The history of Hangul; the language that defines Korea.

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You may think all east Asian alphabets are created equal. They must all stem from the same ancient source. Think again. Korea’s official writing system, this Korean alphabet (한글), is one of the world’s youngest alphabets in the world.

How young is young? A shade over five-hundred years (1446 CE). Considering that the Phonetician alphabet dates back three-thousand years (1050 BCE), that’s pretty young.

Since it’s inception, kings, invaders, and the societal elites have tried and failed to suppress it. Its phonetic alphabet persisted through a brutal thirty-five-year occupation, where the Japanese attempted to destroy all things Korean.

Today Hangul helps define the identity of the proud people who call themselves han-gu-gins (한국인; Koreans).

The Time Before Hangul

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The Time before Hangul

Before the 15th century, the preferred writing system in Korea was Hanja (漢字). These were Chinese characters brought over from Buddhist and Chinese literature.

The Korean ruling class adapted Hanja to suit their needs. They used Hanja for their bureaucracies, literature. and official record keeping.

Adapting Hanja

How did they adapt a foreign language writing system and use it for their own? Not easily.

Hanja and Chinese characters are logographic. Meaning, you can’t sound out the characters phonetically, as in Spanish, German, and English (sometimes).

Many Chinese characters derive from illustrations, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs. A brief sketch of a bird means bird. In this Chinese script, means mountain.

Before the creation of Hangul, Koreans used Hanja in two ways. First, they used characters as is. Many of the elite could speak and write in Chinese.

However, the Korean language was created and existed parallel to Chinese. Koreans wanted to preserve their uniqueness. They weren’t Chinese. Their words sounded different.

So, the Korean elite decided to adapt Hanja characters o Korean phonetically.

If a Hanja symbol sounded like a Korean word, Koreans used the symbol to represent the Korean word.

Imagine banana was a Chinese word that meant, well, banana. And, imagine Korea had a word pronounced vamama, which means ‘tax refund‘. Pre-Hangeul Korean’s might have written:

I can’t wait to get my ‘banana‘ so I can buy that sweet new iPhone.

Social Immobility

Confusing, right? Well, even today the average Chinese person must know around 8,000 characters to function in the world. Imagine life in Korea a couple of hundred years ago. No centralized education. The only written language is borrowed from another language but adapted to sound like Korean words.

Learning to read and write was a real barrier.

Education in Korea was based on Confucianism. If you weren’t a monk or had a top-tier bank account, Hanja was out of reach for the lower classes. Therefore, most people in Korea were illiterate.

Ordinary people couldn’t petition their government, write love letters, or learn about the world outside their villages. Their identity was limited to oral traditions. And, even for the elite, their part of their cultural identity was borrowed.

Enter the King

Sejong the Great (세종대왕)

If you take a stroll down Gwanghwamun Square (광화문광장) towards Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁) in the heart of Seoul, you’ll stumble upon a six-meter statue. Say hello to Sejong the Great, one of Korea’s most celebrated leaders.

Born in 1397, at the dawn of the Joseon Dynasty, King Sejong was a scholarly leader. He helped codify the calenders and organized the first farmer’s handbook to spread useful farming techniques across the peninsula.

Following his reformist tendencies, King Sejong brought a peasant inventor named Jang Yeong-sil (장영실) into his court. This drew the ire of the upper crust. They thought Jang Yeong-sil didn’t deserve such status.

However, King Sejong overruled their classism. With King Sejong’s assistance, Jang Yeong-sil went on to invent a catalog of useful inventions, including one of the first water gauges.

The Death of Hanja

King Sejong was a patriot. He thought if Korea were to advance and compete with other nations, it needed a way to express its own thoughts and ideas. It’s needed a system of writing that actually reflected the Korean language as spoken.

Korea needed something completely new, unlike the chains of the past. That meant, bye-bye Hanja.

The Birth of the Korean Alphabet- Hangul

Hangul (한글)

And King Sejong declared: KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.

This new system of writing needed to be straightforward. It needed to express Korea’s particular grammar structure. And, most importantly, it needed to reflect the sounds of its spoken words.

While English was brewed by centuries of Nordic, German, and French invasions, the written Korean language was invented.

Untied from the past, King Sejong and a small group of thinkers could eliminate linguistic messes born by centuries of compromise (e.g. knock, gnat, mnemonic). Words in the written language could reflect the sounds when speaking.

A logical system of writing was born. Hangul was born.

Fast Phonetics

Before we continue with our little history lesson, let’s review the mechanics of Hangul. Just like English assigns a sound to each letter, so too does Hangeul. Even better, the Korean alphabet doesn’t have silent letters, consonant pairs, or long and short vowels.

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Mouth Letters

Why does Hangul look like Hangul? It is said that each letter reflects the shape of your mouth when pronouncing them. Your tongue latches to the top of your mouth when pronouncing ㄱ (g sound). The ㅗ (o sound) letter mimics how your tongue curls and leaves space between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.

Any non-Korean speaker can look at the Korean alphabet- 24 letters in the phonetic chart and learn to read in an afternoon. (Understanding the meanings of the words is a whole other thing.)

