Ju Si-Gyeong

A Linguist Whose Pen was Mightier than the Sword

Ju Si-gyeong was born December 22nd, 1876 in Bongsan County, Hwanghae Province towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty on the Korea peninsula. He was born into a very poor household, however was able to study at his local seodang where he had his first encounter with the inadequacies between spoken and written Korean. Before the widespread use of Hangul, Korea’s now official writing system, Korean was written using mostly, if not all, Chinese characters. King Sejong the Great had created the Hangul alphabet back in the 15th century, nonetheless Chinese characters or Hanja, were still largely seen as the legitimate form of writing. However, as the characters were not created for the use of the Korean language, there remained inconsistencies and problems within the Hanja system. Ju took note of this during his studies. At the time, it was the method to read the Chinese translation and Chinese original text as they were and later, after memorizing each and every character, then add Korean endings and unravel the meaning.

Ju looked at how only after the last step with Korean words would people know what it meant and recognized just how different Chinese and Korean really were, deciding Korea needed to realize the importance of their own language and delved into the study of the language to further his ambitions. He enrolled in Pai Chai University in 1894 and here he began his research on the Korean language. Ju was also a part of the Independence Newspaper, along with Seo Jae-pil. It became the first newspaper that was published in pure Korean, working with the goal in mind to be for any Korean to be able to read. Ju was also a part of the Independence Association and was employed as a Korean teacher for Ehwa School founder Mary Scranton and for Sangdong Youth Hakwon. In the maelstrom of it all, he graduated from Pai Chai University and with a high ardor for study. He took up teaching at countless schools and was known for his tight class schedules and constant hurried appearance.

He established the Korean Language Structure Society in 1897 and the Korean Language Society in 1908. He made the first endeavor to make grammar terminology and technical terminology into native words and became the first person to organize language phoneme research and language grammar. During his active participation in the Korean Language Society, he worked on bringing awareness to the importance of learning Korean as Japanese efforts to curtail the language became apparent after their annexation of Korea in 1910. From 1907 till 1914, Ju published six books on the Korean language including his most notable “Sounds of the Language” which he published in 1914. The book advocated for Hangul to be written linearly, although this has never been adopted. The term “Hangul”, made by “han”, meaning great, and “geul” meaning script, used to reference Korea’s writing system was also coined by Ju in 1912. Before this, it was referred to as “Eonmun”, meaning vernacular script.

Unfortunately, Ju passed at the young age of 38 in 1914 from acute indigestion. He was later recognized for his efforts and accomplishments thanks to one of his previous students, Jang Ji-young, who worked to get Ju’s memoir published in textbooks. Ju was awarded the Order of Merit for National Foundation, Presidential Medal in 1980 and Pai Chai University erected the Ju Si-gyeong Memorial Building in his honor. His efforts also live on through the Korean Language Society which is still active today and his memory is engrained in the very language itself. Ju is well known for not only his achievements in language but also in his belief that “When the language rises, the country rises, and when the language falls, so does the country”, thus recognizing its importance in resisting foreign oppression.

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