The Korean alphabet, also known as Hangul (한글) today, is a unique system that has garnered collective praise and is considered one of the most efficient alphabets in the world. It features a basic geometrical shape and consists of 14 consonants, 5 tense consonants, 10 vowels, and 11 complex vowels formed by combining the basic letters.
Hangul was proclaimed in 1446 under the original name Hunmin Jeongeum (훈민정음, 訓民正音), which translates to “the correct sounds for the instruction of the people.” It was created by King Sejong the Great, the fourth king in the Joseon Dynasty of Korea (1392 to 1897).
Before Hunmin Jeongeum was created, Koreans mainly used a right-to-left vertically written language consisting of Traditional Chinese characters with Korean pronunciation, also referred to as Hanja or Sino Korean, alongside other native phonetic writing systems.
As we all know, Traditional Chinese characters are one of the toughest to learn in the world, some of the characters are constructed with only one to two strokes, while the more complex ones can contain more than 40 strokes. This posed a problem to many lower-class people in Korea as the Chinese characters then, which were far more complicated than today’s simplified Chinese characters, were difficult to learn and understand.
Thus, in a bid to help more commoners become literate, King Sejong the Great created and promulgated the Korean Alphabet. The royal research institute made up of a group of selected scholars, called the Hall of Worthies, did not support this initially as they wanted to preserve the usage of Hanja which was deemed to be more sophisticated. King Sejong had to convince them to accept the use of Hangul so more commoners could benefit from being literate. A document published in 1446 explained that the design of the consonants mimic the shape and phonetic features of a person’s mouth when pronouncing them, and the vowels are created based on the principles of vowel harmony and yin and yang. He designed the Korean alphabet to help those with little or no education be able to easily learn how to read and write. Hunmin Jeongeum had 28 letters in total when it was first proclaimed. Today, only 24 are in use.
After the creation of Hunmin Jeongeum, it faced opposition from many scholars and aristocrats as they believed that Hanja was the only legitimate writing system, and saw Hunmin Jeongeum as a threat to their status. This opposition, and posters written in Korean put up by commoners criticising the 10th King Yeonsungun, who was regarded as the worst tyrant of the Joseon Dynasty, provoked him and led to the ban of the study and publication of Hunmin Jeongeum in 1504.
However, as poetry and novels written in the Korean alphabet began to flourish, Hunmin Jeongeum saw a revival in the late 16th century. Then, due to Korean nationalism and the Western missionaries’ promotion of the Korean alphabet, Hunmin Jeongeum was adopted in official documents for the first time in 1894. Elementary schools began teaching the Korean alphabet and using them in the textbooks, while the first newspaper was printed in both the Korean alphabet and English in 1896. During and after World War II, Hunmin Jeongeum continued to be taught in schools. In 1912, linguist Ju Si-Gyeong coined the term Hangul. After undergoing a few changes, North Korea made Hangul its official writing system in 1949 and banned the use of Hanja, while South Korea uses Hangul, and in some cases, Hanja characters.
Pronunciation of Hangul
Hangul cannot be represented easily using English letters or sounds and there is no perfect way to teach the pronunciation of the Korean alphabet through English. The sounds of the consonants of Hangul changes depending on their position — whether they appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a syllable. The vowels, however, do not change in pronunciation even with position changes.
But, due to its simplicity, it only takes a short period of time for anyone to learn the Korean alphabet and master its pronunciation.
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