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.
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.
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.
(1) Vowels are usually Romanized as follows:
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!