{Korean, Arabic} Script Hacking for Beginners

No. “Script hacking” does not refer to writing programs in JavaScript — or even AppleScript. In this context it refers to exploring and playing with a non-Roman alphabet.

At this point, Teach Yourself Library has published five books in the Script Hacking Series: Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Korean, and Russian. I will limit my comments to the Arabic and Korean volumes, as those are the only two I’ve read, and I dislike reviewing books that I haven’t read.

Generalizing from those two, I conclude that there is a common plan (“pathway” on the front cover, “algorithm” on the back) that Meyer uses to teach each alphabet. It’s such a contrast from the early Teach Yourself books that I devoured as a teen! Those books would give a chart of the entire alphabet in question, with pronunciation given for each letter, and then follow it up by introducing vocabulary and grammar in the typical style of language textbooks. But these books devote an entire volume of over 100 pages to reading and writing the alphabet in context. Obviously there’s enormously more detail, not to mention an attention to pedagogy that was entirely lacking from the earlier series. There’s a good reason for this: by choosing languages that have an alphabet, and limiting herself to non-Roman alphabets, Meyer has a complex but manageable chunk of material to explore. I think she has been successful in this endeavor, but one fairly obvious caveat is necessary: since I have only the most superficial knowledge of the Korean (Hangul) and Arabic alphabets, I have to trust her expertise rather than my own. I suppose I’ll have to get the other three volumes in order to compare and contrast, since I know the basics of the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet and have taken courses in which I’ve learned the Hebrew and Greek ones. Greek, in fact, will provide the best test, since I can actually claim expertise there.

But from the point of view of a naive reader, albeit one with a relevant background in linguistics, I’ll comment a bit about the Korean book, shown in the image above. The first point is that until three years ago I thought Korean used a character-based system, like Chinese, as there are far too many glyphs that we can see on the menus of Korean restaurants for it to be an alphabet. My error was a common one. For instance, a glyph like 한 appears to be a single character, hiding the fact that it’s actually three consecutive alphabetic letters, artfully arranged in a square box; Wikipedia decomposes it like this, where the colors and the labels show the three letters hidden in the glyph:

OK, back to the book. The real strength of Korean Script Hacking is not just the explanations of phenomena like this one, it’s also the gradual pedagogy of explaining one letter at a time, instead of introducing a huge chart of all the letters (more on that point in my brief discussion of the Arabic book below). And then come several other strengths, such as puzzles in which you look for just one character and find every occurrence in a given paragraph, and puzzles in which you figure out the meaning of “familiar” words when you are given the category, such as “American cities.” And there’s plenty of opportunity for practicing reading and writing the letters — not enough for Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours, but still at least as much as you will probably want. Finally, there’s a link to audio files on the internet, so you can listen to proper pronunciations rather than relying on things like “a as in cat.” As I say, I have no expertise in Korean, but with that warning I can assure you that you will be amply rewarded for your time and money if you go through this slender intro to the Korean alphabet.

And now a word on Arabic. The Arabic volume is structured identically, but I know even less about the Arabic alphabet than I do about the Korean. I did try to learn the Arabic alphabet once, when I was 15 or so, using the aforementioned Teach Yourself Arabic book, but I rapidly gave up because I was daunted by the fact that there are four forms to each letter, depending on context! So a chart of all the letters is overwhelming. And some letters are conjoined, whereas some stand alone. Writing from right to left was not an issue, and the slight similarities to Hebrew helped with the alphabet and language (even if they don’t seem to help in Middle East politics), but it was still overwhelming. At this point I’ve read through Arabic Script Hacking once — just reading, not studying or practicing — and I’m prepared to take it seriously and actually work through the exercises. I’ll let you know the results, along with comments on the three volumes I haven’t yet seen, the ones that I am not approaching from a standpoint of ignorance.

Categories: Books, Linguistics