Korean History Project
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The Korean Language

Korean Script

HAN-GULKorea's written language uses Hangul exclusively. Roman alphabets, known as "Alpabet" (there is no 'f' sound in Korean) are occassionally used for universal technical or professional terms (CPU, RAM, DNA, UN, etc.), on road signs to assist foreign visitors and in English language newspapers.

Korea's earliest writing system was Hanja, a Korean adaptation of Chinese pictographs - symbols that depicted not sounds, but ideas - for the language of government and business. Although Hanja evolved as a consequence of centuries of Chinese rule and cultural influence in Korea, it was not entirely Chinese. Sometimes Koreans used the characters to represent their original meaning and sometimes simply to represent sounds. Not everyone could manage this task, since only Korea's upper-class were educated to read, write, and publish in Chinese. By the end of World War II, the pendulum had swung so far toward using Hangul that Hanja was relegated to academic work. Today, Hanja is virtually nonexistent.

King Sejong, 4th monarch of the Yi Dynasty (1418 - 1450), decided to devise a method of writing suitable for all Koreans, regardless of their class. This was unheard of in a time when Korea's literati spent most of their time trying to secure and enhance their own status over everyone else!  In 1440, he commissioned scholars of the Royal Academy to create a unique, simple, easily learnable phonetic alphabet. Three years later, after nearly 100 man-years of work, the scholars presented King Sejong with Hunmin-chongum, "The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People."  This simple alphabet of 28 characters (17 consonants and 11 vowels) emerged from a careful study of the shape or form of the speech organs (i.e. the mouth, the tongue, the throat) and the shape they take during speaking.

In 1446, the Royal Academy scholars presented Sejong with a second, much longer thesis that set down the principles behind the invention of the alphabet and its usage:  Hunmin-chongum Haerae, "Example and Explanation for the Correct Sounds for the Instruction of People."  Characters are stacked and combined into groups of two to five to create syllables. The syllables are grouped together from left to right to form words. The true artistry of their work lies in the fact that for about one-tenth of the language, the syllable closely resembles the Hanja character for the same word. In October 1446, King Sejong presented the Korean people an alphabet of their very own, an alphabet invented by Koreans for Koreans.

Because our language differs from the Chinese language, my poor people cannot express their thoughts in Chinese writing. In my pity for them I create 28 letters, which all can easily learn and use in their daily lives.
King Sejong, 1446

Almost overnight, Hunmin-chongum erased any distinction among Koreans in the area of communication and brought the social status of the under class dangerously close to the aristocracy. King Sejong's simple act of benevolence shook the very foundations of class-conscious Korean society. Early critics dismissed the new writing because they thought that no one could learn to read horizontally. For the next few centuries scholars insisted on using Hanja. The literati not only opposed the new script, they feared it, hated it, and wanted desperately to abolish the onmun, or "vulgar script."

The bright can learn the [Korean writing] system in a single morning, and even the not-so-bright can do so within ten days.
Chong In-ji, 1446

In the 19th Century, when a wave of nationalistic pride swept through Korea, Hunmin-chongum was renamed kungmun, or "national script."  Beginning in the 1880s, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic mission schools taught kungmun to Korean children (largely because it was easier for Americans and Europeans to learn than Hanja). When the Japanese occupied Korea in the early 1900s, they outlawed the use of kungmun as part of a program to erase the Korean culture. This dramatic move stimulated a renewed interest in kungmun, and in 1936, a dedicated group of diligent scholars from the Korean Language Research Society began working to preserve it. Their efforts paid off with the emergence of an alphabetic system called Hangul ( ), a term that means "Korean writing."  It quickly became a tool of resistance against the Japanese and found use in the everyday written language of newspapers, magazines, bibles, and menus.

Built on King Sejong's simple alphabet, Hangul has withstood the test of time, keeping the Korean language free of unintelligible dialects for nearly 600 years and making Koreans one of the most literate people on earth (over 98%). Hangul is one of the world's greatest creations and the only alphabet with its own national holiday!

Recognizing the limits of Hangul as well as the advantages of retaining some Hanja, modern written Korean uses a combination of the two scripts. The Republic of Korea's Ministry of Education directed Yonsei University in Seoul to compile a list of 1,800 essential Hanja to be taught in all middle schools and high schools. Today, the use of Hanja is seen as a mark of education and refinement, since most Koreans don't learn much more than the 1,800 Hanja characters unless they attend university. North Korea, which views Hanja as a form of cultural imperialism, has completely rejected this form of writing.

Transliteration

Despite its compact alphabet, the Korean language is difficult to transliterate (using the Roman alphabet to spell Korean words as close to their actual pronunciation as possible). There are two widely accepted standards for romanizing the Korean language:   the McCune-Reischauer System, first developed in 1939, and the Korean Ministry of Education System adopted in 1959. The McCune-Reischauer System is used primarily in the United States and other Western nations, while the Ministry of Education System has been used exclusively in Korea. Because English does not have some of the vowel and consonant sounds used in the Korean language, the McCune-Reischauer System is substantially different from English and takes a bit of getting used to. Korea revised its romanization system in 1984 along the lines of the McCune-Reischauer System so that both systems are now essentially the same. With two very different writing systems, and the absorption of a third westernized" alphabet, Hanguk-mal serves as the time honored constant in Korean culture.

Transliteration has not only given Korea's children another "language" to learn, but it has also caused some rather fundamental language problems. Hangul was designed to put an image of sound on paper, which it does very well. There was never an emphasis put on spelling, a fact that made it very difficult to produce standardized dictionaries. This was not a real problem since Koreans respond to the "sound" of the words they read, not the spelling. The first standardized publication of Korean dictionaries did not occur until 1972. In a nation whose language is so closely tied to its culture, the advent of computer technology is putting a new emphasis on spelling, transliteration, and alphabetization. Where Western nations see the computer as fueling a new generation gap, many Koreans see the creation of a culture gap. When Korea's elder generation see children writing in the Western alphabet, they shake their heads and say Korea is dying.

The Korean Alphabet

If there were a prize for the most sensible script to use in writing Korean, Hangul script would be a top contender, since it fits the Korean language superbly. Hangul is a true alphabet that is also a table of spoken syllables. All symbols of Hangul are written from top to bottom and left to right. Korean words are "built" by combining from two to five syllables, each syllable always beginning with a consonant and written in order from left to right and from top to bottom. This feature makes it possible to write Korean from top to bottom or from right to left, without having to rotate the letters. There are about 2,300 possible syllables that can be created in this manner. Unlike the English language, Korean words rarely consist of more than two or three simple syllables. Starting out is a little difficult, but with practice Hangul is much easier to read than transliterated Korean. Furthermore, it is easier to read Korean than to speak or listen to the language.

Over the centuries three consonants and one vowel dropped out of use, leaving modern Hangul with just 24 characters that can be easily learned in just a few hours. Since Hangul's vowels and consonants are combined to indicate a single sound (phoneme), the modern Korean alphabet is actually comprised of 40 characters:

14 consonants  

5 double consonants(stressed)  

10 vowels  

11 dipthongs, or double vowels  

It is remarkable that Hangul has changed very little from its introduction in 1446 to its current usage. It remains one of the most scientific phonetic alphabets in existence and represents a perfect tool for expressing the Korean language.

 

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