Let’s take a look the Korean alphabet:

The phonetic Hangul chart showing consonants in the columns and vowels in the rows.

Learning Hangul is like math. Like a times table, trace a finger across the chart until they meet. Then, combine the vowels with the consonants.

  • ㄱ (g sound) + ㅏ (a sound) = 가 (ga sound)
  • ㄷ (d sound) + ㅗ (o sound) = 도 (do sound).
  • ㅎ (h sound) + ㅛ (yeo sound) = 혀 (hyeo sound)

There are strange vowel combinations (돼, ㅔ, ㅒ, ㅖ) and double consonants (ㅃ, ㅉ, ㄸ, ㄲ, ㅆ) that add more stress. Also, ㅇ makes no sound when in front of a vowel, as in 야 (ya). And, ㅇ makes a ng sound when ending a letter, as in 동 (dong).

Other than that, the letter you see equals the sound you make. It’s so easy. College backpackers or remote villages five-hundred years ago could pick up the Hangul chart and learn to read and write in no time.

The Impact of Hangul

On October 9 (now Hangul Day), 1446, the Hunminjeongeum (훈민정음) was published. Inside contained an instruction manual for Hangul.

King Sejong personally wrote the preface. He described the text as a way to answer the cries of the illiterate. He wanted to democratize written language and given everyone a shot at moving up the social ladder.

Hangeul was quickly adopted by the women and popular writers of the time, the lower classes. They could learn independently. Without formal schooling, they could express themselves with their own words and alphabet.

They didn’t need no education. They didn’t need no thought control.

Yangban (양반) Say What?!

However, Hangul wasn’t received well by the Yangban (양반). A class of aristocrats, government workers, and Confucian scholars, the Yangban held all the keys. They regulated and bureaucratized Korea’s government.

To become a Yangban, you needed to pass the gwageo (과거). This was a monster test that measured reading and writing in Hanja. The test required years of study and a deep bank account. Almost anyone could take and pass the exam. But, where’s your average peasant farmer going to get that scratch?

As you might have guessed, the Yangban were Hanja fanatics. For them, Hanja was the one true writing system to rule them all. It separated the (monetarily) superior from the (monetarily) inferior.

If the new peasant writing, were to infect their bureaucratic fortifications, Hangul might have spelled the end of their rule.

Bye-Bye Hangul

In 1504, a few years after Hangul’s birth, the newly empowered peasants threw up a few posters around town that mocked the king, Yeonsangun. He didn’t take too kindly. He banned the study and use Hangul completely.

The despotic Yeonsangun, went a step further. He limited the use of Hanja and murdered all of the ministers who protested, cutting off their limbs and killing their family members. (Yeonsangun‘s subjects overthrew and replaced him for obvious reasons.)

Hangul retreated into the folk underworld for a few centuries.

In the late 16th century, writers began using Hangul to write pop stories. This helped keep Hangul alive. People learned to read Hangul so they could check out the latest [Korean] Stephanie Meyer or [Korean] Danielle Steel.

In the 1890s, rampant corruption, mass illiteracy, and westerns at the gates brought about unrest in Korea. King Kojong (고종) had to make a change.

He established the Gabo Reform (갑오 개혁). This provisions of this reformation abolished slavery, threw out social classes and the Yangban, and endorsed a merit-based system of education and employment.

More importantly, the Gabo Reforms declared that all government documents be written in Hangul. Schools began to teach Hangul. Newspapers started printing the news in Hangul.

Here Come the Japanese

Japan annexed Korea in 1910. They declared Japanese the official language of Korea. They banned the teaching of Korean literature and forced Koreas into economic and sex slavery.

However, the Japanese wanted to keep their blood pure. They forbid Korean’s from taking Japanese names. They thought a wave of Koreans might infiltrate their borders and pass themselves off as Japanese.

The Japanese imperial government largely let Korea do its own thing. They allowed Hangul to be taught and studied in schools in universities.

After a few centuries of colloquial use by the brave Korean folk, Hangul was messy. It lacked a central organizing body for several centuries. There were some overgrown letterforms and grammar rules that needed trimming.

Through the efforts of groups like the Korean Language Society (한글 학회), reforms in 1912 and 1930 codified Hangul’s letters and orthography.

However, as WWII heated up, Japan tightened its grip. In 1938, Japan adopted a policy of assimilation. Korean culture was outlawed. Schools could no longer teach Hangul. All official documents were to be written in Japanese.

The Korean Language Society fought to keep the language alive by publishing and spreading of journals describing Hangul.

Here Come The Koreans

The year 1946. The fall of Imperial Japan brought Korea freedom. For the first time since it’s birth, Hangul became both the official language of the Korean government and the Korean people.

Though Korea split during the Korean War (한국전쟁), both North and South Korea declare Hangul their official language.

Fruits of King Sejong‘s labors bear fruit today. With it’s easy to read letters and logical based systems, both Korea’s declare their people nearly 100% literate.

The Korean alphabet-.Hangul helps define the people of this small peninsula as uniquely Korean. And, it aided South Korea in octupling it’s GDP and becoming a pop-culture and tech powerhouse.

If you would like to learn more about Korean history I recommend reading Bruce Cummings book:

Korea’s Place In The Sun.