“한 겨레의 문화 창조의 활동은, 그 말로써 들어가며, 그 말로써 하여 가며, 그 말로써 남기나니: 이제 조선말은 줄잡아도 반만년 동안 역사의 흐름에서 조선 사람의 창조적 활동의 말미암던 길이요, 연장이요, 또, 그 성가의 축적의 끼침이다. 그러므로, 조선말의 말본을 닦아서 그 이치를 밝히며, 그 법칙을 드러내며, 그 온전한 체계를 세우는 것은, 다만 앞 사람의 끼친 업적을 받아 이음이 될 뿐 아니라, 나아가 계계승승(繼繼承承)할 뒷사람의 영원한 창조활동의 바른 길을 닦음이 되며, 찬란한 문화건설의 터전을 마련함이 되는 것이다.” – [우리말본] 머리말에서 발췌 –
“A nation’s culture is fostered, cultivated, and inherited by its language: for the past 5000 years, the Korean language, Hangeul, has been the road, the tool, and the driver of Korean people’s cultural development. Hence, by refining its theory and principles and standardizing its usage, not only does it contribute to the continuation of our past achievements, but also it paves the way forward for the cultural development of our posterity.” – Adopted from preface in [우리말본] –
Oesol Choe Hyeon-bae (외솔 최현배 선생) was an independence activist, an educator, and a linguistics scholar. Born on October 19, 1894, in the south-eastern city of Ulsan, he devoted his life to the promulgation of Hangeul through numerous publications and teachings during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45) and the early days of Korea’s independence. It was primarily through his contributions that Hangeul has taken its current form: the horizontal orientation of Hangeul, the absence of Chinese characters from Korean text, and the introduction of new Korean vocabulary to replace previously adopted Chinese and Japanese words. In addition to writing one of the first elementary and high school textbooks on Hangeul, he was among the 108 scholars who worked to standardize the Korean language, resulting in the publication of the first Korean Dictionary in 1947. Finally, he helped establish the format of today’s Korean keyboard, promoting the mechanization of the Korean language. In 1962, he was awarded the Order of Merit for National Foundation. In 1970, he was awarded the Order of Civil Merit. He died peacefully on March 23, 1970.
An Independence Activist
It was during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45) that Oesol Choe Hyeon-bae felt the need to promulgate Hangeul. The Japanese were conducting a repressive assimilation policy where the usage of Korean was banned in schools and the people were required to adopt Japanese surnames. Thus, as a way of protecting and preserving Korea’s cultural identity, he published “우리말본” in 1937 and “한글갈” in 1942. The former dealt with the phonetics, meaning and form of Hangeul, while the latter described the historical and theoretical background of the language. However, because of his independence activism, he was twice imprisoned by the Japanese guards in 1938 and 1942 respectively, the latter of which lasted until the end of the Second World War in August 1945.
After liberation, Oesol Choe Hyeon-bae immediately recognized the need for school textbooks on Hangeul. The Japanese colonialism had left a dearth of Korean educational books. Further, Japan’s assimilation policy had left a generation of students unable to read and write Korean. Moreover, illiteracy among the general population had to be resolved.
Thus, in September 1945, he formed “국어교과서편찬위원회,” a textbook publication group, and together with the assistance from the US Army Military Government in Korea, released “한글 첫걸음” (“First steps to Hangeul”) along with 50 other elementary and high school textbooks over the next three years.
It was during the process of these publications that Oesol Choe Hyeon-bae advocated the adoption of horizontal orientation. Further, he sought to include only Korean in the textbooks devoid of Chinese characters unless where necessary. These developments were codified into law when the Korean Legislature passed “한글 전용법” in October 1948.
A Linguistics Scholar
Oesol Choe Hyeon-bae was among the top students when he was young, earning a government scholarship to attend Hiroshima School of Education in 1915 and obtaining a Masters degree from Tokyo University in 1925. He returned to Seoul in 1926 and taught at Yonhee University (now known as Yonsei University) until his first imprisonment in 1938. Starting in 1929, he worked with 108 other scholars to standardize Hangeul, publishing the first Korean Dictionary in 1947.
However, the richness of his scholarship can be more readily observed in the designing of the first Korean typewriter. The design of the modern Korean keyboard is a replica of Oesol Choe Hyeon-bae’s design, who, in order to determine the location of each Hangeul character, had to conduct extensive research on the frequency of their usage.
In 1446, King Sejong announced the creation of Hangeul. Since its creation, Hangeul has contributed to the development of Korea’s national identity and culture. To celebrate its birth, October 9th is marked as Hangeul Day.
The work of Oesol Choe Hyeon-bae played an indispensable role in the modernization of Hangeul. However, his contribution extends beyond the technicalities, helping to revive Korean culture and identity from the ashes of Japanese colonialism. As explained in the preface of “우리말본,” a nation’s culture is fostered, cultivated and inherited by its language. As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Korea’s Independence, perhaps it is also a time to understand and appreciate Hangeul’s true value.