Last October 9 in Korea was Hangeul Day. For the two or three people in the background who are lost, Hangeul is the Korean alphabet. But why establish a holiday for an alphabet? Because Hangeul is not just a simple alphabet, a whole story is hidden behind it and it is this story that we will discuss today!

Hangeul, one of the most unique creations of the nation, was introduced in 1443 by King Sejong (r. 1418-1450), the 4th king of the Joseon dynasty. In order to help all commoners to easily read and write this new alphabet, Hunminjeongeum (meaning “Proper sounds to instruct the people” in Korean) was created. The name of the language was changed to the current Hangeul in the 20th century.

【 Photo: Statue of King Sejong 】

【 Photo: Hunminjeongeum 】

Hangeul is a series of scientifically designed characters. The alphabet is composed of basic consonants and vowels, each with a set sound, and a dot or a line added to form more sounds. The 5 main consonants (ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅅ, ㅁ, ㅇ) imitate the shape the lips and tongue make when producing that particular sound, while the 3 main vowel components (ㆍ, ㅡ, ㅣ) symbolize the sky, the earth and mankind respectively. Originally composed of 17 consonants and 11 vowels, only 14 consonants and 10 vowels are used in modern Hangeul.

Hangeul, as a written language, did not have any influence from pre-existing writing systems. The language is very easy for all to learn, evidenced by Korea’s illiteracy rates being one of the lowest in the world. Hangeul is one of the most proud cultural assets of Korea and thus designated October 9 as Hangeul Day, to memorialize and celebrate the invention of the alphabet. In addition, the UNESCO inscribed Hunminjeongeum Haerye; The Hangeul Manuscript, on the Memory of the World Register in 1997.

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This constructed script was ordered around 1443 by King Sejong the Great for the scholars of Jipyeonjeon to promote the literacy of the people and in particular of women then promulgated by this same king in 1446 to replace hanja (Chinese characters used until then ).

This writing was banned in 1504 by Sejong the Great’s successor, Yeonsangun , and finally rehabilitated in 1894 . Its use became widespread after the Second World War and made it possible to very quickly achieve literacy rates among the highest in the world at that time, in the two Koreas .

An alphabet to educate the people

Before the invention of Hangeul, Chinese characters were used for the script called Hanja. The study of Chinese characters was then reserved for the elites, which made literacy not or hardly accessible to the poorest people. The illiteracy rate was therefore high in the country, especially in the countryside.

It was in 1443 that King Sejong, fourth king of the Joseon dynasty, decided to remedy this problem. Its goal was to enable all Korean people to access writing and reading by creating an alphabet that was easier and faster to learn than Chinese. It was on October 9, 1446 that Hunmin Chongum (literally “The true pronunciation taught to the people”), the first name of Hangeul, was created. At that time, it is said about Hangeul that an intelligent man could learn it in one day and an idiot in ten.

An alphabet that is not unanimous

This new alphabet then attracted the wrath of intellectuals, arguing that only Hanja was able to transcribe Korean. The latter saw their status threatened by this new access to education. Shortly after, it is up to the government to oppose this new writing. In 1504, King Yeonsangun formally banned the use and learning of Hangeul. Hangeul then disappears from publications and the ministry in charge of research on the subject is abolished in 1506. However, the alphabet will continue its journey with the people, which will ultimately save them. And it was not until the end of the 19th century , beginning of the 20th century , that the term Hangeul made its official appearance, introduced by Chu Shigyong.

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Hangeul was again targeted during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1894-1945). Indeed, the Japanese authorities are trying to impose Japanese and Chinese instead of Korean. It was then forbidden in Korea to speak Korean, Japanese or Chinese were compulsory. At the end of the Second World War, North Korea imposed the systematic use of Hangeul, as for South Korea, it continued to make the two systems coexist, Hanja and Hangeul. It was not until 1995 that Korean newspapers stopped using sinograms.

Hangeul today

Many scientists have looked into the question of Hangeul, some even consider it to be a perfect writing system. Indeed, its writing is based on the form that our vocal organs take when we pronounce it. Difficult to understand ? Let’s take an example ! The symbol ㄴ corresponds to the sounds “n” and it is also the form that our vocal organs take when we pronounce it! A little diagram might be clearer…Hangul pronunciation

Today, even if Hangeul has become the official alphabet of Korea, Hanja is still taught but this teaching is mainly used to distinguish homophones as well as to write first and last names.

JamoNorth Korean nameSouth Korean name
gogeuk gieukGiyeok /其役 giyeok
you니은 nieun/尼隱 nieun
dodieut _디귿 / Chiwei digeut
Lrieul _리을 / Pear Otrieul
hairmieum mieum미음 / Meiyin mieum
hundredbieup _비읍 / Fei bieup
cowor _si clothes _
yes이응 ieung/異凝 ieung
trillion지읒 ( the ) jieut
congrat치읓 ( tooth ) chieut
lolkieuk (箕) kieuk
frametieut _ _ _ _
blood피읖 ( skin ) pieup
he히읗 ( shit ) hieut
  • 1. Some consonants are pronounced differently depending on whether they are at the beginning or the end of the syllables they form. For example, ㄱ is pronounced “gu” in 기 ( gi ) and “k” in 역 (yeo k )
  • 2. The syllable ”  시  ” is not pronounced si but shi (much like the sound chi in English). The transcription of this syllable by the Revised Romanization of Korean gives if while the Mc-Cune-Reichauer method writes “shi”.
  • 3. Consonant clusters are always placed at the end of a syllable. If the syllable is followed by a consonant, only the first consonant is pronounced. If the syllable is followed by a vowel, the two consonants of the group are pronounced, the second making a connection with the following vowel.
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Example: “  없다  ” will read eobda (the ㅅ is not pronounced) while “  없어  ” will read eopseo (the ㅅ is pronounced).

Sources: Wikipedia , , “History of Korea, from its origins to the present day” by Pascal Dayez-Burgeon

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