Tomorrow, the 9th October is Hangeul day! A day where the Korean alphabet is celebrated and promoted. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Korean language, looking at a completely different alphabet system can be daunting, and learning it can seem like a MASSIVE and time costly task. But never fear! Hangeul was specifically developed and designed to be quick and easy to learn by King Sejong the Great! So lets take a moment to discover what makes this alphabet system so great and why it deserves to be celebrated.
What makes the Korean writing system different from other Asian languages, such as Japanese and especially Chinese, is that it has a distinct alphabet rather than thousands and thousands of characters you just have to memorise. The Korean alphabet was carefully developed with originally 28 letters, but today only 24 consonants and vowels are in use, a very similar amount to our own Roman alphabet. But each of these characters was specifically designed to be logical and straight forward, so that it was an alphabet system that could be learned by all people, from nobility to the peasantry. And even though there are only 24 consonants and vowels in the Korean alphabet, it boosts the possibility of 11, 172 syllables! Fun Fact: Hangeul actually means ‘Great Script’ – a perfect name for it!
King Sejong, or Sejong the Great, is a huge name in Korean history. Known for his innovation and intelligence, it was this King who decided that the Korean people needed their own distinctive alphabet, rather than using Chinese characters (Hanja). King Sejong felt it was important for Korea to have its own writing system for ‘cultural independence’ and to ensure the continuing longevity of the country’s own culture. Chinese characters were difficult to use with the Korean language, and usually only male nobility had the time and resources to learn the language which meant most of Korea was illiterate. King Sejong wanted to put an end to this and created Hangeul for all people. In the Haerye, Hangeul was described as being so well and logically thought out that “a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.” We’re thankful to say that when learning this ourselves, it only took a few hours – we’re saved from the category of a stupid man!
By commissioning an alphabet that everyone could use, it would mean the lower classes, who weren’t able to learn Chinese characters, could now use this alphabet to write down and communicate their own thoughts and opinions. This did cause some upset in the elite noble classes, who thought that Hangeul was ‘vulgar’ and came up with derogatory names for the Hangeul system. As you can imagine, being literate was some what of a sign of social status, and the Hangeul system was perceived to be a threat to their status as now any commoner was able to read and write. However, Hangeul won out in the end and is now more popular than ever!
The alphabet itself is thought to have been created by ‘The Hall of Worthies’. This ‘Hall of Worthies’ was made up of a group of scholars who had been selected by King Sejong because of their talents and minds. The project to create this new alphabet was completed late 1443 to early 1444. In 1446, a document called the Hunmin Jeongeum, or ‘The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People’, was published, explaining the designs of the alphabet. This document was published on the 9th October, hence Hangeul day!
Korean script is written from left to right, horizontally, which is another similarity with our own alphabet. The big difference is the fact that Hangeul is written in syllable blocks rather than one letter following another, like in our alphabet system. For example, ‘Hangeul’ in Hangeul is 한글. This is two syllables made up of ‘han’ 한 and ‘gul’ 글, where the first syllable is comprised of ᄒ/h,ᅡ/a and ᄂ/n, and the second is made up of ᄀ/g, ᅳ/eu and ᄅ/l. The chart on the left shows the vowels and consonants and then the combinations in which they can be combined to form syllable blocks. We had a look round on the internet and found this handy site where you can learn online. It has sound clips of pronunciations etc, and even show you the correct way to write each letter. If you have some spare time, why not try it out and see how it goes!
Learning Hangeul is fun, interesting and (relatively) easy. We can guarantee this as Korean language students ourselves! If you’re thinking ‘I can just read the romanisations, there’s no need to learn Hangeul’, please do consider giving Hangeul a chance. Reading romanisations of Korean words can be ridiculously confusing. Some short words can turn out to be crazily long and complicated when romanised because of double letters and letter grouping, and very often romanisations aren’t accurate. It’s much, much easier to read Hangeul than romanisations. In addition, it’s always more useful to read a language in its own alphabet, and it will give you a more in-depth understanding of the language!
So, if you’re ever in Seoul, don’t forget to pay your respects to the man himself and visit the MASSIVE statue of Sejong the Great, between Cheonggyecheon and King Sejong’s home Gyeongbokgung Palace. The alphabet is even engraved onto it as a reminder of his amazing contributions to the nation. Can you spot the few characters that are no longer in use? So on this Hangeul day, lets all take a moment to remember the brilliance of King Sejong, SEJONG THE GREAT!