In the late 1430s and early 1440s, a certain Korean scholar embarked on a massively ambitious project, working almost single-handedly and spurred on largely by personal interest. Although the Korean language had existed for almost 1,500 years, it had never had its own dedicated writing system. Korean writers had long tended to rely on Chinese writing, which was logographic—that is, it was a system of symbols that stood for concepts. Adapting the Chinese characters to Korean meant borrowing some Chinese symbols because of the way they were pronounced, and others because of the concept they conveyed.
This approach had centuries of tradition behind it, but it was not ideal. In particular, Korean had more prefixes, suffixes, and short grammatical words (e.g., prepositions) than Chinese did, and Chinese logographs were not well-suited to capturing these. More practically, learning the thousands of Chinese characters required a good deal of study, which meant that only the most well-educated Koreans could read and write. The Korean scholar in question was determined to bring literacy to the masses. His insight was that they needed an alphabet—that is, a writing system based entirely on pronunciation, and one that required far fewer characters than the logographs.
“What do you know of language and linguistics?” the bold scholar asked of several high-ranking officials who objected to his idea. “This project is for the people, and if I don’t do it, who will?” The scholar was none other than Sejong, the king of Korea, who had held the throne since 1418. His profoundly democratic conviction that literacy ought to be accessible to everyone was revolutionary in every sense. When King Sejong unveiled Hangul—his new alphabet for the Korean language—it was met with vehement opposition from Sejong’s advisors, from the literary elite, and from subsequent monarchs. For these objectors, Hangul was barbaric, it was primitive, it was unnecessary, it was an insult, and it needed to be eliminated.
Among other things, former president Lyndon Baines Johnson was known for his collection of unique automobiles, which he referred to as his “presidential toys.” He kept many of these at his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, and among them was a rare Amphicar. As the name implies, the Amphicar is was an amphibious passenger vehicle, the only one mass-produced for civilians. About 3,900 of these vehicles were produced between 1961 and 1968.
While vacationing at his ranch, Johnson delighted in taking guests for rides in this car, without informing them of its unique talent. As a practical joke, he would often speed down a hill, exclaiming “The brakes don’t work!” or “We’re going under!” as he drove the amphibious car into a lake, typically terrifying his passengers in the process.