How Korean Language (Hankul)was Invented

BEFORE Hankul was created, the Korean language did not have its own script. For more than a thousand years, educated Koreans wrote their language using Chinese characters. Over the years, however, various attempts were made to devise a better writing system. But since all of them were based on Chinese characters, only the well-educated could use them.

An Alphabet Ordered by a King

In the 15th century C.E., King Sejong of the Korean Yi dynasty began to contemplate the frustrations of his subjects who could neither read nor write. Most had no way of appealing to the authorities with complaints except orally. This problem perplexed King Sejong, who is reputed always to have given a listening ear to the common people.

Hence, King Sejong spearheaded the creation of an alphabet that would both suit spoken Korean and be easy to learn and use. The completion of this project was announced in 1446. In the preface of his proclamation, King Sejong stated: “Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.”

Sadly, some scholars opposed Hankul, precisely because it was so easy to learn! They derisively called it Amkul, meaning “women’s letters.” They disdained a system that could be learned even by women, who back then were not taught to read in the schools. This prejudice against Hankul persisted among upper-class Koreans for some time. In fact, more than 400 years elapsed before the Korean government declared that Hankul could be used in official documents.

Easy to Learn

One of the scholars who helped create the Korean alphabet said of Hankul: “The wise can learn it in one morning, and even the unwise can learn it in ten days.” In fact, some of Hankul’s early opponents disparagingly called the alphabet Achimgul—“morning letters.” They considered Hankul too simple for them because it could be learned in a single morning!

In any event, the ease of learning Hankul has helped virtually to eradicate illiteracy from Korea. Indeed, by the time they enter school, most children have mastered it. What is more, in Korean schools there are no spelling contests! Why not? Because Hankul represents the sounds of Korean speech so accurately that writing them down correctly as you hear them presents no challenge.

Hankul can even be used to write non-Korean words. Would you like to try it? Although the accompanying charts do not show all the details, they may at least help you to write your own name in Hankul. In that way you can experience firsthand the versatility of the alphabet that can be learned in a single morning!

HANKUL CONSONANTS AND VOWELS

CONSONANTS:

ㄱ (g,k)

ㄴ (n)

ㄷ (d,t)

ㄹ (r,l)

ㅁ (m)

ㅂ (b,p)

ㅅ (s)

ㅇ *

ㅈ (ch,j)

ㅊ (ch’)

ㅋ (k’)

ㅌ (t’)

ㅍ (p’)

ㅎ (h)

VOWELS:

ㅏ (ah)

ㅑ (yah)

ㅓ (ǒ)

ㅕ (yǒ)

ㅗ (o)

ㅛ (yo)

ㅜ (u)

ㅠ (yu)

ㅡ (ǔ)

ㅣ (i, as in “machine”)

AN EXAMPLE OF MULTIPLE VOWELS

ㅓ (ǒ) + ㅣ (i)  = ㅔ (e)

*The consonant ㅇ is silent except as a final consonant, when it is pronounced “ng.”

The vowels ǒ, yǒ, and ǔ are pronounced with a tight smile; o, yo, u, and yu are said with pursed lips. The consonants ch,’ k,’ t,’ and p’ are accompanied by an h sound.

WRITING KOREAN WORDS

All Korean syllables consist of two or three parts: an initial sound, a middle sound (a vowel or vowels) and, usually, an ending sound. Words are made up of one or more syllables. Each syllable is written inside an imaginary box, as shown below. The initial sound (a consonant or the silent ㅇ) is written at the top or upper left. If the middle vowel is vertically shaped, it is written to the right of the initial sound, while horizontally shaped vowels are written under it. Letters may also be doubled, adding stress, and multiple vowels may be compressed and written alongside each other. If the syllable has a final consonant, it always appears in the bottom position. In this way, thousands of different syllables can be represented with Hankul.

EXAMPLES:

ㅅ (s)  + ㅗ (o)  = 소 (so) cow

ㅅ (s)  + ㅏ (a)  + ㅇ (ng)  = 상 (sang) prize

ㄱ (k)  + ㅗ (o)  + ㅁ (m)  = 곰 (kom) bear

ㅁ (m)  + ㅗ (o)  + ㄱ (k)  = 목 (mok) neck

ㅅ (s)  + ㅏ (a),

ㄹ (r)  + ㅏ (a)  + ㅇ (ng)  = 사랑 (sa-rang) love

The Korean Alphabet

In the days of King Sejong, the Hankul alphabet consisted of 28 letters, of which 24 are still in use. Among them, 14 are consonants and 10 are vowels. The five basic consonants resemble the parts of the mouth and throat used to produce them: ㄱ (g, k), the arched tongue touching the back of the palate; ㄴ (n), the tip of the tongue curled up to touch the front of the palate; ㅁ (m), the mouth, viewed from the front; ㅅ (s) the teeth; ㅇ (ng), the open throat. Strokes are added to these basic consonants to represent other related consonants—those produced with the mouth in approximately the same position.

The vowels symbolize the round sky with a dot (•),* the flat land with a horizontal stroke (ㅡ), and a standing man with a vertical stroke (ㅣ). These were to represent the vowels produced with the tongue in the front, middle, and back positions.

*In modern Hankul, this letter is not used.

[Diagram]

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