Today is Hangul Day (한글날): on this day in 1446, King Sejong the Great promulgated the Korean alphabet, hangul. Read all about it in Bill Poser’s Language Log post; I hadn’t realized the purpose of the alphabet was explicitly to bring literacy to the mass of Koreans: “I have been distressed by [the fact that most people can’t express their feelings in writing] and have designed twenty-eight new letters, which I wish to have everyone practice at their ease and make convenient for their daily use.” But “15th century Korea was a highly stratified society rigidly controlled by a small elite in which those who were not elite and not male had few rights.”
Indeed, there was strong opposition to the introduction of Hangul on the part of King Sejong’s court, so strong that they presented a memorial in opposition and debated with him verbally. The reasons they gave were in part that it was wrong to deviate from the Chinese way of doing things, and in part that such a simple writing system would lead to the loss of aristocratic privilege. Their motives may have been wrong, but they understood the effects of mass literacy all too well. After King Sejong’s death, Hangul was very nearly suppressed. It took much longer to come into wide use than he had intended due to the opposition of the aristocracy.
Sounds like something worth celebrating to me.