Looking to learn a new language? While speaking Korean can be quite challenging, learning how to read Korean texts is actually quite easy. The official writing system of both Koreas is called “Hangul” or 한글날 which can help you navigate maps and menus, even if you can’t speak the language! In honor of the upcoming national holiday called “Hangul Day,” on October 9th in South Korea and January 15th in North Korea, this article is dedicated to the creation of the Korean alphabet and how the Korean alphabet works!
Hangul is one of the world’s most efficient writing systems. It is unique from other writing systems because it does not derive from any other existing script, it was created deliberately. Dating from the mid-15th century, Hangul is also one of the youngest alphabets in the world. So, how did Hangul come to be?
Before Hangul, Koreans used “Hanja” (classical Chinese characters) as their writing system. Since Chinese characters represent ideas rather than sounds, hanja failed to adequately express the complexity and nuances of Korean grammar. This made writing Korean words using Hanja an almost impossible task. As a result, only the nobility in Korea were literate.
In 1397, King Sejong the Great (fourth king of the Joseon dynasty of Korea) recognized the limits of using the Chinese script to express the Korean language and that it was the main reason why the Korean people were largely illiterate. He then sought the construction of an entirely new writing system, with the goal of having a much more efficient and easier to learn alphabet. In 1446, the new Korean script was born.
The original name of the language was "Hunminjeongeum," which translates to "a set of proper sounds for the education of the entire nation." The aristocratic class was strongly opposed to Hangul and subsequent kings of Korea even attempted to ban its study and usage. However, its ease of acquisition ensured its survival. By the late 19th century, Korean textbooks, newspapers, and even official documents were using Hangul.
Hangul is made up of of 24 basic letters, 14 of which are consonants (ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ) and 10 of which are vowels (ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ). Additionally, the Korean alphabet has 19 complex letters with 5 tense consonants (ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅉ ㅆ) and 11 complex vowels (ㅢ ㅚ ㅐ ㅟ ㅔ ㅒ ㅖ ㅘ ㅝ ㅙ ㅞ). These complex Korean vowels are formed by combining the basic vowels mentioned above.
Like most other alphabets, Hangul is phonetic. However, unlike other writing systems, Hangul represents the way that the tongue and lips were shaped when pronouncing their sounds.
Korean letters, called jamo (자모), are written in syllable blocks arranged in two dimensions, where each block always has exactly one Korean syllable. For example, writing “honeybee” in Korean (kkulbeol), would be 꿀벌, and not ㄲㅜㄹㅂㅓㄹ.
To better understand how to pronounce Hangul, it’s best to go to language learning apps such as Tandem where connecting with native Korean speakers will help you understand the pronunciation particularities of the Korean language.
Happy Hangul learning!