By Stephen Bugno
So it’s 1440 and you are King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty. You are a well-respected ruler and a champion for the common person. But you have a little problem. Your population is undereducated and you want to communicate with them.
“My people cannot write characters even though they have hands, and can’t read characters even though they have eyes. Joseon needs new characters that are suitable for the people.”
Your kingdom now uses complicated Chinese characters (hanja), which are only taught to members of the upper class. However, there’s one little problem. Your nobility opposes change. They want a monopoly on communication. If the underclasses get educated, the aristocracy might feel threatened.
So what do you do? You gather together in secret a committee of linguistic scholars to look into the matter. They consider other Asian scripts and eventually decide to create a brand new language from scratch. Yes, they are going to invent a new written language.
Written Korean: what they came up with
Hangeul, as the Korean script is known, was set forth in a document called Hunmin Jeongeum by King Sejong in 1443, the 25th year of his reign. It was then tested and improved upon for another three years. Originally, 28 letters were created, of which only 24 are used today.
Why it’s special
Hangeul consists of consonants and vowels. It is a phonetic system, but is based on the formation of syllabic units. The syllable consists of a first sound, a middle sound, and a last consonant.
What makes it unique is the fact that basic consonants were created in replication of the human pronunciation organs, imitating the shapes of the organ of articulation at the moment they are pronounced. Other letters were developed on the basis of these basic characters, taking into account the sounds’ similarities and stress levels and adding strokes to the basic characters.
The whole system was developed using the basic consonants and the three vowels and adding stokes to them, thereby making the letters simple to learn. In modern times, hangeul has been easily combined with digital technologies which make it uncomplicated to type.
Background of the Korean language
Korean belongs to the Ural-Altaic language group, which stretches narrowly across Mongolia and central Asia all the way to Turkey. It is believed that the ancestors of modern Koreans brought the language from their native home in central Asia into the Korea peninsula. Korean is most similar to Japanese in grammar and sentence structure. Today Korean is spoken by about 70 million people.
It is extremely hard for most foreigners to master spoken Korean. The written Korean language on the other hand, thanks to the foresight of King Sejong, is relatively easy and can be learned with a few hours of dedicated study.
If you go
To learn more about hangeul and the noble reign of King Sejong, visit The Story of King Sejong, an exhibition hall and museum underneath the large statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul.
Open Tuesday – Sunday 10:30am to 10:30pm. Use Gwanghwamun Subway Station. Free admission.