Korean 101: the history of Hangul

From the age of seven I have been introduced to many languages and cultures. We were encouraged to learn – well, pay attention to – Spanish, French, and German; however, none of these really interested me at the time. Unfortunately, during High School, my tyrant of a language teacher made the topic so unbearable that I rejected the whole subject for years saying things like ‘it is too hard’ or ‘what is the point’. It was not until A levels that I realised that this was a fatal error.

I realised that languages were a gateway to the culture’s values. Many countries – South Korea in particular – take immense pride in their language and culture, and when they can share this aspect of themselves with you they feel a deeper connection to you. By learning their language, you are showing respect toward their country and showing that you want to learn more about their way of life. Therefore, before even applying for my year abroad programme I recognised that if I wanted to be able to understand and study Korea’s cultural heritage, then learning about their language seemed integral.

Luckily, Hangul – the national language of Korea – is one of the easiest languages to learn as it has a phonetic alphabet consisting of 24 characters. When Sejong the Great first created the language in 1446, Hangul consisted of 28 characters; however, over time 4 of these slowly stopped being used leaving us with the 24 we use today. Another reason why Hangul is so easy to learn is that the shape of the characters corresponds to the shape your mouth makes when producing the sound! For example, the character for ‘m’ is a square box representing the speaker’s lips pressed together.

When first introduced, Hangul used a block style of writing, meaning each ‘block’ contained one consonant – or more – and one vowel, reading from top to bottom; however, as time progressed, Hangul adopted a more Western style. For example, the texts now read from left to right and use Western spacing, punctuation, and grammar. Sejong the Great, the 4th king of the Joseon Dynasty, is believed to have instructed a group of linguists to create the Hangul language. These linguists were considered masterly scholars at the time and were given a highly regarded role within ‘The Hall of Worthies’.

King Sejong decided to move away from the use of Chinese Hanja because he felt that the Chinese language could not ‘capture the true essence’ of Korean ideals, beliefs, and desires. He believed that the formation of a Korean language would provide the country with cultural independence from Korea’s neighbouring countries: countries that had frequently invaded and ruled over Korea. His secondary purpose for creating Hangul was to reduce the amount of illiteracy in his kingdom.

The establishment of Hangul as the primary language was a difficult one as many did not approve of the simplicity of the language. They wanted to reserve literacy for the rich and feared the power of the poor if they were given the ability of expression. Due to this, many literary scholars continued to use Hanja within their literary sphere, whilst Hangul was used by the common folk and women.

The 10th king, Yeonsangun, was among the first to ban Hangul because it was so easy to learn and spread information. From then onwards, Hangul was prohibited on and off until 1949 when Korea was given independence from Colonial Rule. Under the rule of its neighbouring countries, Korea was forbidden from using Hangul under the allusion that this would encourage cultural assimilation.

Interestingly, the term Hangul was first introduced in 1912 by Ju Sigyeong and means ‘great script’, before this the language was known as Hunmin Jeong-eum or Hunmin Chong-um. With their regained independence, the peninsular saw an increase in Korean nationalism which led to an increase in the use of hangul. For many, Hangul is a source of pride and embodies many of the country’s ideals so much so that it is a national holiday celebrated on October 9th each year. Perhaps this pride is what led to the renaming of the language.

In Korea it is famously said that a wise man can acquaint himself with the Hangul alphabet before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days. This really does ring true, in the space of a month I had not only picked up all the letters but a fair amount of basic vocabulary and grammar. Many are under the misconception that Hangul is difficult to learn as the alphabet is made up from symbols but when you are able to understand the origins of these symbols the language becomes much simpler to understand.

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