With the influence of the Korean wave, many fans want to learn the Korean language. But today, let us take a look back on the colorful history of Hangul (용국).
Did you know that among the East Asian languages, the Korean language is the easiest to learn? It will only take you days to learn the Hangul letters (Korean alphabet) without any hassle. It's no surprise since most Korean drama or K-pop fans know many Korean words without actually having formal lessons. This is a blessing for people like you who want to learn Korean.
But, the Korean writing system wouldn't be as easy as it is now if it wasn't because of King Sejong and the colorful history of Hangul. In this blog, we will travel back in time and learn the history of Hangul, or the Korean script. You will also learn more about Korean culture, Korean people, and Korean history.
Korean is the official language of the whole Korean peninsula consisting of North Korea and South Korea. There are also other Korean-speaking countries worldwide, like the US and other Korean diasporas. The Korean language is the 13th most spoken language in the world. Thanks to King Sejong the Great, the Koreans and other language enthusiasts can quickly learn the Korean language and Korean pronunciation easily. So, how did it all start?
During the Joseon Dynasty, the writing system used in Korea was Hanja (한자) which uses Chinese characters. This writing system is brought over from Chinese and Buddhist literature. Koreans adapt it and use it in their literature, official documents and records, and their bureaucracies, which will affect them later on.
Before Hangul was created, the Korean elite used Hanja as it was then they realized that the Korean words sounded different. So, the Korean elite chose to convert Hanja characters to Korean phonetically.
As the preferred writing system in Korea, Hanja was far from easy. Hanja characters combined with various phonetic writing systems did not mix well. Adapting to this foreign language system was difficult since Hanja and Chinese characters are logographic. This means that you can't pronounce the characters as you can in Spanish, German, or English. It doesn't also suit the Korean grammar style, and it has a large number of characters to learn.
Given this situation, only people who have access to higher education can only learn this writing system which is the elite, indeed not for commoners. With Korea's situation back then having no centralized education, learning to read and write, especially for commoners, was a real struggle. So, many Koreans are illiterate, and the worst part was their cultural identity was borrowed. Their identity was only limited to oral traditions without any written script.
If you have been to South Korea, you might have seen the huge statue of King Sejong the great resting in the Gwanghwamun Square (광화문광장) towards Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁). He is the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty. Well, he wouldn't be getting this huge statue for no reason. His contribution to Korean history, especially in the Korean language. Before that, let's have a short throwback about King Sejong's life.
King Sejong the Great (세종대왕) was born in 1397 during the Joseon Dynasty period. He is the third son of King Taejong and Queen Won-Gyeong. At first, his older brother, Grand Prince Yangnyeong, was the heir to the throne. But when King Taejong stripped Grand Prince Yangnyeong of his title, he made Sejong the heir of the throne with the title Grand Prince Changnyeong. He then ascended the throne in 1418 at the age of 21.
After King Sejong became a King, he selected many talented people to help him reach his goals for the country. His father, King Taejong, was a regent until he passed away. King Sejong then established the "Hall of Worthies with a vision of modernizing the country with new inventions.
King Sejong's thinking philosophy was based on the Neo-Confucianism philosophy. This philosophy emphasizes the importance of justice and righteousness between the sovereign and the subject. The emphasis was on education and more rational thinking. Many of the more spiritually based customs and beliefs of the time were discarded by Neo-Confucianism.
Koreans call him "Sejong the great." He is considered one of the greatest rulers in Korean history. He encouraged the development of Science and Technology, introduced measures to stimulate the economy, and helped Korean society progress in all kinds of ways possible.
King Sejong also assisted in codifying the calendars and publishing the first farmer's handbook to disseminate effective farming techniques across the peninsula. He was always there to help his people during trouble like floods and drought. He ruled with kindness and benevolence during his reign.
"A smart man can learn it before lunch, and a fool can learn it in ten days." - King Sejong
The reign of King Sejong the Great is considered the Golden Age of Korea. Aside from all his achievements mentioned above, there is one greatest thing that he is known for, which changed the lives of Koreans forever - the creation of Hangul, the Korean writing system.
Throughout his reign, King Sejong bemoaned that the ordinary people could not read and write due to their ignorance of the complicated Chinese characters used by the educated or those in noble classes/upper classes. He grasped their dissatisfaction with their inability to read or transmit their thoughts and feelings through written language.
King Sejong The Great noticed a growing divide between the educated and the ignorant in his realm. He realized that the nation needed a new writing system. This is what made him invent Hangul, a phonetic alphabet.
He set out to create a native script that the Korean people could readily learn and use, thinking about the literacy rate of his people and the growth of his country as a whole. It is believed that King Sejong ordered the Hall of Worthies to invent Hangul. But, the Veritable Records of King Sejong and the introduction of the Hunminjeongeum are among the records that claim he created the writing system himself.
The Korean word "Hangul" means "Great Script." Until the twentieth century, the script was known by the name Hunminjngm (Hunminjeongeum; loosely translated, "Proper Sounds to Instruct the People"), which was given to it by Sejong. On the other hand, North Korea calls it Chosŏn'gŭl.
The Hunmin Jeongeum was first published on October 9, 1446, and South Korea commemorates that date as Hangul Day. The term Hangul was coined in 1912 by Ju Si-gyeong, a Korean linguist.
Letters are made up of basic geometric shapes separated into vowels and consonants. In the beginning, Hangul consisted of 28 symbols, but four symbols were not needed, so they removed them. It is just 14 consonants and ten vowels referred to as jamos, to which we must add five double consonants, 11 compound vowels, and 11 consonant clusters to make a total of 40 letters.
