The Revolutionary Brilliance of the Korean Alphabet
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because language and universal literacy are very powerful tools.
Kim Il-sung, founder of the Hermit Kingdom, decided almost immediately after liberation from Japanese colonial rule that his northern half of the Korean peninsula would eliminate the use of Chinese characters, known as Hanja, altogether. Chinese characters, which had been mixed in with the Korean script for centuries, reminded Kim Il-sung of the suffering his country had endured under Japanese rule, and he would have no more of that.
Hangul (한글), the Korean alphabet once called “eonmun” (언문) or “vulgar writing,” was to be the only script of the North — and to that point, the Supreme Leader, as with most things, got his way (he eventually allowed the teaching of a limited amount of “foreign” Chinese characters). The origin of the Korean people is somewhat cloaked in mystery. But the prevailing theory is that they can trace their ancestry back to Central Asia, and the general region of the Altai Mountains, along the colliding borders of China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia. Perhaps almost as significant as their origins is the language they speak, and the relatively modern development of the Hangul writing system in the mid-15th century by King Sejong, aka Sejong the Great.
A wise man can acquaint himself with them [the letters] before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of 10 days.
Hangul occupies an important part of the Korean identity, both North and South, for two significant reasons. The first is that while Korean has borrowed many words from Chinese, grammatically the two languages are nothing alike, with Korean possessing a much more complex grammar. For millennia, various forms of Korean were written with Chinese characters, or pictographs, even though they were ill suited for the grammatical intricacies of the Korean language. Hangul resolved those issues, and would go on to help further define Korean identity compared with the Chinese writing system, which had infused Korean with a large Sino-Korean lexicon, and many Chinese cultural ideas. Secondly, Korea has always been a strategically vital peninsula and has thus endured many invasions and occupations by powerful neighbors China and Japan. The rise of Korean nationalism in the late 19th century is deeply intertwined with Hangul and the notion of cleansing the language of foreign, non-Korean influences (language purism, as it were), as is the pride Koreans take in their alphabet, reflected in Hangul Day, a national holiday celebrated every October 9.
Samuel Robert Ramsey, professor of East Asian linguistics at the University of Maryland, argues that the invention of Hangul has “universal significance.” King Sejong’s statements about Hangul, recorded in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, as well as in his declaration document announcing the script, clearly state his intention “to provide education for everyone in the realm — including even for women and girls!” Ramsey explains. “It was universalism on his part, pure and simple.”
Sejong commissioned a group of scholars, “basically a government think tank,” to form the new language in secret, says UCLA professor of Korean literature Christopher P. Hanscom. “The Hunmin chŏngŭm, the document in which the phonetic written language was introduced in 1446, is extremely detailed,” he says, noting how it covers the form and pronunciation of the script and includes instructions for combining consonants and vowels. Ramsey, citing the work of scholar Lee Ki-Moon, believes Sejong invented Hangul single-handedly. In the Joseon period, Ramsey says, the king was overseen by government censorship organs. So “had they known about it, they would have protested any such effort as an act of social revolution and attempted to block it,” he notes, pointing to the need to work in secrecy.
Whether this new alphabet was the sole work of the king, or if scholars helped him, Hangul’s invention was an incredible accomplishment. Just after its proclamation, Confucian scholars from the Hall of Worthies released their anti-alphabet memorial to protest the script. It was seen as a barbaric break with Chinese traditions — and perhaps, as a subtext, a threat to the power the educated classes held over the illiterate masses.
As a written vernacular, the Korean alphabet is a fairly modern invention, “based on an orthographic design that didn’t emerge over time in a messy evolutionary process, but was produced systematically,” Hanscom says, which led to its logical and “scientific” nature. The Hunmin chŏngŭm states that “A wise man can acquaint himself with them [the letters] before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of 10 days.”
While the need to know Chinese characters, especially in South Korea, hasn’t completely disappeared, Korean Hangul — systematically designed so that most of its forms (letters) resemble the shape the lips and mouth make when forming them — is an exceptional, purposely crafted writing system that has made basic literacy in Korea accessible to all. Hooray for instructing smart and “stupid” people alike!