Knowledge is Power - The Origin and Historical Usage of the Korean Alphabet, Hangeul

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The Korean alphabet, hangeul, has been widely praised as being one of the most scientific and easiest to learn scripts in the world. However, less is known about the history behind hangeul and its place in Korean society after its creation in the mid-15th century.

Until the mid-15th century, Koreans had relied upon Chinese characters as their means of written language because no other options were available. As a consequence, the majority of Korean vocabulary today has its roots in Chinese. However, Korean and Chinese come from entirely different language families. Therefore, classical Chinese could not accurately convey native Korean word order, verb conjugation, prepositions, honorifics, or native vocabulary.

By the Three Kingdoms period, scholars had developed systems for annotating or creatively utilizing Chinese characters to convey the Korean language, such as Hyangchal, Idu, and Gugyeol. Hyangchal used the pronunciation of Chinese characters to convey the sound of native Korean words and followed Korean word order, while Gugyeol added annotations to classical Chinese texts to help Korean readers understand the grammar. However, these systems were difficult to learn and imperfect at best. Therefore, commoners did not have the resources to become literate.

Sejong, the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty, deeply valued Confucianism and science and sought to educate the masses about Confucian ethics, farming techniques, medicine, and more. However, with a largely illiterate populace, this was a challenge. Therefore, Sejong ordered the Hall of Worthies, a royal research institute established in 1420 and staffed by the most talented scholars of the time, to develop a written script that could accurately convey the Korean language and be easily learned by commoners. However, Sejong knew that creating such a writing system would not be appreciated by members of the ruling class, whose literacy in Chinese characters allowed them to maintain their social power. So, the project was undertaken in secret.

The script was invented in 1444 (1443 in the lunar calendar) and officially proclaimed in 1446 as the "Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People" (Hunminjeongeum) in a document of the same name. The document explains Sejong’s rationale for creating the script, the logic behind it, as well as a manual of how to use it. The Hunminjeongeum demonstrates a remarkable understanding of linguistics for the time and is highly systemized. Its consonants are grouped by phonological similarity and designed to look like the shape the tongue and mouth make when generating the consonant, while the vowels are grouped into bright and dark sounds and based on the concepts of heaven, earth, and human. Consonant and vowels are grouped together into morpho-syllabic blocks.

Immediately following the invention of Hangeul, various works in the script were produced by the government to be promulgated to the people. These included books on Confucian ethics, farming methods, and more and were found to be highly effective as educational tools. As expected, some scholars rejected the legitimacy of the script. Even the paranoid tyrant King Yeonsangun saw it as a threat to his rule and ordered it to be no longer used. Classical Chinese continued to be the official writing system of the government and Hangeul was referred to as "vulgar script." However, despite its derogatory name, the script was nonetheless used widely by commoners, the upper class, and royals alike in personal correspondences, literature, and even legal contracts. It was especially popular with women, and therefore came to be referred to as "women’s script." Therefore, despite hangeul having not been adopted at the official writing system of Joseon, a large extant corpus of old documents in hangeul has been preserved until today.

In the late 19th century and particularly during the Japanese colonial period, Korean nationalists began standardizing hangeul spelling and producing hangeul newspapers. Some letters, which had been useful in the 15th century, were dropped as those sounds were no longer a part of modern spoken Korean. They also gave the script the name we know today – hangeul, meaning "great writing." Following liberation, hangeul became the official national script of both North and South Korea. In North Korea, only hangeul – called "joseongeul" there – is used and native Korean words are preferred over Sino-Korean ones whenever possible. In South Korea, Chinese characters can still be seen mixed with hangeul in many newspapers and books. Many of the older generation still see knowledge of Chinese characters as a necessary part of education and a sign of status, however young South Koreans, who receive elementary education on basic Chinese characters, prefer hangeul.

[Follow Korean scientific principles (K-HERITAGE) - On Hangeul]

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  • Lee, Ji-young. 2013. Hangeul in the Understanding Korea Series. Academy of Korean Studies.