hangeul written korean language

Why Korean is the World's Most Interesting Language

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.

King Sejong statue gwanghwamun korean language
A statue of King Sejong in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square.

 

“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.

hangeul written korean language
An example of Hangeul

 

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.

korean language
A chart explaining hangeul in the King Sejong Museum in Seoul.

 

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.

hangeul written korean language
An explanation from the King Sejong Museum in Seoul

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.

 

10 thoughts on “Why Korean is the World's Most Interesting Language”

  1. At present I am studying Japanese and its three alphabets and it is intense. I really love the simplicity of the Korean alphabet and how the characters are so geometrical.

  2. Got A Passport

    Stumbled on your blog from Runaway Juno. I wonder why spoken Korean is difficult to master. I like languages…have studied Thai, Spanish, and Japanese.

    1. It’s a perfect language…no one except native Koreans have ever spoken it. 11 years here, I’ve mastered the reading and writing, but it’s not so much replace the noun with another noun and the sentence works like English, “we don’t say it like that”. So much of it is like slang, in my opinion. Furthermore, it’s not a language of money, so most (like myself) don’t feel the need to dedicate years of vocabulary study to fully learn it.

      I base my previous statements on the fact that I’ve said things phonetically perfect, but was still misunderstood. Koreans in general don’t often expect the first words from a westerner to be in Korean, so they often misunderstand the first few syllables that spill out of our mouths. Like any language, it takes time, will, and dedication, all of which many westerners don’t want to commit.

  3. Northern Nomad

    I lived and taught English in Korea for one year. It was definitely an easy language to read and to speak and I learned my fair share in one year. I could read almost everything even though I had no idea what 80% of it meant! Nice blog!

  4. Will - Gap Daemon

    Hey guys! Great to see fellow language learners and lovers getting in on the action, even if I am a year late to the party!

    Korean sounds fascinating indeed. The script looks so different compared to other Asian languages. I tried learning Vietnamese and found the script (thanks to being in the latin alphabet) made things a lot easier.

    Great reading about your experiences and reasons!

  5. Korean isnt an altaic language, its a language isolate. Linguistics have abandoned the notion of it being related because it lacks cognates and evidence to be altaic.

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