Hangeul – A look at the Korean alphabet

The writing systems of nearly all languages over the world have evolved gradually from long long time ago so it is impossible to trace who their inventors were. Hangeul (한글), the Korean alphabet system, is perhaps the only one still in use today that you can trace its inventor.  It was invented by King Sejong the Great (새종대왕) with the help of his scholars and was promulgated in 1446.  In my blog post dated 16 January 2015, I mentioned that King Sejong the Great (the 4th king of the Joseon Dynasty) had many significant achievements during his reign, one of which was the invention of hangeul.  In this blog post, let’s talk about some interesting information about hangeul.

Why did King Sejong invent the Korean alphabet?

Before the invention of hangeul, the Koreans used the Chinese characters as their writing system.  If you watch historical Korean dramas, you may notice that the people wrote in Chinese characters and not in hangeul.  However, due to their foreign origin, the Chinese characters could not fully express words and meaning of the Korean spoken language.  Moreover, given their complexity, the Chinese characters were difficult to learn and at that time, only the aristocrats called “yangban” (양반) could learn and know how to write Chinese characters.  Therefore, other than oral communication, the common people who were illiterate could not express their opinions and concerns to the government authorities.  King Sejong decided to invent an alphabet system which suited the Korean spoken language and could be easily learned and used by the common people. Moreover, King Sejong believed that if the common people could read and write, they could become more knowledgeable and the country would also become stronger.

With the help of his scholars, King Sejong invented the Korean alphabet system which had 28 letters, out of which 24 are still in use today.   In 1446, the Korean alphabet system was promulgated under the name “Hunminjeongeum” (훈민정음 / 訓民正音 – literally means “the correct sounds for the instruction of the people”) . King Sejong and his scholars also wrote “Huminjeongeum Haerye” (훈민정음 해례 / 訓民正音解例 – literally means “explanations and examples of Huminjeongeum”) which explained the principles of the alphabet and provided examples of its usage. “Huminjeongeum Haerye” has been included in the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register since 1997.  In 1910, the Korean linguist, Ju Si-gyeong, coined the term “한글” (hangeul) which has become the widely used term for the Korean alphabet.

Principles and characteristics of the Korean alphabet

The Korean alphabet is considered as a scientific writing system.  The basic letters of Huminjeongeum were 5 consonants “ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ, ㅇ” and 3 vowels “•, ㅡ, ㅣ”.  The 5 basic consonants were created based on the shapes of a person’s speech organs when pronouncing the consonants as follows:

  • ㄱ depicts the root of the tongue blocking the throat;
  • ㄴ depicts the outline of the tongue reaching the upper palate;
  • ㅁ depicts the outline of the mouth;
  • ㅅ depicts the outline of the front teeth; and
  • ㅇ depicts the outline of the throat.

9 additional consonants were created from these basic consonants by adding additional strokes to them based on the strength of the sounds. You can watch this video for a more detailed explanation of the consonants.

On the other hand, the basic vowels were created based on the images of the heaven, land and man. “•” represents the roundness of the heaven,  “ㅡ” represents the flat land, and “ㅣ” represents a standing man.  The other vowels evolved from the variations of these basic vowels.  You can watch this video for a more detailed explanation of the vowels.

A Korean syllable is formed by combining the consonants and vowels to represent the sound of the relevant word.  It is divided into 3 parts: choseong (초성 – initial consonant), jungseong (중성 – middle vowel) and jongseong (종성 – final consonant).  In this way, thousands of words can be created.  It is also quite easy to approximate the sounds of foreign words by using the Korean alphabet.  In fact, with increasing contact with global community, South Korea has incorporated many new words and phrases imported from foreign countries like English, German, French and Japanese into its everyday speech.  Such words were transliterated phonetically into Korean words, for example, “아이스크림”(ice-cream), “뮤지컬”(musical), “컴퓨터”(computer), “버스”(bus), “인터넷”(internet), etc.

