About Korean Language
Seated in Gwanghwamun Square at the heart of downtown Seoul is a large statue of King Sejong the Great, fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Revered as Korea’s greatest monarch, his wise rule inspired a scientific and cultural renaissance. Chief among its innovations was the creation of Hangeul, the Korean language’s script. Today, Korea honors the 15th-century invention every October 9th on Hangeul Day. In observance of the upcoming national holiday, this month’s Speakers’ Corner takes a closer look at the ingenious script.
Today, with a literacy rate above 99 percent, it’s hard to fathom Korea in the mid-15th century, when literacy was the exclusive domain of a small number of aristocrats. At the time, Koreans used hanja, or Chinese characters, and transliteration was a cumbersome and complicated process.
In 1420, King Sejong established the Jiphyeonjeon. This group of scholars was tasked with creating a simple, yet scientific script accessible to the common man. Upon Hangeul’s public unveiling in 1446, a usage manual of sorts explained the script’s genius. “A wise man can acquaint himself with it before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”
Hangeul’s popularity has made it a target of tyrannical rulers and foreign powers over the centuries. Most recently during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), teaching Hangeul and even speaking Korean was prohibited. Despite colonization, globalization and Koreans’ zealous pursuit of English, Korea’s unique language and script enjoy robust health.
Worldwide, about 77 million people speak Korean as a native language. Many thousands more are non-native speakers who have studied Korean at universities, cultural centers and language institutes.
Perhaps because of its non-Latin script, many newcomers to Korean incorrectly refer to Hangeul letters as “characters.” In fact, Hangeul is a phonemic system of consonants and vowels that are presented in syllabic units. The ease with which letters and syllables are combined is why many linguists have praised Hangeul. In the words of author and linguist Insup Taylor, Hangeul is “the most perfect phonetic system devised.”
One of Hangeul’s most intriguing characteristics is its unique and featural design. For example, not only are the script’s 14 consonants and 10 vowels easily distinguishable by their shape, but the shape and stroke placement of each letter reflects how the sounds are produced in the mouth. Furthermore, Hangeul’s three basic vowel shapes of “ㅇ,” “ㅣ,” and “ㅡ” were conceived to imitate a round heaven, a flat earth and a human being. In Oriental philosophy, these three symbols are said to be the foundation for harmony among all things.