The event that took me to Korea earlier this month was the ambitiously named First World Alphabets Olympics, held in Seoul.
The idea was that representatives of various different writing systems from around the world would each give a lecture-length presentation of their system. A panel of judges would then award gold, silver and bronze medals to the best systems. I thought it had the potential to be a very interesting event.
Accordingly, there were presentations on the Latin alphabet (as applied to Italian), on the Greek alphabet, on the Hebrew, Arabic and Armenian writing systems, on Devanagari and a number of related Asian scripts, on the Chinese and Japanese writing systems and of course on Korean hangeul.
The subtext was that the Korean writing system is the best in the world, a sentiment with which I can actually agree (subject to various provisos).
Unfortunately the moving force behind the Alphabet Olympics, Soon-Jick Bae, despite his enthusiasm and hard work, had no specialist knowledge of phonetics or linguistics and did not think to consult phoneticians until very late in the day. Had we been consulted earlier, we would have explained to him that in order to discuss writing systems (not just “alphabets”) it is not sufficient to be a literate native speaker of the language whose writing system you wish to describe. You can’t discuss how well letters (etc.) correspond to sounds unless you can describe the sounds. You can’t describe the sounds properly without some knowledge of phonetics.
A few of the speakers had this necessary phonetic background (notably those dealing with Thai, Lao, Japanese and Korean), but most did not. Most of the speakers (and for that matter several of the judges) appeared to have been chosen on the grounds of their being specialists in Korean or acquaintances of Mr Bae.
Sometimes I happened to have picked up enough knowledge elsewhere to be able to fill in the missing facts. Sometimes I didn’t, and the other judges didn’t either. For example, I am aware that the Greek alphabet as applied to modern Greek, admirable though it is, has the serious shortcoming that the five vowel sounds of the language can be written in twelve different ways (the worst is /i/, which can be spelt η, ι, υ, ει, οι, or υι). But I don’t actually know how well, say, the Myanmar “alphabet” reflects the sound system of Burmese (though I know a man who does).
We duly awarded the gold medal to the Korean alphabet.