Saturday, 9 October 2010

Happy Birthday Hangeul

October 9th is a date that holds a very special place in the hearts of Koreans everywhere. This day celebrates the time when, hundreds of years ago, King Sejong (in power 1418-1450) formed a panel of advisors to methodically create ‘Hangeul,’ the Korean alphabet.

Before the creation of ‘Hangeul,’ Koreans used Chinese characters, which were extremely difficult to learn. Due to the complexity of the characters (and the fact that most citizens did not have many opportunities for schooling), writing was seen as a privilege of the upper-class. To solve the country’s raging illiteracy, King Sejong created the system of Hangeul and even wrote a reference guide explaining the logic behind each letter stroke. To this day, ‘Hangeul’ is believed to be the most systematic alphabet in the world and is celebrated each year on October 9th, Hangeul Day. 

What's in a name?

The ‘Han’(한) in Hangeul can be translated as ‘Big’ or ‘Great,’ while ‘Geul’ refers to the alphabet or writing; consequently, ‘Hangeul’ literally means ‘Great letters’ and is thought of as the ‘Greatest alphabet in the world.’

Interesting enough, this alphabet was not known as ‘Hangeul’ until generations after its inception. Originally, King Sejong named the alphabet ‘hunminjongeum,’ which meant ‘correct sounds to teach the people,’ since its creation marked the first time the written word was readily available to the commoners.

Hangeul originally consisted of 28 letters, but over the course of time, four letters were dropped, resulting in the 24-letter alphabet we now use today. The alphabet is relatively easy to learn and use thanks to its formulaic nature; it’s often said that someone can learn to read Korean in a half an hour or less. In recognition of this unique language, hunminjeongeum was officially registered with UNESCO in 1997. 

Did you know....

Hangeul Day was originally October 29th?

The Yangban (noble class) were vehemently opposed to the creation of the Korean alphabet, fearing the social upheaval that could result from having too many “educated commoners.” In response to this pressure, King Sejong was very secretive about his grand literacy project, resulting in very little documentation during the project’s initial stages.

Since there was no documentation, historians estimated Hangeul’s “birthday” to be around October 29th. However, with the discovery of the hunminjeongeum haeryebon (the explanatory notes of Hangeul), historians placed the date of publication closer to October 9th, not the 29th. 

Where does Hangeul get its shape?

Hangeul is a writing system that involves combining 2-4 of the 14 consonants and vowels to form one syllable. The 24 characters of Hangeul are each made of lines that reflect the shape of your mouth during pronunciation. Consonants, on the other hand, represent the sky, earth and the human form. Vowels and consonants form a total of 40 commonly used letters combinations. 

Korean Romanization
(1) Vowels are usually Romanized as follows:
 - Simple Vowels                                       - Diphthongs
(2) Consonants are written as follows:  
- Plosives(stops)                                     

- Affricates

- Fricatives
- Nasals

- Liquids
Note 1 : The sounds and are Romanized g, d, and b when they appear before a vowel but are Romanized k, t, and p when they are the last sound of a word or are followed by another consonant.

Note 2 : is written as r when followed by a vowel, and as l when followed by a consonant or when appearing at the end of a word. is transcribed as  
Who exactly is ‘King Sejong the Great?’ 

King Sejong, born on May 15, 1397, was the third son of Queen Min and King Taejong (3rd monarch of Joseon). Crowned the fourth king of Joseon in 1418, Sejong was known to have had a great passion for intellectual pursuits, a deep love for his people, and a keen interest in improving the lives of the lower-class.

Though maybe his most famous creation, Hangeul was not Sejong’s only major historical contribution. The reign of King Sejong was known as the most peaceful part of the Joseon Dynasty, with great strides being made in the fields of agriculture, science and technology. King Sejong’s achievements and benevolence led to the coining of the nickname ‘King Sejong the Great’; this warm-hearted king is revered even today and is even featured on the 10,000won bill!