Koreans use their own unique alphabet called Han-gul. It is considered to be one of the most efficient alphabets in the world and has garnered unanimous praise from language experts for its scientific design and excellence.
Han-gul was created under King Sejong during the Choson Dynasty (1393-1910). in 1446, the first Korean alphabet was proclaimed under the original name Hunmin chong-um, which literally meant “the correct sounds for the instruction of the people.”
King Sejong, the creator of Han-gul, is considered to be one of the greatest rulers in the history of Korea. Highly respected for his benevolent disposition and diligence, King Sejong was also a passionate scholar whose knowledge and natural talent in all fields of study astounded even the most learned experts.
When he was not performing his official duties, King Sejong enjoyed reading and meditating. He could also be very tenacions at times and would never yield on what he thought was right. Love for the people was the cornerstone of his reign, and he was always ready to listen to the voices of the common folk. His was a rule of virtue, with the welfare of the people dictating all policy formulations.
King Sejong also established the Chiphyonjon, an academic research institute, inside the palace walls. Noted to engage in lively discussions and also to publish a variety of quality books.
During his reign, King Sejong always deplored the fact that the common people, ignorant of the complicated Chinese characters that were being used by the educated, were not able to read and write. He understood their frustration in not being able to read or to communicate their thoughts and feelings in written words.
The Chinese script was used by the intelligentsia of the country, but being of foreign origin, it could not fully express the words and meaning of Korean thoughts and spoken language. Therefore, common people with legitimate complaints had no way of submitting their grievances to the appropriate authorities, other than through oral communication, and they had no way to record for posterity the agricultural wisdom and knowledge they had gained through years of experience.
King Sejong felt great sympathy for the people. As a revolutionary ruler strongly dedicated to national identity and cultural independence, he immediately searched for solutions. What he envisioned was a set of letters that was uniquely Korean and easily learnable, rendering it accessible and usable for the common people.
Thus, the Hunmin chong-um was born. In the preface of its proclamation, King Sejong states as follows:
“Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.” The statement captures the essence of King Sejong’s determination and dedication to cultural independence and commitment to the welfare of the people.
When first proclaimed by King Sejong, Hunmin chong-um had 28 letters in all, of which only 24 are in use today. The 24 letters are as follows.
The basic letters of the alphabet when Hunmin chong-um was first created numbered eight; they were the consonants ” , , , , ” and the vowels “, ”
The reason consonants and vowels were separated was due to their differing functions when two letters were combined to form a syllable. Hunmin chong-um is basically a form of hieroglyph. Consonants, the initial sound letters, resemble a person’s speech organs. The shape of each letter is based on the form of different sound articulation units. Other consonants, excluding by adding additional strokes to the basic forms, based on the strength of the sounds.
“(kiyok)”: To pronounce this letter, part of the tongue touches the molar teeth and sticks near the uvula. The shape of the letter is based on the lateral form of this process.
“(niun)”: To pronounce this letter, the front of the tongue curves and the tip of the tongue sticks to the upper gums. The shape of the letter is based on the lateral form of this process.
“(mium)”: To pronounce this letter, upper and lower lips are joined. The shape of the letter is based on the form of the joined lips.
“(shiot)”: To pronounce this letter, the tip of the tongue and the upper teeth are brought close together, and sound is created by blowing through the narrowed passage. The shape of the letter is based on the form of the teeth during the process.
“(iung)”: To pronounce this letter that is created by stimulating the uvula, the throat assumes a round shape, hence the form of the consonant. Nine additional letter were made by adding strokes to the five basic consonants based on the strength of the sounds, as follows.
However, ‘‘ is no longer used.
The vowels, on the other hand, were created in the image of the sky, land, and man. That is “.” resembles the roundness of the sky, ‘‘ represents the flat land and ‘‘ is the image of a standing man. The other vowels “(a), (ya), (o), (yo), (o), (yo), (u), (yu)” are variations of there three basic vowels.
The creation of the Hunmin chong-um was truly a remarkable accomplishment. Creating consonants based on a person’s speech organs and vowels based on shapes of the sky, land, and man was truly a revolutionary and unprecedented process.
King Sejong and the scholars of the Chiphyonjon, creators of the Korean alphabet, considered human sounds as being more than mere physical phenomena. They assumed that an invisible yet more powerful principle was the controlling force behind these phenomena. They adhered to the principle that human sounds and all universal phenomena are all based on yin-yang (positive-negative) and ohaeng (the five primary elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth). Hence, they thought it natural that there be a
common link between sounds and the changing of the seasons and between sounds and music.
A Korean syllable is divided into three parts: Ch’osong (initial consonant), chungsong (peak vowel), and chongsong (final consonant). This is the basic framework that King Sejong and the Chiphyonjon scholars adhered to when created the letters. Chongsong was not separately created and was a repetition of the ch’osong. Therefore, Han-gul is the consonants and vowels.
As the above examples clearly show, Han-gul. with only 14 consonants and 10 vowels, is capable of expressing virtually any sound.
The Korean language has a well-developed and expansive vocabulary, and therefore, it is very difficult to express fully in foreign letter. However, due to its scientific design, it is quite easy to approximate the sounds of foreign words in the Korean alphabet. Following are some examples of English words expressed in Han-gul.
London - New York - Hong Kong - I - am - a - boy - Good morning -
In particular, because of its simplicity and the rather small number of letters, Han-gul is very easy to learn even by children and foreigners.
It is no coincidence that by the time they reach the ages of two or three, most Korean children are already capable of expressing their feelings and thoughts, albeit in primitive form. By the time they reach school age, most exhibit mastery of Han-gul, which is indeed a rare phenomena throughout the world. This fact clearly attests to the easy learnability and accessibility of the Korean alphabet.
It is ironic that the strongest proof of the easy learnability of the alphabet came from the critics who argued against the creation of Hunmin chong-um. Some scholars vehemently voiced their views against the “new” alphabet because of its easy learnability, and in derision, they called it Ach’imgul (morning letters) or Amk’ul (women’s letters).
Ach’imgul meant that it could be learned in one morning. For those scholars who had spent years on learning the complicated letters of the Chinese language, Han-gul did not appear to be worthy of learning. Amk’ul meant that even women who had no academic training or background could easily learn the new alphabet. Back then there were those who considered the pursuit of academic studies and the subject of reading and writing to be the sole domain of a few privileged scholars.
Such misconceptions were the result of confusing simple linguistic learning with more advanced academic studies. Without learning the basic alphabet, reading and writing would be impossible, let alone the study of more advanced subjects. Without being able to read and write, there can be no indirect communication of one’s feelings and thoughts. Surely, King Sejong’s intent was to enrich the lives of the people by creating Han-gul, and not to make scholars out of all his subjects.
Throughout history, Han-gul has been at the root of the Korean culture, helping to preserve its national identity and independence.
Illiteracy is virtually nonexistent in Korea. This is another fact that attests to the easy learnability of Han-gul. It is not uncommon for a foreigner to gain a working knowledge of Han-gul after one or two hours of intensive studying. In addition, because of its scientific design, Han-gul lends itself to easy mechanization. In this age of computers into their lives without difficulties, thanks to a large number of programs written in Han-gul