3 The Sounds of Our Country: Interpreters, Linguistic Knowledge, and the Politics of Language in Early Chosŏn Korea

In: Rethinking East Asian Languages, Vernaculars, and Literacies, 1000–1919


This chapter examines the politics of language in the early Chosŏn period (1392–1550s). In the frequent envoy exchanges between Chosŏn Korea (1392–1910) and Ming China (1368–1644), Korean court interpreters who mastered spoken Chinese played indispensable roles as mediators of the spoken language. Although the two courts communicated via classical Chinese, a literary language they shared, they still required oral communication. Chosŏn court interpreters also produced an extensive book-body of language manuals, which made use of the Korean alphabet in phonological glosses. Invented and promulgated in the mid-fifteenth century, the new script systematically represented the phonology of Sino-Korean, which made it readily adaptable to notating the phonology of spoken Chinese as well. Extensive use of the script by court interpreters demonstrated the importance of the script as a technology of mediation between two very different spoken languages: Korean and Chinese. On the one hand, the invention of the alphabet, often seen as either solely a prerequisite for the eventual elevation of the Korean "vernacular" over classical Chinese or a gesture of freedom from the Ming, was in fact intimately connected to the Chosŏn court’s efforts to maintain cultural and political ties with the Ming court. On the other hand, the importance of the spoken language was overshadowed by a graphocentrism among scholars, which marginalized the essential roles played by interpreters as mediators of linguistic difference.