Western Attitudes toward the Korean Language: An Overview of Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Mission Literature

Descriptions of Korea's linguistic situation written by Westerners during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only reveal native and foreign attitudes toward the Korean language but also provide insight into language-focused evangelization tactics embraced by Christian missionaries. Upon their arrival in Korea during the 1800s, Westerners encountered a long-standing system of diglossia: socio-historical relations between China and Korea gave rise to the use of various Korean "lects" in which the degree of Chinese elements differed. Moreover, the nation's indigenous writing system, han'gul, was widely regarded by Koreans as culturally subordinate to Chinese script, an attitude that garnered much attention from Western observers. These sorts of language attitudes were further reinforced by Westerners' deterministic interpretations of Korea's linguistic situation; believing the Korean language to be linguistically defective, many Westerners concluded that the Korean people suffered from corresponding deficiencies of intellect, education, and morality. In a campaign to "educate" the Korean populace, Christian missionaries worked to raise the status of the native language and orthography as part of what would prove to be a highly effective evangelization strategy.