Plain language movement protects the right to know and the safety of the citizens in South Korea

“Language determines human rights.”


Keon bum Lee

president of Hangul Culture Solidarity (the Solidarity for Korean and Hangul culture), South Korea

Ⅰ. Korean Language and Hangul

1. Current status of Korean language

Korean language is the only official language in Korea. In Korea, we only use Korean. Korean is spoken by 80 million people including 50 million in the Republic of Korea and 25 million in North Korea and ranked the 13th most-spoken language in the world. 

2. History of Korean language 

Korean language has a history of five thousand years. The Korean Peninsula has maintained the nation using only Korean for over a thousand years until now. There are many words in Korean that originated from China before the 19th century and from Japan after the 19th century. These words were all created based on Chinese characters and called Sino-Korean words. But the languages of these three countries are completely different, and even the same words are pronounced in different ways. 

3. Korean writing system, Hangul 

Those who speak Korean use the writing system called 'Hangul(한글)', created by King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty in 1443. King Sejong created Hangul to let all his people express their will. At that time, only Korean nobles (Yangban) used the Chinese characters, Hanja(漢字). But it did not match Korean and were also difficult to learn. Hangul is the writing system of 'human rights' created to guarantee the 'freedom of expression' in the 15th century. Hangul Culture Solidarity carries out Plain Language Campaign based on human rights spirit of King Sejong. 

4. Hangul's principle of invention 

Today's Hangul has 14 consonants and 10 vowels. One syllable is divided into initial, medial and final consonants, and is written in a tetragon. Consonants are designed after the shape of vocal organs, such as vocal cords, tongue, teeth and lips, while vowels are designed after the sky(⋅), person(ㅣ) and earth(ㅡ) on the basis, then combined them to create a positive and negative vowel.

5. From Chinese characters to Hangul

Since Korean nobles (Yangban) opposed the use of Hangul, the Chinese characters were used in official documents until the end of the 19th century. Hangul was designated as the official writing system at the end of the 19th century, but in the 20th century, Korea became the colony of Japanese imperialism and were forced not to use Korean and Hangul. 

After the liberation from Japanese imperialism in 1945, our country has tried to discard every Japanese and use only Hangul. However, it took about 60 years to exclusively use Hangul. The exclusive use of Hangul could take place in textbooks in the 1970s, daily newspapers in the 1990s, and official documents in the 2000s. 

Ⅱ. Obscure language in Korean

6. Difficult language of Korea

Considering the language situation in Korea these days, Korean words are mainly used for words and Hangul for letters. Difficult Sino-Korean words that remain in laws and increasing use of English words and Roman characters in every field serve as barriers to communication. In particular, unnecessary abuse of English words is reaching a very serious level. 

7. Difficult legal terms

In legal and administrative terms, the work of changing Japanese style Sino-Korean words to plain Korean language has steadily taken place since 1945. In Korea, some statutes are still written in a mixture of Chinese characters and Hangul. In 2005, the government began ‘Easy to Understand Statute Project’ and have made an effort the statutes to be written into Hangul only and plain Korean language. However, there are still many difficult Sino-Korean words in major laws, such as civil law and criminal law. Those words make it difficult for the general public to understand them.

8. Globalization policy and English language craze

Since the mid-1990s, the importance of English has been highlighted along with Korea's external opening policy and globalization policy. English classes took place one to two hours per week from the third grade in elementary school, and some argued that English should become the official language. English grades had been an important factor in entering universities in the past, but they have extended to the vital criteria in employment and promotion since the late 1990s. Korea achieved economic growth based on export-oriented industrial structure, and the importance on English proficiency got greater day by day as demands for market opening increased following the financial crisis in 1998. 

9. English words that drive out Korean words 

As the influence of the Internet has been growing, more and more English words are being used instead of Korean words in various sectors including Information and Communication, marketing, advertising, consulting, finance, and television home entertainment in the 2000s. The number of scholars and civil servants who studied in America has also increased significantly. As these opinion leaders started using many English words, the use of English in newspapers and broadcasts also increased. This trend spreaded to safety, welfare, economy and politics sectors, rather than just being used in industry. 

10. Problems of English abuse 

English is not used as a sentence, but as a word-level term that emphasizes a new and special term from a Korean sentence. As a result, there is a growing tendency to write important words in English. In most cases, the words with obscure meaning that do not fit are used just to draw attention. However, there are many middle-aged and older people who haven't properly learned English. Many people who have learned English but haven‘t used it for a long period find it difficult to understand sentences that are mixed with English words. Moreover, the efficiency of English education is not high because Korean and English are entirely different languages, and Korean people has very few opportunities to communicate with English speakers. Therefore, Koreans feel English is difficult. 

11. Legislation of plain language use

In 2005, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, which is in charge of Korean language policy, enacted Framework Act on the Korean Language, providing that official documents should be written in Hangul. But even if they were written in Hangul, there were still foreign words that the public cannot understand. The act was revised in 2017 to supplement the need to write official documents “using terms and sentences which ordinary citizens easily understand”.

Ⅲ. Plain Language Movements in Korea

12. Korean government's efforts to use plain language 

The National Institute of the Korean Language is engaged in research activities under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, which establishes Korean language policy. The National Institute of the Korean Language analyzes the current state of the language to create Korean dictionary, manages digital data of language resources and changes newly coined foreign words into Korean. It educates civil servants on the necessity for language norms and use of plain language, and answers the public's questions by telephone or online. The activities of the National Institute of the Korean Language are highly normative to the general public, but it does not have much influence on corporations, government officials and the media. Especially, the authority is recognized in the field of language norms, whereas plain language does not. 

