February 15, 2018

Right to left to right

The Winter Olympics are being held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a good enough excuse to discuss how the written word works in that part of the world. (My knowledge of Korean is mostly informed by Wikipedia, so feel free to correct the record.)

Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and Turkic belong to the Altaic language group. Unlike Chinese, they are not tonal languages. If you can pronounce Spanish, you can pronounce Japanese. What trips up Westerners is speaking Japanese with the iambic metre (da-DUM) common to English.

The proximity of Japan and Korea to China accounts for both adapting Chinese characters into their orthography. Japan and Korea subsequently invented their own "alphabets": kana and hangul. But the two are independent and quite dissimilar creations.

The written Korean language (hangul) is more similar in structure to the English alphabet than to Japanese kana, which is technically a syllabary. Hiragana is an elegant syllabary, but one so tightly bound to Japanese that it can be repurposed for other tasks only with great difficulty.

Like English and unlike kana, hangul separates vowels and consonants. But imagine that in English you could form ligatures with almost any letter combination and do it vertically as well as horizontally.

The squashed-together characters may look like kanji, but they're "letters." To quote Wikipedia: "Each syllabic block consists of two to six letters, including at least one consonant and one vowel. These blocks are then arranged horizontally from left to right or vertically from top to bottom."

Like that "Love" sculpture.

Kanji (Chinese characters) aren't used at all in North Korea, and have fallen out of use in South Korea. All kanji in a defined font take up the same box of space (including punctuation), so they can easily be stacked vertically.

Although Korean was traditionally read vertically and right to left (as was Japanese), the disappearance of kanji and the influence of European languages (including punctuation and spaces separating words) has made horizontal orthography more practical and now universal.

The persistence of kanji in Japanese is why I think vertical orthography (read right to left) continues to predominate. When written horizontally, until fairly recently, Japanese and Chinese and Korean were read right-to-left too but have since switched from left-to-right.

In Japan, the change came abruptly in 1946. Although hangul was developed several centuries after kana, the horizontal left-to-right standard was promoted by Korean linguist Ju Si-gyeong in the late 19th century, which may also account for its wider adoption in Korea.

As a result, manga that preserve the original formatting are read right-to-left while manhwa are read left-to-right.

Chinese can still be written vertically, though horizontally and left-to-right is quickly becoming the standard. In Taiwan, the government now requires that official documents be written horizontally and left-to-right.

Japanese may soon stand alone (vertically written, that is).

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