On the other hand, given the South Koreans’ craze for learning English, they have increasingly used English words transliterated phonetically into Korean even if there are already Korean words with the same meaning, for example, using “티켓”(ticket) instead of “표” (pronounced as “pyo”), “와인” (wine) instead of “포도주” (pronounced as “podoju”), “브레드” (bread) instead of “빵” (pronounced as “ppang”), etc.  This has also given rise to “Konglish” words which are derived from English words and used only in South Korea. The Konglish words may have meaning very different from the original English words, for example, “커닝” (cunning) meaning “cheating (in the exam)”, “미팅” (meeting) meaning “blind date”, “서비스” (service) meaning “freebies”, “탤런트” (talent) meaning “TV star”, “아이 쇼핑” (eye shopping) meaning “window shopping”, etc.

As hangeul is simple and has only 24 letters (with 10 vowels and 14 consonants), it is easy for anyone to learn it.  In the Huminjeongeum Haerye, it was written that the letters were so simple that the wise could master them in one morning and even a fool could learn them in ten days.  In fact, when the alphabet was invented, its critics called it “아침글” (“achimgeul’ – literally means “morning letters”) or “암글” (“amgeul” – literally means “women’s letters”).  It was called “achimgeul” because it could be learned in one morning.  “Amgeul” meant that even women who had no academic training at that time could easily learn the alphabet. Nowadays, illiteracy is virtually non-existent in South Korea.  The UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize, funded by the South Korean government, was also established in 1989 and is given to individuals and groups who make contributions toward eradication of illiteracy on 8 September every year.

Hangeul as a theme in arts and pop culture

The Korean TV drama, 뿌리깊은 나무 (Tree With Deep Roots), aired in 2011, was about the story of a royal guard investigating murder cases which happened in the palace while King Sejong was in the process of inventing the Korean alphabet. In the TV drama, the principles behind the Korean alphabet were also explained.  You can watch the teasers of this drama by clicking the links below:

Tree With Deep Roots 1st Teaser

Tree With Deep Roots 2nd Teaser

Tree With Deep Roots 3rd Teaser

The Milmul Modern Dance Company had a dance performance called “Hangeul Dance” in which the dancers used their bodies to represent the hangeul letters.  You can watch this video to understand the concept behind the performance.

Hangeul has also been incorporated in the designs or patterns of different daily items like bags, ties, bottle-openers, lamps, etc. You can watch this video to see the different items incorporating hangeul.

Hangeul Day and National Hangeul Museum

In South Korea, 9 October of every year is designated as the Hangeul Day (한글날) to commemorate the creation of hangeul.  It was designated as a national holiday since 1949 until it was struck off the national holiday list in 1991.  To help promote hangeul both inside and outside South Korea, the day has been designated as a national holiday again since 2013.  There are celebration events held around Hangeul Day and people also like to visit the statute of King Sejong the Great and “The Story of King Sejong” (세종이야기) Exhibition Hall at the Gwanghwamun Square on Hangeul Day.  You can visit this website to get more information about “The Story of King Sejong” Exhibition Hall.

The National Hangeul Museum has been opened in Yongsan (which is near the National Museum of Korea) and you can find nearly 10,000 Hangeul-related artifacts there.  There are also multimedia devices and programs to help visitors understand the basics of hangeul.  You can get further details of the museum by visiting its website.

If you visit South Korea, don’t forget to visit the National Hangeul Museum to get to know more about hangeul and also visit King Sejong the Great at the Gwanghwamun Square to pay respect to this great king! 🙂

Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 26 May 2015.  Watch this space!

 

References:

Lee Sun-young, “Celebrating the beauty of hangeul“, The Korea Herald, 2014-10-08

Kim Bo-eun, “Hangeul Day to become a national holiday again“, The Korea Times, 2012-12-24

Daniel Tudor, Korea: The impossible country, Tokyo; Rutland, Vermont; Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2012, pp. 209-210

Chung Ah-young, “Hangeul week“, The Korea Times, 2009-10-08

Richard Harris, Roadmap to Korean (2nd ed.), Korea, Seoul: Hollym Corp., Publishers, 2005

A guide to Korean Cultural Heritage,  Korean Information Service, Korea: Seoul, 2001, pp. 45-57

 

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