the past. Kim accused the North Korean ideologue O Ki-Sep as trying to "Russianize the Korean language" by using words such as phuroretharia, (proletarian) and heykeymoni (hegemony) in his speeches(Kumatani, 99-100). The North Korean leader said that such Koreans "are exceptionlessly flunkeyists and doctrinists"(Kim Il Sung 1969: 211, quoted in Kumatani, 100). The rhetoric involved in purist attacks against non-Chinese foreign loan words and language is largely attributed to the idea of defending national identification(Park, 129). These recent additions to the Korean language are seen by purists as posing "a serious threat to the purity of not just the language, but also of the Korean psyche"(129). Considering this, it is no wonder that the most vehement attacks in language purism in Korea today are mostly aimed at Japanese and English influences in Korean.


With regards to the success of language purism, especially in South Korea, most purists would agree that they have along way to go in ridding their national language of impure foreign elements. At least one Korean scholar, Park Nahm-Sheik, has criticized the purists of his country as being "excessively nationalistic or even chauvinistic" in their claim that Korean is "the only language in the world that is truly pure and beautiful"(137). Despite the purists' less-than-objective attempts at viewing their language, the concept of language purification really begs the question as to whether true 'purification' of a language is possible. Language purification should also make us question what the true definition of 'language' really is.

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