Benjamin Hebblethwaite, University of Florida
Gagyeon Buddhist Temple in Chungcheongbuk-do, Korea. Photograph by author, 2022.
Benjamin Hebblethwaite, University of Florida
Gagyeon Buddhist Temple in Chungcheongbuk-do, Korea. Photograph by author, 2022.
The history of Korean spelling and Korean language dominance in Korea holds many lessons for students of world history and the history of religions, as well as for researchers who study the Caribbean and Haiti, as is my case. In countries like Korea or Haiti foreign languages like Chinese or French have persistently held power and influence, and their use has tended to only benefit small minorities. In both countries an indigenous majority language exists, Korean and Kreyòl. Korean language dominance arose from the ashes of Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the war between North Korea and South Korea (1950-1953). Today the Hangul writing system is the unshakable foundation of two distinct paths to national development. Koreans link Korean and Hangul to constructive personal and collective attributes, especially independence from foreign domination. North Koreans have applied this logic in fine print by purging all Chinese characters from their publications (Lee 2018, iii).
Haitians, on the other hand, struggle to complete the independence they declared in 1804. The nation’s elitist, anti-democratic school system—the basic ticket for social mobility—requires proficiency in a foreign language, namely the French language of the former colony. In Haiti only 5% of the population sufficiently acquires French while the Creole monolingual masses lack native speakers with whom to practice, access to French books, electricity with which to study at night, funds for school tuition, as well as millions who deal with chronic hunger. Students tirelessly study French under street lamps at the expense of essential knowledge that could have been rapidly acquired by means of their native language Haitian Creole.
Ranked economically 170 out of 189 countries, the nation’s poverty is linked to a racist colonial history in which African enslaved people extracted monoculture commodities like sugar cane from plantations for the economic gain of French capitalists. The French colonists (1697-1803) of Saint-Domingue enforced a ruthless system of industrial plantation slavery that deprived enslaved people of their freedom, rights, dignity, and services like schools, hospitals, or welfare. After independence in 1804, cycles of bad leadership mired in primordial patterns of corruption, as well as self-defeating neocolonial inefficiencies like minority French-language policy, have constrained Haiti’s economic and cultural wellbeing. Employing a minority language inhibits national development while encouraging egoistic proclivities among ruling groups. In recent years members of the Haitian state and ruling groups have armed and allied with gangs, fueling further fragmentation, violence, and paralysis.
Korea offers an ideal model of positive national independence premised on religious learning and indigenous language adoption. Examining Koreans’ adoption of the Hangul script can offer a promising model of where Haiti could go with Creole. This essay offers ideas for how indigenous language adoption helps us to see something different about teaching and learning religion. Examining the history of Hangul helps us to comprehend the role of public life in the mutual expansion of language adoption and religious understanding. The creators of Hangul fundamentally sought to make the powers of reading and writing more accessible to common people by means of prestigious religious knowledge in translation. The efficient new script laid the foundation of a Korea independent from China, Japan, and other powers, and prepared it for the leap it took in the twentieth century in becoming a leading language on the internet and technological platforms (Lee 2010, 60).
In Korean antiquity, literacy and intellectual refinement were first connected to Chinese centers of learning and Koreans sometimes traveled to study in them. Woncheuk from the Korean kingdom of Silla traveled to the Chinese Tang to study Buddhism in 627 CE, becoming a famed translator and patriarch of Ximingsa Temple (Youn 2015, 85). Chinese scholars and monks also traveled to Korea, ultimately introducing Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist texts into the ancient kingdoms of Goguryeo (37 BCE-668 CE), Baekje (18 BCE-660 CE), and Silla (57 BCE-935 CE). Records of Buddhism spreading in the fourth century of the Common Era exist for all the ancient kingdoms of Korea. Buddhism became the national religion of the Silla kingdom in the sixth century and the ideological basis for governance (Youn 2015, 72).
