Monday, November 29, 2010

For the love of Hangul

(Much of the information in this post can be found on the Hangul wikipedia article, but I've taken what I consider the most interesting points for this blog and expanded them)

I've mentioned briefly in previous posts here about Hangul, the Korea alphabet, but haven't gone into exactly why it's such an incredibly beautiful system. I thought I'd do that now, before leaving Seoul on Thursday and thus never getting it done.

You can learn to read Hangul in an hour or two, mostly due to its amazingly logical structure, something which I've not seen in any other alphabet. In general alphabets evolve slowly whereas Hangul is relatively new and its original structure was so perfect that it hasn't had to change much.

Prior to the invention of Hangul, some 550 years ago, the writing system in Korea used the Chinese characters (this can still be seen in a huge number of words which are very very similar to Chinese - today's new one for me was on the screen of the printer in my office - 준비- junbi cf. the Chinese 准备 - zhǔnbèi - ready).

The reason for the invention of Hangul was, quite sensibly, because although the Chinese writing system has many artistically sensible reasons for its existence, efficiency in learning it is not one of them. On average it takes a couple of years longer for a student to get up to the same standard of reading using characters as it does when studying a non-character based alphabet. Half a millennium ago when the majority of Korea was illiterate, King Sejong, commissioned the writing system and this was clearly a visionary step. I do wonder how China would have developed differently had it also had such a huge literate population.

Anyway, the history of the writing system is interesting, but it's the structure which is so beautiful. For a start, if you ask a Korean to write down the alphabet, they will not write it down in a single list. They will in general write it down with the consonants and vowels separately, plus the diphthongal vowels, the doubled consonants and the iotized vowels (ya instead of a, etc.)

I'll get onto these in a moment, but first the actual structure of writing the words. Every Korean word is built out of a number of syllables and each syllable has either 2 or 3 letters in it. However, unlike most alphabets you may be used to (save for Hebrew and Arabic), the letters may go above and below each other. A two letter syllable is either places with the two letters next to each other, or one above the other, while a three letter syllable has two, at the top, next to each other followed by one at the bottom, or all three in a column. You read left to right then top to bottom withing a syllable.

For instance, in my opinion the most important word in the Korean language: 김치 kimchi (actually pronounced with more of a 'g' than a 'k'), is made of of the two syllables 김 gim, and 치 chi. The first syllable is read clockwise from the top left and the second is read from left to right.

But this also isn't why it's so beautiful. The reason that Hangul is such a beautiful language is because the consonants are based on the sound of the letter and the shape of your mouth when you say it (known as articulatory phonetics). As a good example. The 'n' sound is written as ㄴ, which is the shape of your tongue when saying the letter 'n'. In my opinion we could have written the Pioneer plaque in Hangul ;-)

How about if we have a sound similar to 'n' but with the tip of the tongue making more contact with the roof of the mouth. This is 'd' written as ㄷ where the new line at the top represents this contact. And if we aspirate this sound with a burst of air to make it 't', this is written as ㅌand has the shape of the tongue (the bottom line with the vertical), the stronger contact (the middle line) plus the aspiration (the top line). The 'r' (or sometimes 'l') is another variation of 'n' but this time it takes the form of a flap consonant. 'r' is represented therefore as ㄹ.

'g' and 'k' are ㄱ andㅋ which are the shape of the back of the tongue on saying these consonants, the second line in 'k' again marks an aspirated sound.

The consonant group 'm', 'b' and 'p' are written as ㅁ, ㅂ and ㅍ and are the basic shape of the mouth on forming these letters where the 'b' is explosive and the 'p' is aspirated.

, ㅈ, ㅊ, 's', 'j' and 'ch' is the least obvious set but given the first, the second and third follow as being the same forms with contact with the roof of the mouth and an additional aspirated sound for 'ch'.

The two glottal sounds 'ng' and 'h', ㅇ and ㅎ have the shape of the throat opening in glottal consonants. The 'ng' can also be a silent letter which is used at the beginning of a syllable when it starts with a vowel sound - no syllable in Korean can be written with a vowel to start. As far as I know this is to do with the aesthetics of the written form.

So, those are the basic consonants. I'd wager that if you've read this far you could probably recognise most of the Korean vowels without trying to remember them. Some of these letters can be doubled up to get glottalized sounds and a few combinations make up consonant clusters (ls, lt, bs etc.).
Now onto the vowels. The basic forms of the vowels can be recognised within seconds, so I'll just list them here:

ㅏ,ㅓ, ㅗ, ㅜ, ㅡ andㅣ which are a, eo, o, u, eu and i. Want to add a y to the front? Add another short line: ㅑ,ㅕ, ㅛ and ㅠ - ya, yeo, yo and yu. Note that there's no yi or yu as these are included in the diphthongs

and then there are the diphthongs, which are simply combinations of these vowels:
ㅐ, ㅒ , ㅔ ,ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ , ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟand ㅢ - ae, yae, e, ye, wa, wae, oe, weo, we, wi, yi Note that these can in general be worked out from the simple vowels. ie. ㅒ is ㅑ'ya' withㅣ'i' and thus yae.

So, there you have it, that's hangul, more or less. There are some subtleties related to the sounds depending on where the letters sit in a word, for instance ㄱ can appear to sound like a g or a k depending on whether it's at the beginning or middle of a word. Similarly the difference between 'd' and 't' can be subtle to a non-native speaker.

For English speakers perhaps the hardest thing I've noticed is that the non-dipthongal vowels are very pure in Korean. What we would normally count as a pure vowel in English would often be seen as a combination of two in Korean. I'm staying in an area called Sinchon but there's another area the other side of the city called Sincheon and I still have a really hard time telling the difference between the last vowels.

