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Hangeul: A Scientific Alphabet

Aidan Cross

Monday, 9 October 2023

Find out the history behind the creation of the Korean alphabet and why it is so incredible to celebrate Hangeul Day (9th October).

Hangeul Day (9th October) in South Korea is a celebration of the Korean alphabet (한글), its creation by King Sejong the Great in 1443 CE and its proclamation in 1446 CE in The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People (훈민정음, Hunminjeongeum). The name Hangeul was coined in 1912 by Ju Sigyeong, a Korean linguist, with “han” (한) meaning “great”, as well as referring to Korea (한국), and “geul” (글) meaning “script”.


The Korean language was originally written using the Chinese characters called Hanja (한자), but, due to the differences between the two languages and the number of characters that had to be learned, only the most educated could read or write. King Sejong, therefore, created Hangeul to improve literacy amongst his people. However, the Korean elite saw this as a threat to their status and continued to see Hanja as the only true way to write Korean, referring to Hangeul disparagingly as Eonmun (언문), or “vernacular/vulgar script”. It was also created as a way to allow the lower classes to express their grievances against those in power, and its use become a revolutionary act. So much so that, in 1504, King Yeonsangun banned the study of Hangeul after commoners wrote documents criticising him. Its use was even more revolutionary during Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), as Japanese was made the official language in Korea, and the teaching of the Korean language was banned in schools in 1938. After Korea regained its independence in 1945, Hangeul became, and continues to be, a symbol of national pride and identity. Nowadays, South Korea is one of the most literate countries in the world, with a literacy rate of almost 98%.


The reason that Hangeul is so easy to learn is that it is a logical and scientific alphabet. Hangeul is a featural writing system (a term that was introduced by linguist Geoffrey Sampson to describe the Korean alphabet), meaning that the design of the letters is not arbitrary. Rather, it conveys the phonological features of the phonemes (sounds) that they represent. The shape of the consonants is based on articulatory phonetics. This mean that the consonants reflect the vocal organs used to make the sounds that they correspond to, as follows:

· ㄱ & ㄴ tongue

· ㅁ mouth

· ㅅ teeth

· ㅇ throat


Meanwhile, the shape of each vowel is based on the three basic elements in traditional East Asian philosophy, as below:

· ㅣ Person

· ㅇ Sky

· ㅡ Earth


In Hangeul, there are 24 basic letters made up of 14 consonants (ㄱ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅇ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅎ) and 10 vowels (ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ, ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ, ㅡ, ㅣ), as well as 5 double (or tense) consonants (ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ) and 11 complex vowels (ㅐ, ㅒ, ㅔ, ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, ㅢ), which are formed by combining the basic letters.


Now that you understand the history behind Hangeul and the importance of its creation, why not learn this incredible alphabet?

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