Old Korea, Part 7

Old Korea, Part 7

Charles Dallet's 2-volume History of the Korean Church, published in French in 1874, is preceded by a 192-page 'Introduction,' which is in fact a description/ethnography of Old Korea as the French missionaries observed it in the middle decades of the 19th century.  

To learn more about the complete work, its place in Korean historiography, and its current unpublished state, please read this previous post: 


The translation of the 'Introduction' has thus far been entirely my own.  As far as I know, it is the first translation since one that appeared in the 1950s in a now-defunct American scholarly journal that is nowadays impossible to find.  In an effort to stimulate interest in this important work of history, and perhaps to attract the interest of a publisher or some Maecenas who might feel moved to fund a proper scholarly edition of it, I have decided to serialize the 'Introduction' on this blog, one section at a time.  

Its full title is 'Introduction to the History, Institutions, Language, Morals, and Customs of Korea.' There are fifteen numbered sections, which I'll refer to as 'parts.'  Part 7 appears below.  The others will follow in due course.  I present the text without footnotes, other than the occasional one that Dallet himself used.  For a proper scholarly edition of this work, numerous footnotes would evidently have to be added.  Interested, benevolent scholars with a fluent reading knowledge of both Korean and Sino-Korean are invited to lend their talents in exchange for a warm pat on the back, and, potentially, the satisfaction of seeing their names on the cover of a publication.  

For visual interest, I will insert such relevant images as I can find on WikiCommons, or my own photos.   

Translation note: I have not altered Dallet's romanization of Korean names, which is of course based on French phonetics.  Non-English words that are not names are italicized.

I have omitted some tedious and erroneous grammatical tables compiled by Dallet.  

Dallet refers to a plate (illustration) in the second paragraph.  It was not included in the RASKB reprint of the original book, which is what I've been working from, so I cannot provide it here.

VII The Korean Language

All the examinations of which we have just spoken are taken in Chinese, and have for their sole topic Chinese characters and literature.  Only Chinese literature and sciences are taught in the eight great government schools, while the national language is neglected and disdained.  This strange fact is explained by the country's history.  For more than two centuries, Korea has been such a loyal vassal to China that Chinese has become the official language of the government and the Korean ruling class.  All the bureaucrats must write their reports in Chinese.  The annals of the king and and the kingdom, proclamations, mandarins’ edicts, legal judgements, academic texts, inscriptions on monuments, correspondence, registries and merchants' account books, shops' signs, etc., all are in the Chinese script. 

Your humble translator photographed in 2014 in front of a 17th century folding screen featuring Sino-Korean calligraphy during an RASKB excursion to the Sungkyunkwan University Museum.

In addition, not only literate and educated people, but a large number of the common people know how to read this script.  They are taught by their families and in schools, and one can say especially for the children of the aristocracy that it is their only object of study.  There are no Korean dictionaries, so that if one wishes to understand a Korean word of which one does not know the meaning, it is necessary to know the corresponding Chinese character, or to consult someone who knows it.  In China, the books in which children begin to learn the characters are printed in very large type, much like our primers.  Most often, study begins with the Tchouen-ly, or the Book of a Thousand Characters, which dates from the time of the emperors Tsin and Han.  In Korea, the same book is used, only under each Chinese character is found: to the right, its Korean pronunciation; to the left, the corresponding Korean word.  Plate I, opposite, is a reproduction of the first page of the Tchouen-ly, such as it used in Korean primary schools.

The manner in which the Koreans pronounce Chinese makes it, so to speak, a separate language.  For that matter, we know that even in China the inhabitants of different provinces have very different ways of speaking their language.  The characters are the same and have the same meaning for all, but their pronunciation varies so much that the people of Fokien, for example, or Canton, are not understood in other provinces.  There is no occasion for surprise, then, that the Chinese of the Koreans would be incomprehensible to the inhabitants of the Celestial Empire, and that the two peoples can usually only communicate in writing by drawing the characters on paper with a brush, or in the palm of the hand with a finger. 

Close-up of a Sino-Korean character from the above screen.

Before the Chinese conquest led to the current state of things, did the Koreans have a national literature?  And what was that literature?  The question is difficult to answer because the old Korean books, having fallen into almost complete oblivion, have almost all disappeared.  During the long years of his apostolate, Mgr Daveluy succeeded in collecting a few very curious examples, which perished in a fire.  Today, only a few new books are being written.  Some novels, a few anthologies of poetry, and stories for children and women are just about all there is.

Children learn to read Korean, in spite of themselves so to speak, by the translations that are given in the elementary books in which they study Chinese.  However, they only recognize the syllables out of habit because they do not know how to spell or how to deconstruct the syllables into separate letters.  Women and people of low station who do not have the time or the means to learn Chinese characters are forced to study Korean letters; they use them for their correspondence, their account books, etc.  All the religious books printed by the missionaries are in Korean characters.  Similarly, almost all the converts know how to read and write their language in phonetic letters, which children learn very rapidly. 

