Today is a Holiday in Honor of the World’s Most Remarkable Alphabet

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy
Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

Happy Hangul Day! October 9th is a South Korean national holiday held in honor of the invention of the Korean writing system, which experts have called the most “scientific” (plus the most “ingenious,” “rational,” “subtle,” “simple,” “efficient,” and “remarkable”) writing system ever devised.

It was created in the 1440s by a committee of scholars commissioned by King Sejong. King Sejong, also known as Sejong the Great, was a fervent supporter of literature, science, and technology in his day. Some 200 years before the founding of the first scientific academy of the enlightenment, Sejong convened a group of handpicked scholars for his “Hall of Worthies.” One of their major assignments was to come up with a writing system to represent the Korean language.

At that time, Korean was written with Chinese characters. Learning to use Chinese characters, along with the adjustments required in adapting them to the Korean language, was an arduous process, requiring years of education and training. This meant that literacy was only available to a tiny elite. Sejong wanted to open literacy to the general population, but that would require a system that was easier to learn.

The system Sejong’s worthies devised used a combination of alphabetic and syllabic approaches. There were independent symbols for consonants and vowels, but they were grouped into syllables when written. You can see this in the modern form for the word “hangul” (pronounced ‘hangeul’):

Each syllable is grouped into a square character

한 (han) 글 (geul)

Each of those characters is composed of symbols for individual sounds

ㅎ h + ㅏ a + ㄴ n =  한 (han)
ㄱ g + ㅡ eu + ㄹ l = 글 (geul)
 

The system provides a simple, compact packaging of information, easy to read and to learn. According to the postscript of the original description of hangul, "a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of 10 days."

What makes the system especially scientific is that it only distinguishes those sounds which are important for the language. Its symbols reflect psychologically relevant features. For example ㄱ g and ㅋ k are basically the same sound, a consonant formed by a closure at the back of the mouth, except that there is a stronger burst of air with the k. (This distinction holds in English as well. Try pronouncing them one after the other.) In hangul, they are also the same symbol, with the air-burst difference represented by an additional line. The same kind of difference holds between ㄷ d and ㅌ t. They are both formed by contact between the tongue and area behind the upper teeth, but t has a stronger burst of air, which is represented by the same extra line in the symbol. Other distinctive features of the language are represented with similar consistency.

Unlike most writing systems, which developed over long periods of time and took on various inconsistencies in the process, the hangul system was consciously engineered and handed down all at once by a royal proclamation in 1446. The date of that proclamation, October 9th, became a national holiday in 1945 (North Korea celebrates it on January 15th, which is considered the creation date). In 1991, because of economic concerns about workers having too many days off, the holiday was eliminated.

But in 2013, for the first time in 22 years, Hangul Day was reinstated as a national holiday. Celebrate by learning to read hangul. You can also play with this hangul generator, but if you use it to see how you might write your name, please do not run off to the tattoo parlor with the result. The proper use of hangul requires a proper knowledge of Korean, the language for which it was specifically, and quite perfectly, designed.

What's the Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes?

Julia_Sudnitskaya/iStock via Getty Images
Julia_Sudnitskaya/iStock via Getty Images

This Thanksgiving, families across the country will enjoy a traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes ... or are they yams? Discussions on the proper name for the orange starchy stuff on your table can get more heated than arguments about topping them with marshmallows. But there's an easy way to tell the difference between sweet potatoes and yams: If you picked up the tuber from a typical American grocery store, it's probably a sweet potato.

So what's a sweet potato?

Sweet potato and yam aren't just different names for the same thing: The two produce items belong to their own separate botanical categories. Sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family. Regular potatoes like russets, meanwhile, are considered part of the nightshade family, which means that sweet potatoes aren't actually potatoes at all.

Almost all of the foods most Americans think of as yams are really sweet potatoes. The root vegetable typically has brown or reddish skin with a starchy inside that's orange (though it can also be white or purple). It's sold in most supermarkets in the country and used to make sweet potato fries, sweet potato pie, and the sweet potato casserole you have at Thanksgiving.

Then what's a yam?

Yams.
Yams.
bonchan/iStock via Getty Images

Yams are a different beast altogether. They are more closely related to lilies and grasses and mostly grow in tropical environments. The skin is more rough and bark-like than what you'd see on a sweet potato, and the inside is usually white or yellowish—not orange.

They're a common ingredient in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Because the inside of a yam is less moist than the inside of a sweet potato, they require more fat to make them soft and creamy. They're also less sweet than their orange-hued counterparts. In many regions in the U.S., yams aren't sold outside of international grocery stores.

Where did the mix-up come from?

Also sweet potatoes.
Also sweet potatoes.
Kateryna Bibro/iStock via Getty Images

So if yams and sweet potatoes are two totally different vegetables that don't look or taste that similar, why are their names used interchangeably in the U.S.? You can blame the food industry. For years, "firm" sweet potatoes, which have brown skin and whitish flesh, were the only sweet potatoes grown in the U.S. In the early 20th century, "soft" sweet potatoes, which have reddish skin and deep-orange flesh, entered the scene. Farmers needed a way to distinguish the two varieties, so soft sweet potatoes became yams.

Nearly a century later, the misnomer shows no signs of disappearing. Many American supermarkets still call their orange-fleshed sweet potatoes yams and their white-fleshed ones sweet potatoes, even though both items are sweet potatoes. But this isn't a strict rule, and stores often swap the names and make things even more confusing for shoppers. So the next time you're shopping for a recipe that calls for sweet potatoes, learn to identify them by sight rather than the name on the label.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Listen to a Gloriously Guttural Rendition of Frozen’s “Let It Go” Performed in Klingon

Walt Disney Studios
Walt Disney Studios

If there’s one thing we learned from Disney’s 2013 animated film Frozen, it’s that we just can’t let go of “Let It Go.”

The epically catchy tune, belted out by Idina Menzel in true Broadway-powerhouse form, inspired an entire generation of ice-queen wannabes and probably echoed through your head for at least a few years (if it ever stopped).

It also generated a slew of creative covers, parodies, and remixes. With the upcoming release of Frozen 2 later this month, it’s no surprise that some of these rousing renditions are once again gaining traction across the internet.

Nerdist reports that the Klingon-language version of “Let It Go” was recently mentioned on Reddit’s Star Trek thread, much to the delight of musically inclined Trekkies and people who just love a good fandom crossover event.

Though some commenters quickly pointed out that, among other things, Klingons do not like the cold or letting things go, the overall opinion was that the song was not only well-executed, but also eerily enjoyable.

The track, whose Klingon title is “yIbuSQo,” was released five years ago by a SoundCloud user named Jen Usellis, or “Klingon Pop Warrior.” The somewhat dulcet tones of an acoustic guitar are offset by the guttural sounds that characterize the Klingon language, giving this version a strangely aggressive edge. Elsa’s original number was never really a lullaby, though.

If the moniker “Klingon Pop Warrior” made you think that maybe “ylbuSQo” isn’t the only song Usellis has sung in Klingon, you would be correct—also available to stream on her SoundCloud channel are Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” and Celine Dion’s Academy- and Grammy-winning ballad “My Heart Will Go On” from 1997’s Titanic.

Interested in mastering a few of your own favorite songs in Klingon? Learn the language for free from Duolingo.

[h/t Nerdist]

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