13. Plain language campaign of private sector

Plain language campaign in Korea has mainly been led by the private sector. Until the 1990s after liberation in 1945, it was important to change the words from Japanese and unfamiliar Sino-Korean words from old literature into plain words. Getting rid of the traces of Japanese was also related to national independence. This work revolved around the group of scholars called ‘the Korean Language Society’. Since the 2000s, the abuse of foreign languages, especially English words, emerged as the major issue. The civic group, Hangul Culture Solidarity is leading the work to turn these into plain words. 

14. Vigilance against nationalist campaign of Korean language 

The nationalist view to use Korean instead of Japanese or English was influential until the 1990s as Korean language belonged to the nation. This view was also criticized by some who prefer globalization. In the 1970s, the military regime enforcing dictatorship forced the ‘purification of foreign languages’ to use nationalism in order to maintain authority, leaving antipathy against 'language purification'. This antipathy further encourages the abuse of foreign languages. Hangeul Cultural Solidarity has roots in plain language movements in democracy, not nationalism.


Ⅳ. Activities of Hangul Culture Solidarity

15. Plain language and the people's human rights

Hangul Culture Solidarity focuses on turning difficult words in public sphere into plain words. Public language deals with safety, property, rights, duties, opportunities and damages of citizens. Since public language is mainly created by the government and spread through the media, we monitor and correct the use of language by the government and the media. The 'right to know' of all systems, laws and information that influence the life of citizens can be fulfilled only through plain language. In addition, citizens should not be discriminated against because of their foreign language ability under any circumstances in public space. This is because citizens are at risk of being damaged by their dignity in the face of difficult language. The right to know and equality are the human reasons why we should use plain language. 

16. Plain language and civil safety

The right to know is more important than anything else in the safety of citizens.

Difficult language first serves as an obstacle to the life and safety of citizens. In 2017, Hangul Culture Solidarity investigated 800 types of web and word documents, and warning messages from government institutions in charge of safety as well as public reports to select 133 difficult safety terms. Such these terms are being used in laws, signs and announcements. Hangul Culture Solidarity has attempted to change these, but achieved only about 10% so far. The indifference of civil servants and difficulty of amending laws are the biggest barriers. On August 30, 2019, Hangul Culture Solidarity has again proposed to the government that 54 difficult safety terms from laws be replaced with plain words. 

17. Examples of improving safety terms 

The Roman expression "Green Food Zone" is a sign that says that no one can sell the unhygienic food around the school. The meaning may be clear in English, but to Koreans, it is hard to understand whether it is 'food such as green-colored vegetables' or not else. The officials say that they cannot change the expression since it belongs to the enforcement regulations under the law. The transparent doors overlaid for safety purpose open with subway doors in Seoul, which is called 'screen door' in English. For Koreans, it was very confusing because the word 'screen' was used to explain the monitor in theaters. It took nearly a decade to change 'screen door' into a Korean word, 'anjeonmun'(the door installed to ensure the safety). The word ‘screen door’ was bound by the regulations of the government and could not be easily changed. We are still fighting over the word 'sink hole' against the media and civil servants. ‘Sink hole’ is the hole created when the ground sank. In Korea, 'sink' is a word for kitchen furniture that cleans and stores dishes, so it is hard for Koreans to connect this word to the hole on the ground. This is a very dangerous word. 

18. Plain language and pursuit of citizen's happiness

The use of English words is increasing in the government's policies and documents dealing with the wealth, welfare and opportunities to enjoy a better life for citizens. This deprives citizens of their right to pursue happiness, who are not competent in English. It is also difficult for citizens to express their opinions in the political sphere as they cannot comprehend these terms. Difficult words disrupt the smooth operation of the democratic republic by impeding participation of citizens in politics. Less than 0.1% of Koreans are able to understand the welfare policy named "Community Care" in English. Even though many of those subject to welfare services are experiencing inconvenience as they do not know the meaning of the term ‘voucher’, the civil servants still use the foreign word 'voucher'. The phone-based fraud is called 'voice phishing' in English, but the elderly, who are the main victims, couldn't be informed the way of properly dealing with it. 

19. Strengthened activities in 2019

We have been investigating 3,000 press releases of the central government every year since 2012 to compile unnecessary abuse of foreign words and use of Roman characters. We announce the results to the press on Hangul Day (the day to commemorate Hangul, 9th October) every year, including the ranking of ministries that used many difficult words, such as foreign languages, the list of foreign words used by civil servants, and the average number of foreign words in each document. Our activities have gained the sympathy and support from many people, and raised awareness among ministers and employees with bad results, creating immediate improvements. However, the improvement does not last long because there are too many civil servants who write official documents and new foreign terms are pouring in. Starting in 2019, we investigate every press release issued by 18 central government departments and propose modifications to the authors every day. We examine an average of 1,000 documents every month and sent out 530 official requests for modification. Many changes are now taking place. We also send email to journalists who used such terms on television and newspaper to suggest modifications. More than 2,000 request letters are sent every month. We not only send letters to the members of the media and civil servants who write official documents, but also put up posters asking to use plain language in more than 20 broadcasting and newspaper companies and 45 government agencies. We also put a lot of efforts into online promotion. 

20. Language determines human rights. 

Our slogan is "Easy and plain words protect the right to know". Our campaign of emphasizing human rights is warmly received and widespread among civil servants and journalists. They will also recall that the language is directly related to civil human rights whenever they deal with public language. 

Our spiritual foundation of plain language campaign is "Language determines human rights".

국문판 보러가기-국제쉬운언어협회 2019대회 한국 사례 발표(국문판)

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