Hangeul Day

Today is Hangeul Day, a holiday that celebrates the Korean alphabet. Hangeul ("Korean script") is special because, unlike every other alphabet in the world, it was created---"created" as in someone sat down and carefully thought about each and every sound in the language, then designed a symbol to represent all those sounds, and then, when it was ready, unveiled the new writing system to the population. Isn't that amazing? And the person who did all this is a man known today as King Sejong the Great.

King Sejong the Great was the fourth king of the Joseon Period, reigning from 1418 until his death in 1450. He was a King who genuinely cared about his citizens, creating loan systems for farmers who had a bad season and grants for students' education. He sponsored the development of many scientific tools, like the rain gauge, water clock, sundial, and some astronomical maps. Because his reign was so plentiful in its achievements, it's now known as the Golden Age of Korea.

While he's known for many achievements, his greatest was definitely the design and creation of Hangeul. Before Hangeul, Korea used Chinese characters to represent the sounds of the Korean language. This was called Hanja. The same symbol was used in Chinese, Japanese (where it was called Kanji), and Korea to represent the same word, but all three languages would have different pronunciations. It was very awkward, however, because Chinese grammar is very different from Korean and the symbols didn't always represent the Korean sounds and structure accurately. The script was also very complex and therefore difficult to learn. Only the educated were literate. King Sejong, recognizing the need for equality, decided to create a new writing system so that all his citizens could read and write. It's not sure of King Sejong created the script himself or simply organized and managed scholars to do the work for him, but King Sejong, nonetheless, usually gets the credit for this linguistic invention.

King Sejong unveiled the writing system in 1446, supposedly on 9 October, in a book called, Hunminjeongeum, meaning "The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People," which at the time was also the name of the language. It had 28 symbols to represent the sounds of the Korean language, though now the alphabet stands with 24 symbols: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The elite, threatened by the thought of educated commoners, fought against the script at first, though King Sejong prevailed and the script was adopted for official use.

hangeul  art at the National Museum of Contemporary Art

hangeul art at the National Museum of Contemporary Art

Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scripts are quite different from each other. The Chinese script is logographic, meaning each character represents a morpheme (a word or affix).  The Japanese script is syllabic, so each character represents a syllable sound. The Korean script, according to linguist Geoffrey Sampson, is featural. This means that each character represents the featural elements that make up phonemes---which sounds complicated, but just means that each character represents the shape of the mouth when making each sound. This is the only alphabet in the world to do so. Try this: make an "n" sound---the tip of your tongue hits the roof of your mouth at the front, just behind your teeth. This is represented in the Hangeul symbol for the "n" sound: ㄴ(King Sejong pictured the speaker facing left). The "m" sound in Hangeul is represented as ㅁ, which is related to the Chinese character for "mouth" and loosely represents the shape of the mouth. But the greatness of Hangeul doesn't stop there. Each character is combined into syllable units to ease pronunciation, thus combining two different alphabet systems into one.

I taught myself how to read Hangeul by riding the subway: each stop is announced on the speakers and written above the doors, so I would listen and read and repeat the names quietly to myself, trying the match the sounds with the symbols. It was a slow process; it was months before I could read with confidence. But, with the more efficient education process of reading a textbook, learning to read Hangeul can take just one day. Now I read all the Hangeul I can find, even though I rarely understand what I'm reading.

I find Hangeul to be a much clearer writing system than our English alphabet. Sometimes, when reading signs or product names that are written in the English alphabet, I get confused over pronunciation: Is that a long a sound or a short a sound? Hangang: is it han-gang or hang-ang? I look for the Hangeul version to help, knowing that there's one pronunciation for each character and the syllables are divided for me. (It's han-gang with short a sounds, by the way, and it means "Han River.")

After the Japanese colonization in the early 20th century when the script was banned, Hangeul has emerged as Korea's only written script. (The only place I see Hanja is in the subway, where it's written on station signs along with English.) Most Korean personal names can be written in Hanja, but this practice is quickly fading with the younger generations, who are choosing native Korean names for their children. In 1989, UNESCO has recognized the uniqueness and importance of Hangeul. Every year, a prize of $20 000 is awarded to people fighting illiteracy with the UNESCO King Sejong Literary Prize. This year, the prize went to People's Action Forum in Zambia, which uses the local language to educate rural women in its literacy programs.

Today, Korea has one of the highest literacy rates, and modern linguists sing Hangeul's praises as the most scientific language in the world. Hangeul Day, celebrated each year on 9 October, reminds Koreans how special their language is, not only to their country, but to the world.