The scarcity of Korean books, the little interest that the literati take in their national language, and above all the barbaric legislation that bars access to the country to all foreigners on pain of death are the cause of the Korean language being completely unknown to Orientalists.  For almost forty years, there have been French missionaries in Korea.  Only they, of all the Earth's people, have lived in the country, and spoken and written this language for long years.  Nevertheless, it is strange to relate that no researcher has ever thought of consulting them in order to obtain the precise information that only they could communicate to him.  It is not part of our plan here to give a detailed grammar of this language, but since it is absolutely unknown in Europe, a few explanations might interest the reader due to the novelty of the subject, and would be of some use to the professional scholar.  We will see in the course of this history that the missionaries devoted themselves with some ardor to the study of Korean.  Mgr Daveluy worked for a long time on a Chinese-Korean-French dictionary; M Pourthié compiled a Korean-Chinese-Latin one; M Petitnicolas made a Latin-Korean dictionary that includes more than thirty thousand Latin words and nearly a hundred thousand Korean ones.  These various dictionaries, as well as a grammar written by committee, had been completed and were being copied at the college in order to conserve a copy of each one at the mission while another one would be sent to France to be printed there, when the persecution of 1866 broke out.  Everything was seized and consigned to the flames.  Since then, Mgr Ridel, vicar apolostolic of Korea, and his new colleagues, have reconstituted in part the work of their martyred predecessors, and prepared, with the help of some well-educated native converts, a Korean grammar and a dictionary of the Korean language.  These works will soon be published if circumstances permit.

Close-up of another Sino-Korean character from the above screen.

Which family does the Korean language belong to?  In the classification of languages, the fundamental element is the resemblance or the difference of grammatical structure.  The resemblance or the difference of words has only a secondary importance.  Now, the rules that we have just given a summary of demonstrate in an obvious manner that Korean belongs to that family of languages generally known as Mongolian, Ural-Altaic, Turanian, etc., and which would be better characterized by the term Scythian or Tartar, since the words Scythian, among the ancients, and Tartar, among the moderns, have always designated the whole of the peoples of upper Asia.

What are in fact the principal characteristics of the Tartar languages, in contra distinction to the Indo-European languages?

The Indo-European languages have words of different gender not only for living beings who are distinguished by sex, but also for inanimate things and abstract ideas; in the Tartar languages, on the contrary, almost all the nouns are neutral, or rather have no gender at all.

The Indo-European languages have various declensions for singular nouns; the plural is always distinct and declines in a different manner; the case endings, whatever their primitive origin, have become modifications or inflections of the word itself, hence their designation as inflected languages.  in the Tartar languages, there is only one declension; the cases are made by adding postpositions which remain distinct and separable from the noun; the plural is indicated by a special particle joined to the radical, to which are added the same postpositions as for the singular to make the declension; finally, by a curious resemblance, the dative postposition is characterized in a certain number of these languages by the guttural k, which is found in the languages of the south of India and also in Korean.

The Indo-European languages have adjectives that decline like nouns, and afree with ehm in gender, number and case.  In the Tartar languages, adjectives properly speaking are very rare, and always invariable; nouns or verbs of quality and relation take their place, and become adjectives by their position in front of the noun, and are invariable as such.

The Indo-European languages have pronouns for the three persons.  The Tartar languages, especially the most primitive, lack a third person pronoun, which they replace with a demonstrative pronoun. 

The Indo-European languages are all abundantly supplied with relative pronouns.  In most of the Tartar languages, we find no trace of the existence of such pronouns, and they are replaced by relative participles, which include in a single word the idea expressed by the verb and the idea of relatedness.

In the various conjugations of the Indo-European languages, the various moods, tenses or persons are indicated by changes or inflections of the verb itself.  In the Tartar languages, the sole conjugation is constructed through agglutination, by adding particles, and sometimes particles on particles, which always remain distinct.

Prepositions separate from or prefixed to nouns and verbs to modify their meaning play an important role in the Indo-European languages.  The Tartar languages replace the isolated prepositions with postpositions, and do not form compound verbs except with the help of nouns or other verbs. 

The Indo-European languages all have a passive voice that is conjugated in a regular manner, with different endings than the active voice; they lack negative verbs, which they replace with a distinct negation used adverbially.  In the Tartar languages which have the passive, it is made by the addition to the radical of a special particle to which the endings of the usual conjugation are added.  In the others, the passive voice is absolutely absent.  On the other hand, the existence of distinct negative verbs, and a negative voice common to all verbs, are particularities peculiar to the Tartar languages. 

Finally, not to prolong this comparison fruitlessly, in the Indo-European languages, the governing word generally precedes the word that it governs, whereas in all the Tartar languages, it is invariably placed after it.

These characteristic features of the Tartar languages that we have just enumerated are all found without exception in Korean grammar; therefore, Korean belongs to the Tartar family of languages.  This fact is beyond doubt.  Now, to which group of this family does it belong specifically?  This is a question which will have to be cleared up much later when the grammar and the dictionary are published.  One curious fact that is worth noting in passing is the resemblance between Korean grammar and the grammar of the Dravidian languages, or the languages of the south of India.  In many cases, the rules are not only similar, but identical.  The resemblance between certain Korean and Dravidian words is no less striking.  Deeper study of these similarities would shed a great deal of light on some important points about the early history of the Indic peoples, and also on various ethnographic questions that are little known.  

This concludes Part 7.  Part 8 will appear sometime in the week of 3-7 April, 2017.

Posted on 29/03/2017 by David Gemeinhardt Home 0

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