South Korea is one of the few countries in the world that takes such pride in its national script. October 9 marks South Korea’s national holiday, known as Alphabet Day. It is known as Hangul and was first created by King Sejong the Great in 1443. There is every evidence that it could be used as a new artificial intelligence language.
Hangul – an alphabet with a mission
This is the only form of so-called functional writing system, used on a massive scale by one of the world’s most developed countries. Hangul originated as a set of letters meant to reflect the shape of the speech organs used to pronounce them. Some of them are round like the mouth, others are angular and sharp like the tongue, larynx and teeth forming different shapes with different sounds.
Koreans like to make emoticons out of their letters and so, for example, “u” ㅜㅜ or “ju” ㅠ perfectly reflect a crying face, according to them. The vertical lines are actual tears running from the eyes. The letters “ng”, “s” and “ng” lined up together form the eyes and nose straight out of a comic book ㅇㅅㅇ. On the other hand, “ng”, “ch”, and “n” look to Koreans like a person who bows deeply by almost laying on the ground: ㅇㅈㄴ.
King Sejong is called the Great. Under his reign, Korea was in constant bloom, it was said to be the golden age of the entire nation. Sejong, as befits the finest representative of his people, was a workaholic. He didn’t mind at all that during his reign (1418-1450) the cult of work had not yet been known at all. He reportedly did not miss any of the meetings with ministers at his Gyeongbokgung palace. Every morning, between 3 and 5 a.m., people would be discussing how else the country could be improved. In his spare time, the king sought solutions to current problems in a room named the Sayeongyeon, literally “the room where the king thinks deeply before deciding what is right and what is wrong.”
Hangul was designed to promote literacy among the common people. Previously, only the complicated system of writing Korean texts using Chinese characters had been used. It could only be learned (due to time, education and financial resources required) by the noblest ones. Today, the Korean Alphabet Day is celebrated by organising language competitions (also for foreigners), it is an official state holiday. In addition, Hangul was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
The day on which the alphabet is celebrated has changed several times due to accommodating differences in calendars used historically and to new facts discovered about the history of Hangul. The status of this important day has also changed, after the war the public holiday was granted to government officials, then it was deemed that Korea already had too many such occasions for days off; eventually, it regained its status of a public holiday in 2013 at the request of the Hangul Lovers Association.
Hangul alphabet – old and universal
Hangul currently has 24 characters – 10 vowels and 14 consonants. In total, 1127 syllable combinations can be formed from them. Despite the fact that the alphabet was created shortly after we defeated the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald (it was officially adopted in 1446), it is also perfect for writing on computers and the Internet.
You can master Hangul in an hour. I am absolutely positive about this, as I was able to memorise all the letters in this way, having no previous contact with Korean. Koreans are also proud of the fact that one of the ethnic minorities in Indonesia called Cia-Cia adopted Hangul as the alphabet for their language in the first decade of the 21st century.
Will Korea’s artificial intelligence speak in Hangul?
Today’s Korea is focused on developing new technologies, and every meeting between President Moon Jae-in, who steps down from his office in March 2021, and U.S. leader Joe Biden includes references to cooperation in the semiconductor sector. One of the reasons for the amnesty for Lee Jae-yong, Samsung’s heir apparent who was doing time for corruption and illegal ties to former Korean President Park Geun-hye, was to boost the Korean giant’s impact on the global IT market. Without a CEO at large, competitors from Taiwan, Japan or China might have taken over too much.
As the next Alphabet Day in October rolls around, Korea is reviving the debate about whether Hangul could become the language for the machines of the future. The obstinacy of the local industrial conglomerates, the so-called chaebols, is so enormous that the discussion now basically revolves around not if, but when Hangul will become the only legitimate communication of artificial intelligence. It is a technical alphabet, in its philosophy reminiscent of musical notation crossed with something between the Latin alphabet and the world of Chinese ideograms (what we call signs).
But will an AI with endless learning capacity even need any additional language? Chinese ideograms offer too many pronunciation and meaning combinations. The future should take the shape of something as usable and unambiguous as possible, also in terms of language. The need, then, is for a phonetic alphabet, not a conceptual, or ideogramic one. Hangul automatically lends itself to this already, but on the other hand, English is also based on this principle as well.
Korea’s plan for expansion with Hangul in the background
The concepts of Hangul as a super writing system of the future do have yet another reason. The government in Seoul has been promoting its culture abroad for years, and for the past several months these enormous efforts have begun to bear fruit. It has managed to promote Korean music (k-pop), cosmetics (k-beauty), TV series (k-drama), and in the first phase of the pandemic it also emphasised the unprecedented effective methods of fighting Covid-19 (k-quarantine), to include even the promotion of the tastiest fruits (k-fruits are supposed to be of better quality than others due to the unique climate of the Korean peninsula). Hangul can also help you make money. Since young people across many countries are already learning this language wanting to sing the songs of their idols, why not add the 15th century alphabet to the package with the latest smartphones and AI functionalities? There is an extremely thoughtful method to this madness. Whether the idea will be embraced, time will tell.