The history of Hangul; the language that defines Korea.
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).
Enter the King
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(Chinese Character)
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
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.
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.
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 :