After the unification of the early kingdoms, many texts and schools of Buddhism began circulating in Korea, including Avatamsaka, Dharmalaksana, and Zen Buddhism represented by the Nine Mountain Sects which became prominent in the kingdom of Silla in the eighth to ninth centuries. Given Korea’s predominantly Chinese language sources of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist schools of thought, this historical and linguistic reality of transmission contributed to Chinese language prestige and dominance in Korean scholarly circles. Korean elites perfected their knowledge of the Chinese script and literary classics whereas unlettered Korean speaking monolinguals could only catch glimpses of Chinese civilization through oral translations, and they were vulnerable to fraud in courts, financial transactions, and Chinese-language legal documents. Lacking a quickly learnable indigenous script, the practice of reading and writing in Korea was confined to a small number of people who used varieties of Chinese to write.
Devotional Origins of Korean Orthography
King Sejong the Great (세종대왕) was the fourth king of Joseon, a Korean dynastic kingdom that stretched between 1392-1897. King Sejong invented the Hangul phonetic writing system because he pitied the Korean people who were spurned for their inability to read and write Chinese. Literacy was individual and collective power, and King Sejong wanted to increase access to this power by developing simple, learnable letters. In 1443, Sejong created 훈민정음 (Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People), the first name given to the 한글 Hangul script, and in 1446 he published a book about its principals called 훈민정음 해례 (Explanations and Examples of the Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People).
Gyeongbokgung Joseon Royal Palace in Seoul, Korea. Photograph by author, 2022.
King Sejong had the Confucian text 용비어천가 (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven) composed with the new Korean alphabet. This publication demonstrated the efficiency of the letters to express notions central to the Joseon dynasty, namely the virtues of the Joseon kingdom and its royal ancestors. Published in 1447, this first Confucian book in Hangul not only illustrated the sufficiency of the script, but it also contributed to proselytizing and enforcing elite Confucian values (Lee 2010, 54).
In honor of his late wife, Queen Soheon (1395-1446), King Sejong ordered their son Prince Suyang to excerpt and translate episodes about the life of Buddha into Korean by means of Hangul from diverse Chinese sources, illustrating again the important role of religion as a vehicle in the spread of Hangul. After he saw his son’s book 석보상절 (Episodes from the Life of Sakyamuni Buddha), King Sejong also published a book called 월인천강지곡 (Songs of the Moon's Reflection on a Thousand Rivers) in eulogy of the virtues of the Buddha. These early books appeared in Korean with Chinese notes to assist readers in understanding the new spelling system. King Sejong also commissioned publications in Hangul about diseases, hunger, weaponry, and wars, as well as regulations and laws.
Confucianism and Buddhism were perceived as the most prominent sources of prestige for spreading Hangul. Confucianism and Buddhism enjoyed immense political and educational influence. For example, during King Sejo’s rule in 1461, a royal institution called 간경도감 (Directorate of Buddhist Publications) was established to translate Buddhist scriptures into Korean to facilitate the spread of Buddhist ideas.
At first Hangul proved important for helping literate Joseon people to learn the requisite Chinese characters as well as other foreign languages since Hangul provided an accurate method for the phonetic transliteration of sounds in various languages. Consequently, Hangul was used in diverse teaching materials for Mongolian, Manchu, and Japanese languages. Joseon’s official bureau of interpretation and translation of foreign languages published teaching materials in those foreign languages, revealing the ways that Korean and Hangul were transforming information and the state well before the 20th century.
A lettered Korean elite was able to maintain the upper hand for centuries by wielding specialized Chinese and later Japanese linguistic skills. Like the Francophiles in Haiti, the Korean elite thought Chinese and Japanese languages gave them access to impressive foreign cultures. Chinese was employed as an official language in Korea until 1894. Japanese became the official language during the Japanese annexation of 1910-1945. The Hangul writing system was even banned near the end of the Japanese occupation (Lee 2010, 58). Stripped of political and linguistic self-determination, Korean nationalists understood the importance of Korean and Hangul for authentic national independence by maintaining them in private.