Hangul letters are put together in syllabic blocks with at least one consonant and one vowel. This is in contrast to other East Asian writing systems like Chinese and Kanji, which use logographic characters in which each character represents a separate word.
After the creation of Hangul, people from the lower class or the commoners had a chance to be literate. They learned how to read and write Korean, not just the upper classes and literary elite. They learn Hangul independently without formal schooling or such.
Hangul has easily become popular and quickly adopted by the Koreans. This includes women, writers, and more. No matter what social class they belong to, people have learned a new opportunity to express their own words.
The Koreans also gained more sense of nationalism because they had a new alphabet that they could call their own. They no longer need to borrow from another language. Everything that they write, read, and speak is purely their own.
Although Hangul being the official writing system of Korea, really benefited many Koreans, the Korean elite first opposed it. Many of them believed that Hanja was the only legitimate writing system. The Chinese writing system appeared to be far more advanced and respectable.
They consider Hangul a threat to their status since Hangul is straightforward to learn and understand compared to Hanja. They were scared that because it was a made-up language, it would make them stand out from the rest of the world by employing a "second-rate" writing system. With this, you can infer that the language spoken by people is a status symbol.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Seeing Hangul as a threat to the upper classes, they had to take it down. So, it was banned just a few years after Hangul was born. The newly empowered peasants put up a few posters mocking the king, Yeonsangun, around town. It did not make him happy, so he outlawed the study and usage of Hangul.
Pop stories are well-loved by the Koreans during these periods. People follow the stories of famous pop writers, which keeps them entertained. During the late 16th century, writers began employing Hangul to produce popular stories in the late 16th century. This contributed to the survival of Hangul. With this, we can deny the power of the pen as an instrument to fight.
During King Kojong, Korea was facing a big problem brought by illiteracy, corruption, and the western people within their borders. This awakened his senses, and he felt the need to do something to fix all these problems. He did this by establishing a reform called Gabo Reform to abolish slavery and social classes and endorse a merit-based education and employment system.
But what does it has to do with Hangul? Gabo Reform also declared that all official government documents should be written in Hangul. In 1895, schools started to teach in Hangul, and in 1896, the first newspaper written in Hangul and English was printed. He realized that going back to Hangul from Hanja could somehow help solve the problems of illiteracy, corruption, and western influences and threats.
The journey of Hangul as the official Korean alphabet is far from over at this point. In 1910, Korea became an annex of Japan, and of course, they declared Japanese as the official language of Korea. The Japanese banned the teaching of Korean literature.
The Japanese have been pretty clever in their moves with the Koreans. They want to maintain their blood pure, so they don't let Koreans have Japanese names. They don't want the Koreans to come to their borders and enter their country as Japanese.
Korea was largely left to its own devices by the Japanese imperial administration. They made it possible to teach and study Hangul in schools and universities. The Japanese have stayed in Korea for a long time, so the centuries of colloquial use of the Korean language by the brave locals left Hangul in a messy situation. It lacked a central organizing body, and some excessive letterforms and grammar rules needed to be trimmed.
Groups like the Korean Language Society fought for the Korean language during that time, and in 1912 and 1930, Hangul's letters and orthography were codified. The characters were somewhat standardized, with minor revisions.
In 1938, Japan became more strict, and they adopted a policy of assimilation where Korean culture was outlawed. This time, it's worse because even the schools can no longer teach Hangul, and the official documents were ordered to be written using the Japanese language. During this time, the Korean language is hanging on a thread.
The Japanese empire brought a lot of struggles for the Korean language. But, in 1946, these struggles ended because this was the fall of the Japanese empire in Korea. Both the Korean government and the Korean people adopted Hangul as their official language.
Even though Korea was divided during the Korean War, North and South Korea declared Hangul their official language. In 1946, North Korea attempted to add a few more letters to the Hangul alphabet. Come 1949, North Korea established Hangul, its official writing system, outlawing the use of Hanja entirely. On the other hand, in South Korea, Hanja letters are nevertheless employed in some circumstances.
To recognize the historical creation of the Korean Alphabet Day, Koreans celebrate Hangul Day/Hangeul Day for South Korea and Chosŏn'gŭl Day in North Korea. It is celebrated on October 9 in South Korea and on January 15 in North Korea.
Hangul Day is a national holiday in Korea, but from 1991 to 2012, it was not considered a national holiday. Its status as a national holiday was only restored in 2012.
Can you imagine watching a K-drama or listening to K-pop music without actually using native Korean words? Probably not. But, aside from watching K-dramas and listening to K-pop music, what else makes Hangul important?
Hangul became the way of making the Korean population almost 100% literate. It also helped to distinguish the people of this little peninsula as being uniquely Korean. Because of the invention of the Korean script, South Korea quadrupled its GDP and became a pop-culture and technology powerhouse.
But, do you know what's more important? It ignited the sense of nationalism of the Korean people. Just like Noah Webster said, "A national language is a band of national union." The creation of Hangul, just like any other language, brought the people closer together.
The fruits of King Sejong's labor are far from just having a language that they can use to communicate. It's more about having the identity that sets them apart from others. A cultural identity that they can call their own and not borrow.
Hangul had indeed gone through many battles, but thankfully, some people stood up and fought for it. If all of those things did not happen, many things that we know and admire from Korea might not be there. Truly, Hangul is a language worthy of its name - The Great Script.
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