Articles > History of Hangul, the Korean alphabet

by Alexis Ulrich  LinkedIn

A bit of history

Sejong the Great, fourth king of the Joseon dynasty

When Sejong the Great, fourth king of the Joseon dynasty, came to power in 1418, Korean is practically an oral language for the majority of Koreans. Indeed, the aristocracy and the administration use classical Chinese characters (hanmun) to write it, while the middle classes use Chinese characters to phonetically transcribe Korean, the idu script, the two systems being incompatible.

Even today, 1807 basic Chinese characters (the hanjas) are taught between middle school and high school, while Hangul has only 14 consonants and 10 vowels, called jamos (자모), to which we need to add 5 double consonants, 11 compound vowels, and 11 consonant clusters if we want to be comprehensive, so 40 letters in total.

But let’s go back to 1446, when Sejong published his work “Correct sounds for the instruction of the people”, written in classical Chinese, where he described the script of the same name, the Hunmin Jeongeum (훈민정음). He invents this alphabet alone, which he will be reproached by the scholars of his court to whom he presents it in 1443, i.e. 3 years before promulgating it. The anniversary of the publication date, October 9, is celebrated as Hangul Day in South Korea, and on January 15 as Chosŏn’gŭl Day in North Korea.

The alphabet itself will not take the name of Hangul until 1912, the term will be invented by linguist Ju Si-gyeong who will work on the standardization of the language. In North Korea, it is called Chosŏn’gŭl, named after the Chosŏn period, another spelling for Joseon.

Consonants and vowels

In this new writing system, the consonant design represents the tongue and mouth and groups them phonetically. We find the velar consonants ㄱ [k] and ㅋ [kʰ], the alveolars ㄴ [n], ㄷ [t], ㅌ [tʰ], and ㄹ [r]/[l], the bilabials ㅁ [m], ㅂ [p], and ㅍ [pʰ], the fricatives ㅅ [s], ㅈ [c] (formerly [ts]), and ㅊ [cʰ], et and the glottals ㅇ [ŋ] and ㅎ [h].

As for the vowels, they are drawn with a horizontal line that represents the Earth (Yin), a dot for the Sun (Yang), which will later evolve into a small horizontal or vertical line, and a vertical line representing Man, a neutral element between the two opposing and complementary forces of Yin and Yang.

A writing grid

the word Hangul written in Hangul

Hangeul is both an alphabet and a syllabary: each syllable is constructed with jamos and is positioned in a grid, alternating consonants and vowels.

Here is for example the word Hangul written in Hangul: 한글.

Each word begins with an initial consonant, even though it may be the null consonant hieut which corresponds to a silent h when it begins with a vowel, as it is the case here. Consonants and vowels are alternated in the grid (double consonants and vowels occupy the space of a single letter).

From interdiction to official recognition

In 1504, Yeonsangun, the tenth king of the Joseon dynasty, banned the teaching and use of Hangul when his tyrannical policies led to posters written in this script. However, Hangeul persists in the female population which does not have access to Chinese studies, until the birth of a female novel literature in the XVIIth century.

It is under the occupation of Japan at the end of the XIXth century that modern Korean becomes the official language to replace written Chinese. At the end of the Second World War, Hangul allowed the literacy of the population. But it is only in 1995 that Korean newspapers stop using sinograms.