In South Korea, philosophies and religions have thriving Korean and Hangul literacies. Chinese public signs at Korean Buddhist, Confucianist, royal, or educational sites are still an important part of Sino-Korean literate society and history. To this day, students in Korean schools are required to learn Chinese Hanja characters one hour per week, acquiring as many as 500 before college. However, since 1945 North and South Korean schools have adopted Korean language instruction throughout educational curricula, a policy that has boosted independence and national pride (Lee 2010, 58).
Hangul has proven to be an effective tool for enhancing the spread of various political, social, cultural, philosophical, and religious ideologies, including Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Cheondogyo, and Juche (self-reliance) in North Korea. As noted, most of the religious works that were translated into Hangul during the early stages of the alphabet’s implementation in the 1440s were Confucian and Buddhist scriptures. Later the texts of Christianity, Cheondogyo, or Juche were published in Korean by means of Hangul. The first translation of the Bible into Korean in Hangul was the 1784 성경직해 (Literal Translated Bible). Today Korean Bibles are widely available in South Korea.
Korean majoritarian language policy has directly improved the lives of the common people by aiding the spread of knowledge. Korean language dominance creates a level playing field for people of all social classes who want to succeed on merits and receive recognition transparently by means of national standards. Building on the unity of Korean and Hangul, Koreans have been able to dramatically improve social and economic conditions.
Korea has a majority language and a script fully implemented in national statecraft, education, social services like health care and public transportation, and throughout society, providing Koreans with structural advantages that so-called diglossic societies like Haiti can scarcely imagine. Haiti’s brand of diglossia builds a society composed of 5-10% French and Creole bilinguals and 90-95% Creole monolinguals. Haitian policy makers expect Haitians to build professional lives in the French language that they do not speak at home and is unheard on the streets. The foreign French language greatly limits the number of people who can obtain an education since the means of acquiring French in Haitian society are extremely limited.
In the near term, Haitian Creole’s advancement is restricted by political morass and social conflict. Political stagnation and fragmentation, corruption, assassinations, kidnappings, gang warfare, and environmental and social crises are suffocating Haitians. Haitian governments struggle with governing but do not want to be replaced through democratic elections. While French language schooling and national testing prevail, Haitians who finish high school are a tiny minority in a society stricken with problems like hunger and poverty. Haitian educational policy neglects the literacy and educational advancement of the majority, instead promoting the interests of a small minority. Significant social improvements for Haitian Creole speakers cannot be achieved under such conditions of minoritarian French language exclusivity. As noted earlier, ordinary Koreans likewise did not acquire the foreign Chinese language as most lacked access to schools, native speakers, and extensive resources in time.
Despite Haitian Creole’s low ranking in Haiti, there are signs in publishing, especially in the context of religious scriptures, that point to important efforts taking place in Haitian society that will contribute to changing the status quo. Most influential in Haiti has been Bib la, the translation of The Bible (1985, 1999). Today Bib la is one of the few Haitian Creole books that is available nationwide, and its influence is significant. Used in Protestant and Catholic churches, Bib la binds millions of its readers to a beautiful translation and a pristine script.
Scholars and practitioners of Vodou have also made important, if less ubiquitous, contributions to publishing Haitian Creole sources. The Haitian Creole songs gathered, transcribed, and discussed in Marcelin (1950), Laguerre (1980), Beauvoir (2008a, 2008b), Hebblethwaite et al. (2012), or Hebblethwaite (2021) preserve and contextualize Vodou sacred songs and prayers, revealing the indigenous Vodou culture in the indigenous Kreyòl script.
The translation into Creole of Liv Mòman an (2006, The Book of Mormon) or M. Fethullah Gülen’s Sunni Muslim book Mohammed: Mesaje Bondye a (2009, Mohammed: God’s messenger), which is a biography of the Prophet’s life, show that the Kreyòl spelling system— like Korea’s Hangul—is a powerful tool for the preservation and introduction of philosophies, religions, or secular knowledge. Christians, Vodouists, Mormons, and Muslims show that the path to the minds of Haitians is via Kreyòl.
