South Korea Wants to Launch a ‘National Language Purification’ Campaign

Wednesday marked the 567th birthday of the Korean alphabet. And South Korea’s prime minister, Chung Hong-won, chose a rather unconventional way to honor the occasion, known colloquially as Hangul Day: delivering a speech deploring young South Koreans’ use of slang, foul language, improperly conjugated verbs, and other "verbal violence." He then called for a "national ...

Derek Winchester
Derek Winchester
Derek Winchester

Wednesday marked the 567th birthday of the Korean alphabet. And South Korea's prime minister, Chung Hong-won, chose a rather unconventional way to honor the occasion, known colloquially as Hangul Day: delivering a speech deploring young South Koreans' use of slang, foul language, improperly conjugated verbs, and other "verbal violence." He then called for a "national language purification" campaign to "remedy this bad culture."

Such campaigns are not new in South Korea, where civil society groups have long opposed the adoption of foreign words and characters. The invention of the Korean alphabet, in fact, was an early effort at establishing linguistic purity (at the time, classical Chinese was the lingua franca of Korea's educated and elite), but it failed to take off until the mid-20th century when South Korea's independence -- and the subsequent establishment of Korean as the national language -- necessitated the adoption of a distinct writing system accessible to a wide swath of citizens. Hangul, with its 24 easy-to-master characters, was perfect.

Many countries strive for linguistic purity to assert a national and cultural identity distinct from those of past colonizers or competing powers. France, for example, has several laws asserting the primacy of the French language, and its General Commission of Terminology and Neology routinely creates French versions of foreign idioms (see: "le binge drinking"). China's press and publishing administration has banned the use of foreign words (as well as the use of Chinglish) in the media. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the Cantonese language is so fiercely favored that when Chief Executive CY Leung made his inaugural speech in Mandarin, many accused him of kowtowing to Beijing.

Wednesday marked the 567th birthday of the Korean alphabet. And South Korea’s prime minister, Chung Hong-won, chose a rather unconventional way to honor the occasion, known colloquially as Hangul Day: delivering a speech deploring young South Koreans’ use of slang, foul language, improperly conjugated verbs, and other "verbal violence." He then called for a "national language purification" campaign to "remedy this bad culture."

Such campaigns are not new in South Korea, where civil society groups have long opposed the adoption of foreign words and characters. The invention of the Korean alphabet, in fact, was an early effort at establishing linguistic purity (at the time, classical Chinese was the lingua franca of Korea’s educated and elite), but it failed to take off until the mid-20th century when South Korea’s independence — and the subsequent establishment of Korean as the national language — necessitated the adoption of a distinct writing system accessible to a wide swath of citizens. Hangul, with its 24 easy-to-master characters, was perfect.

Many countries strive for linguistic purity to assert a national and cultural identity distinct from those of past colonizers or competing powers. France, for example, has several laws asserting the primacy of the French language, and its General Commission of Terminology and Neology routinely creates French versions of foreign idioms (see: "le binge drinking"). China’s press and publishing administration has banned the use of foreign words (as well as the use of Chinglish) in the media. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the Cantonese language is so fiercely favored that when Chief Executive CY Leung made his inaugural speech in Mandarin, many accused him of kowtowing to Beijing.

The Philippines is a particularly interesting case study: While other Asian countries, like Malaysia, maintain the primacy of their mother tongues in defiance of colonial legacies, the Philippine government has repeatedly enforced American English as the primary medium of education in the country, despite opposition from educators and academics.

Given that context, many a Filipino might sympathize with South Korea’s efforts to protect its native language.

But Prime Minister Chung’s complaints may be slightly misplaced. As the South China Morning Post reports, the South Korean government is, itself, a frequent violator of the national language law.

Catherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.

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