Anyone who’s been in Korea long enough has been exposed, probably what feels like over and over and over, to rapturous descriptions of hangul that would often qualify as self-parody if accompanied by self-awareness. And while hangul is certainly great, “hangul nationalism” is definitely a turn-off.
Well, as this article demonstrates, it’s a turn-off not only for foreigners. Original article in Korean is at this link.
“Several years ago, when world language experts gathered in one place to choose the world’s best writing system, do you know which they chose? At Oxford University in the United Kingdom, do you know which writing system was selected as superior based on rationality, scientific aspect, and originality?… Do you know which writing system was recommended by the United Nations to countries that do not have writing systems? It was hangul.” This passage is contained on page 114 of the first-semester fourth grade ethics textbook. The title is “The World’s Most Superior Writing System, Hangul”. On page 116 of the textbook the reference data are listed but it is unclear whether they support the passage.
On the internet there are countless similar writings. Many such stories appear in the media. One newspaper wrote that “recently at a conference of linguists in France, hangul was suggested as the world’s official langauge.”
This is nearly the same as the passage in the textbook. It differs only in that it says “suggested” rather than the stronger “chosen” as in the textbook.
The textbook has no source, but on the internet there are many sources. On Hangul Day in 1996 KBS broadcast “550th Anniversary of Hangul – Hangul for the World”. The program only once mentioned an academic conference on hangul.
“From June 25th to 27, 1996, in France, the ‘International Conference on Hangul Culture in its 550th Year’ discussed the globalization of hangul culture. At the conference, over 50 linquists from multiple countries around the world attended and discussed Korean language education plans and unique aspects of Korean culture, including the emotions and actions of the Korean people, in whom hangul and Korean language are ingrained.”
Nothing there says that “hangul was chosen as a good global official language.” Yang Won-seok, producer of the program, said that “if such a thing had been said at the conference it would have been big news at the time.”
The “Oxford University” passage in the textbook is also frequently encountered on the internet. The story is that the famous linquistics department at Oxford University chose hangul as the world’s greatest writing system.
In 2007 The National Institute of the Korean Language (국립국어원) wanted to cite this story in some promotional material on hangul. To confirm it they contacted Oxford University. Kim, a researcher who carried out this work, said that “on the internet you can read that Oxford University’s ‘foreign language college’ made the selection, but there is no foreign language college at Oxford University. There is a linguistics department but they didn’t know if anyone had made such a selection. So our material did not mention it.”
In 2008, linguist Oh Sae-nae, in the quarterly magazine “Language and Writing” published by an organization of Korean language journalists (한국어문교열기자협회), gathered false media reports about hangul. “The Oxford University Story” was one of them. The article said that “despite diligent efforts since 2005 to confirm the data in this story we have been unable to do so. We have asked for the data from those in the media who report it but they always say they ‘found it on the internet’.”
There is also little reliability to the story that the UN recommended hangul for countries without writing systems. It is true that one NGO from our country has been working on promoting hangul to the Cia-Cia tribe in Indonesia but that has nothing to do with the UN. An official with the Institute said that “I’ve never heard that before. If such a thing had happened we would not be unaware of it.” An official with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (외교통상부) with connection to the UN said that “there is no basis for saying that.”