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Grammatical superiority of Korean

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 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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 Message 1 of 16
31 January 2009 at 7:46pm | IP Logged 
Dear Professor,

This passage from Homer Hulbert suggests the grammatic superiority of Korean over Romance languages.

The Passing of Korea By Homer Bezaleel Hulbert:

...Korean is an agglutinative, polysyllabic language whose development is marvellously complete and symmetrical. We find no such long lists of exceptions as those which entangle the student of the Indo-European languages. In Korean as in most of the Turanian languages the idea of gender is very imperfectly developed, which argues perhaps a lack of imagination. The ideas of person and number are largely left to the context for determination, but in the matter of logical sequence the Korean verb is carried to the extreme of development.

The Korean's keen sense of social distinctions has given rise to a complete system of honorifics whose proper application is essential to a right use of the language. And yet numerous as these may be, their use is so regulated by unwritten law, and. there are so few exceptions that they are far easier to master than the personal terminations of Indo-European verbs. The grammatical superiority of Korean over many of the Western languages is that while, in the latter,
differences of gender, number and person which would usually be perfectly clear from the context are carefully
noted, in the Korean these are left to the speaker's and the hearer's perspicacity, and attention is concentrated
upon a terse and luminous collocation of ideas, which is often secured in the West only by a tedious

"The genius of the language has led the Korean to express every possible verbal relation by a separate modal
form. The extent to which this has been carried may be shown only by illustration. Besides having simple forms
to express the different tenses and modes, it also has forms to express all those more delicate verbal relations
which in�English require a circumlocution or the free use of adverbs. For instance, the Korean has a special
mode to express the idea of necessity, contingency, surprise, reproof, antithesis, conjunction, temporal
sequence, logical sequence, interruption, duration, limit, acquiescence, expostulation, interrogation, promise,
exhortation, imprecation, desire, doubt, hypothesis, satisfaction, propriety, concession, intention, decision,
probability, possibility, prohibition, simultaneity, continuity, repetition, infrequency, hearsay, agency, contempt,
ability. Each one of these ideas can be expressed in connection with any active verb by the simple addition of one
or more inseparable suffixes. By far the greater number of these suffixes are monosyllabic.

Is there any other language that surpasses or rivals the Korean language in expressing what Hulbert calls "delicate verbal

Hulbert describes Gondi language as being similar to Korean in this respect:

Hulbert compares Korean with the Gondi language:

"And as an explanation of the contrast between the severe simplicity of the Tamil and the luxuriousness of the
Gond verb he says "I conclude that we have here a proof, not of the superiority of the Gond mind over the
Tamilian, but simply of the greater antiquity of Tamilian literary culture. The development of the conjugational
system of Tamil seems to have been arrested at a very early period by the invention of writing, by which the
verbal forms existing at the time were fossilised, whilst the uncultured Gonds, and their still ruder neighbors the
Kols, went on age after age as before, compounding with their verbs auxiliary words of time and relation and
fusing them into conjugational forms by rapid and careless pronunciation, without allowing any record of the
various steps to survive." We quote thus at length because the Korean verb has done just what Caldwell surmises
the Gond verb did and probably for the same reason. There is no evidence to show that the Korean language
was crystalised into any sort of literary form until at least six centuries after the beginning of our era and even
then it was done in such a peculiar way that it would scarcely form a bar to the process of phonetic decay or of
declensional or conjugational variation. The Korean verb has a great variety of tenses and of modes. The
following ideas are clearly expressed in Korean by simply using agglutinative suffixes with the verb stems. How
far this departs from the Tamil simplicity and conforms to the diversity of the Gond will be seen at a glance We
can express the ideas of affirmation, negation, doubt, perplexity, hypothesis, desire, expostulation, exhortation,
condition, command, entreaty, concession, promise, duration, purpose, causation, iteration, product, limit, and
a number of others of lesser importance. In fact the Korean verb represents perhaps the limit to which language
has gone in expressing verbal relationships by the use of agglutinative suffixes.
In Korea written language differs
widely from the vernacular. There are may endings in each that are not to be found in the other, and so the
reduction of Korean to writing and the evolution of a literature put no stop to the mutiplication of conjugational
differentice. The fact that the Gond dialect of the Dravidian and the Korean developed so broadly under similar
conditions of illiteracy shows that there was some native similarity in the two. The genius of the two was the

"If it is true that the Korean came, by however devious a way, from the Indian branch of the Turanian language,
the above facts show that the separation must have been at a very early date, even as we would have expected.
Our first notice of the southern settlers on the coast of Korea date from about 200 B. C. and what we can
discover of them would indicate that their arrival there was at that time comparatively recent. We might possibly
say that in all probability this southern stock entered Korea no earlier than the fifth or sixth century before
Christ. If we place the Aryan invasion of India at approximately 2,000 B. C. there would be no chronological
difficulty in the way of the supposition that these southern Koreans formed the last distant wave of the
dispersion of the ancient Turanian inhabitants of India which followed that invasion.