Anyway, that's a basic flavour of the alphabet. I've slowly been adding to my vocabulary this time, mostly with words related to foods but I'll try and pick up a few more useful phrases for next time I come.

If you're a native speaker and have any comments on this, please do tell me. For now 안녕히 계세요!

(With many thanks to Yumi for the consultation and for answering my constant stream of questions)

A taste of Korea

So much to blog about from the last couple of weeks, but right now I'm recovering from a bought of something that hit me hard yesterday. I'm still not sure if it was food poisoning (the most likely option given some of the strange things I've been eating recently - including yukhoe (육회) and the biggest sea urchins I've ever seen) or a 24 hour virus, but yesterday morning it knocked me for six. Anyway, I made it into the CQUEST office this morning in Sogang university and had a reasonably productive day working on a couple of projects.

I only have a few days before leaving Korea and heading back to China for a week, and there are still a fair few friends I've got to catch up with before I head off but today I still need to rest up and make the most of the next couple of days in the office.

For now I leave you with a tour of some of the food in the market in Pohang and a few plates that have made the last two weeks so...well...tasty.

These and more can be found on my Flickr stream.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Squid boats and Autumnal colours in Pohang

The brilliant lights on the horizon in the previous post's photo were from the squid-fishing ships which head out around dusk with rows of lamps hanging from ropes from bow to stern. As you watch you can see the ships go over the horizon where the light is still visible but dims significantly as they disappear from view. To keep them so bright they are cleaned meticulously before each trip and as we walked along the harbour yesterday we saw them cleaning them before heading out:

cleaning the squid lights
Today was another packed day as we took an hour's bus ride to Naeyeon San (mountain) and visited the buddhist monastery, Bogyeongsa, at the foothills of the peak. I still have to process a few of the photos from the temple but for now I'll post an autumnal photo from the trip up the valley which currently has only a small stream and some rather lovely waterfalls along the way. This place must be spectacular in the rainy season when the torrents crash down the very steep slopes.
autumn colours in neun san
Tomorrow I'm back in the office and giving my first talk of this trip to Korea.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pohang arrival

I got into Pohang yesterday after a sleepless night in Beijing (recent late nights at work have shifted my body clock again and a four am start was not much fun). After racing from Incheon to Gimpo airport across Seoul to catch my connecting flight I arrived into Pohang and made my way to the APCTP where I'm spending the next week.

I spent a short time in the department before it was time to head out to eat, as my eyes could no longer focus on the computer. My friend had little hesitation in taking me to a place which served, in no uncertain terms, one of Korea's most unusual dishes, which is really saying something! I took a video but won't post it here because the likelihood of my family letting me stay for Christmas would fall sharply on seeing this plate of food. Anyway, more or less, it's hag-fish (a pretty unpleasant looking eel-like animal) which has been killed and chopped up, but when it's cooked in front of you it's still very much thrashing around! It makes san-nak ji look pretty tame, although in contrast to that dish, the eel is very much stationary when you eat it. After cooking you eat it in the Korean barbeque style, wrapped in lettuce leaves with various sauces to give it some kick. Very tasty, but not for the faint-hearted. (It's called 꼼장어 in Korean but be warned...)

Anyway, I got into my superheated apartment after dinner (the Koreans, as far as I've been able to tell, like to have their houses roasting in the winter and there's not much I can do with the underfloor heating system) and caught up a little on my missing night. Today was a packed one which included a trip to a Korean wedding, replete with traditional Hanboks, a series of terrifying bus-rides by the local bus drivers who seem to think that speed (and all its higher derivatives) always wins over comfort and a trip out to the famous sculpture on the most easterly point of the Korean peninsular. We got there at sunset and by the time I'd stopped faffing around taking pictures of the moon, the light had gone and we were left with the view of the hand, rising out of the sea, with Jupiter and the moon rising above. A 20 second exposure gave a nice effect but it was definitely a moment that a tripod would have been valuable, guessing the angle of a 10mm lens when placed on a makeshift platform on the ground is not easy.

Pohang sculpture
Anyway, tomorrow is a little more sightseeing and I'll have to get my talk ready for Monday when work starts again in earnest.

My apologies for not keeping up to date with Beijing adventures, we'll see if there are moments spare to add snippets over the coming days

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Everest in the early morning light

The absence of leg-space on my flight from Doha to Beijing made for a pretty tiring flight, standing up for most of the journey, but it did have one benefit. As the sun rose and the Earth-shadow slowly faded, the sight revealed below was the foothills of the Himalayas, a sight I'd never seen before. I watched the peaks rising from the gently rolling hills, and in the distance a familiar sight appeared. The light was still relatively low, and perching by the emergency exit, peering through the small window made for awkward photography, but this was one of the first shots I took of it. I'll try and process some more of the photos from this series in the next week or so.

Everest in the early morning light
If I'm mistaken and somebody knows better then please tell me, but I've compared this image to others in google and the surrounding peaks look right.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Dancers in Tian Tan

I bought the camera without any plans to use the video feature, but I played around with it a little in Tian Tan park last weekend and found the quality is absolutely breathtaking. The following, rather shakily taken footage (this is my first attempt at film making) was reduced by a huge factor to put on youtube, and the colours in the original are stunning. I may put up a higher definition version at some point.

I thought the whole thing was a rather lovely moment with some great expressions, both facial and through body language of people out for the day, to enjoy the weekend together in one of Beijing's most pleasant temples. Give it a moment for the second couple to come to the front