60 Years of the Republic: The Korean Dictionary

Metal Hangeul type produced by the National Museum of Korea Metal Hangeul type produced by the National Museum of Korea

Thirty-three members of the Korean Language Society, who survived brutal torture by the Japanese police when they were imprisoned in 1942, were dismayed after they were freed in August 1945. Nobody knew the whereabouts of the manuscript of a dictionary they were working on, which was confiscated by the Japanese. They were afraid it might have been burned.

The ambitious project to write a Dictionary of the Korean Language was first planned in 1929, when Japanese colonial policies in Korea became harsher. The Committee for Korean Dictionary Compilation issued a statement at the time of its formation which declared, "Culture can flourish only when language is put in order and standardized. The best way to achieve this goal is to make a dictionary." The Society for Research in the Korean Language, a precursor to the Korean Language Society, inherited this project in 1936. Its members were pupils of Ju Shi-gyeong, a Korean linguist who taught that a country ceases to exist the minute it loses its language. In 1933, a proposal for unified Hangeul orthography was made. But the project came to a halt due to Japanese oppression, and the manuscript was lost.

Members of the the Korean Language Society at the time of completion of the Grand Dictionary of the Korean Language on Oct. 9, 1957 Members of the the Korean Language Society at the time of completion of the Grand Dictionary of the Korean Language on Oct. 9, 1957

Then the miracle happened: in September 1945, the manuscript was found in cargo storage at the Seoul Station, where it had been left when the Japanese tried to send it to court as evidence for trial. Tears welled up in the eyes of the members of the Society. It was like finding a lost child. They published the first installment of the dictionary in October 1947. When the Korean War broke out while they were still working on publishing more dictionaries with paper and ink sponsored by the U.S. Rockefeller Foundation, the members buried the manuscript in the ground.

Titled "the Grand Dictionary of the Korean Language", a complete set of six volumes was finally published on Oct. 9, 1957, Hangeul Day, after 28 years of labor. The dictionary, which contains 164,125 lexical entries and includes dialect, obsolete words, and technical terms, was the first dictionary to be published since the "Hunminjeongeum (Correct Sounds to Instruct the People)," the Korean writing system, was promulgated in 1446. Choi Hyeon-bae, president of the Korean Language Society, in the preface wrote of his hope that the dictionary would serve as a springboard for creating a new Korean culture and enriching it. Twelve years after independence, Korea had found true cultural independence.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jul. 02, 2008 09:25 KST