Editing to add the rest of the article:

To illustrate the delicate shades of thought that can be expressed by the use of a
suffix let us take the English expression, "I was going along the road, when suddenly
—" This, without anything more, implies that the act of going was suddenly
interrupted by some unforeseen circumstance. All this would be expressed in Korean
by the three words naga kile kataga (내가 길에 가다가). The first means " I," the
second means " along the road," and the third means "was going, when suddenly —"
The stem of the verb is ka, and the ending, taga, indicates the interruption of
the action. And what is more to the point, this ending has absolutely no other use. It is
reserved solely for the expression of this shade of thought. Again, on the same stem
we have the word kalka (갈까), in which the ending ka gives all the meaning
that we connote in the expression, " I wonder whether he will really go or not." If, in
answer to the question whether you are going or not you say simply kana (가나), it
means, "What in the world would I be going for? Absurd! "
No people have followed more implicitly nature's law in the matter of euphony. The
remarkable law of the convertibility of surds and sonants has been worked out to its
ultimate results in this language. The nice adjustment of the organs of speech, whereby
conflicting sounds are so modified as to blend harmoniously, is one of the unconscious
Korean arts. The euphonic tendency has not broken down the languages, as is
sometimes the case. Prof. Max Müller speaks of a law of phonetic decay, but in Korea it
would be better called the law of phonetic adjustment. Korean is characterised by a
large number of mimetic words. As their colours are drawn directly from nature, so
their words are often merely phonetic descriptions.

The Korean language is eminently adapted for public speaking. It is a sonorous, vocal
language. They have grasped the idea that the vowel is the basis of all human speech.
The sibilant element is far less conspicuous than in Japanese, and one needs only to
hear a public speech in Japanese and one in Korean to discover the great advantage
which the latter enjoys. There is nothing in Korean speech that makes it less adapted to oratory
than English or any other Western tongue. In common with the language of Cicero or
Demosthenes, Korean is composed of periodic sentences, each one reaching its climax
in the verb which is usually the final word, and there are no weakening addenda which
so often make the English sentence an anticlimax. In this respect the Korean surpasses
English as a medium of public speaking."

The Passing of
Korea (1909) pg. 302-304

Edited by sebngwa3 on 11 February 2010 at 8:41pm

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Bilingual Triglot
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 Message 2 of 16
31 January 2009 at 10:22pm | IP Logged 
I suppose as long as Mr. Arguelles is commenting on the passage, I was wondering if he could address the very concept of the superiority of a language. Here I was unaware that one language having more verb forms made it an inherently better language
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 Message 3 of 16
31 January 2009 at 11:38pm | IP Logged 
Hollow wrote:
I suppose as long as Mr. Arguelles is commenting on the passage, I was wondering if he could address the very concept of the superiority of a language. Here I was unaware that one language having more verb forms made it an inherently better language

It's better in that it avoids tedious circumlocution: "attention is concentrated upon a terse and luminous collocation of ideas, which is often secured in the West only by a tedious circumlocution."
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Bilingual Triglot
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Speaks: French*, English*, SpanishB2
Studies: Korean

 Message 4 of 16
01 February 2009 at 12:13am | IP Logged 
I don't understand how that makes it better, thus my question, not to you but to the professor.
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 Message 5 of 16
01 February 2009 at 9:32am | IP Logged 
Do you really think if the professor says the language is superior then that makes it so? This is rather silly and I hope the professor removes the thread.
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 Message 6 of 16
01 February 2009 at 11:55am | IP Logged 
Why are other posters so apprehensive to the idea of a superior language? There are superior things and inferior things in almost any aspect of life, so why do we immediately write off the idea that there could be one can be better than others, based on given parameters?
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 Message 7 of 16
01 February 2009 at 2:18pm | IP Logged 
A word is the linguistic expression for a term, and the term states objectively what is known subjectively in a concept. And the concept is the person's subjective knowledge of the meaning of the term.

Thus terms can't be superior or inferior, but only clear and unclear. A word, which is the physical thing that mediates between a term and a concept, in a foreign language can be either clear or unclear, depending on the term.

Possibly, one could argue that languages with lots of ambiguity or unclear cases could be inferior. I personally think relying on noun endings and knowing the gender leads to unnecessary difficulty.
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Bilingual Triglot
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 Message 8 of 16
01 February 2009 at 2:45pm | IP Logged 

Growing up bilingual in English and Russian, I would agree regarding "unnecessary difficulty". English grammar
being on the whole a lot easier than Russian, whereby the same nouns and verbs can be expressed on a much
simpler level. I guess English developed at a rather rapid pace and thus abolished (perhaps through reason and
logic) the use of gender and extensive verb conjugation as one can indeed express oneself perfectly without their
use. However, I am happy variations exist between languages, even on the level of complexity. Knowing Russian
has definitely helped me with my German (in terms of concepts such as cases, gender etc).

Also, I would like to mention writing systems...with regard to the use of ideograms or characters in China and
Japan. Although beautiful, the writing system is unnecessarily complex, requiring years of study just to read a book
(which I find frustrating often). Korean on the other hand uses a wonderful system called Hangul, which is both very
simple and retains a unique beauty (thank you King Sejong!).

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