Employing the nation’s single national language has benefited South Koreans. Translations of sacred texts into Korean by means of Hangul gave rise to diverse traditions of thought and it anchored the spelling system in the daily lives of Korean people. The experience of Koreans reveals that the embrace of a language and its script represent developments that stretch over multiple centuries, especially in the context of competition with a prestigious script like Chinese or periods of colonialism and war. The publication of sacred texts over time imbues the language’s script with a prestige accumulated through an association of sacred texts with institutional and individual reading practices.
Haitian Creole’s expanding corpus is anchored in the publication of sacred texts. This linguistic work in translation and interpretation points to a future in which Creole could take a leading position in Haiti’s state and schools and bring about significant efficiencies. As Confucian, Buddhist, and Christian translations into Korean helped spread Korean language’s Hangul script throughout the Korean population over a period of six centuries, so too do the Creole books of Christianity, Vodou, Mormonism, and Islam in Haiti spread Kreyòl into Haitian society. The mutually beneficial dynamic between religion and majority languages and the emergence of “majority language nation-building” is a central concern for the interpretation of world history and world religions, including patterns unfolding in Korea or Haiti. Although both countries have been limited by imperial powers, the example of Korea suggests that both nations can substantially improve the collective population’s standard of living by building the state, schools, and religions on the majority language and their highly respected scripts, 한글 and Kreyòl.
 In 2021, all the 124,677 students who took the school-leaving exam were required to complete it in French. Note that 124,677 is a small portion of the cohort that should be in school given that there are approximately 1,092,364people between the ages of 15 and 19 out of 11.5 million total Haitians.
 Given that Chinese characters found in Korean villages have been dated to 108 BCE, it is likely that Confucian ideas were also contemporaneous (Youn 2015, 338).
 Before the Hangul script was created, Koreans wrote and read by borrowing the pronunciations or meanings of Chinese characters. Efforts to adapt Chinese characters to Korean included: Idu, which involved placing Chinese characters in Korean word order, Hyangchal, which wrote the word order as well as grammar elements and vocabulary in Korean style, and Gugyeol, which was written alongside Chinese characters for reading comprehension. Only those who had learned Chinese characters to some extent could employ these systems.
 Mass produced printed copies spread quickly to different regions of Korea as printers were using moveable metal type for printing by the early thirteenth century.
 Although many male Korean elites insisted on Chinese literacy due to its historical connection to the Confucian establishment, the new Hangul script spread quickly among elite women who were excluded from male-only Confucian rituals and denied access to a Chinese-language education (Lee 2010, 51). Many letters handed down in Hangul were written by kings, queens, courtiers, nobles, monks, farmers, and slaves, demonstrating the widespread adoption of the script in private Korean society. Over the centuries, books of songs like 청구영언(Songs of Green Hills)(1728) or the novel 홍길동전The Story of Hong Gildong(c. 17th century) helped maintain the use of Hangul, even though it was not the official language.
 Until recently Korea endured a complex history of elite diglossia centered on the Chinese language as the medium of instruction and social promotion, a ruthless episode of Japanese colonialism, and recently a tense partition and militarization under competing Cold War alliances. After centuries of efforts, Korean-Hangul dominance solidified after World War II. South Korea made it the foundation of their free-market economy which has quickly advanced among economic and cultural leaders.
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Hebblethwaite, Benjamin, with Joanne Bartley, Chris Ballengee, Vanessa Brissault, Erika Felker-Kantor, Andrew Tarter, Quinn Hansen, and Kat Warwick. 2012. Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. 2021. A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou: Rasin Figuier, Rasin Bwa Kayiman, and the Rada and Gede Rites. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
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Benjamin Hebblethwaite is associate professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Florida, where he teaches courses on Haiti, Atlantic Creoles, and France. His books include the forthcoming co-edited (with Silke Jansen) Indigenous and African Diaspora Religions of the Americas, the monograph A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou, the co-edited (with Mariana Past), Stirring the Pot of Haitian History (a translation of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Ti dife boule sou istwa Ayiti), and the edited volume, Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English. He studied Korean language and culture in Seoul in 2022. Born in South Africa, he lives in Gainesville, Florida, with his wife and two daughters.