Hangul – The Korean alphabet
Hangul Day (한글날)
Today, October 9th, is Hangul Day, a Korean holiday devoted to celebrating their writing system. Originally, it was a legal holiday (what we would call a statutory holiday in Canada) but that changed in 1991. But nevertheless, it’s still an important part of Korean history and culture.
The holiday celebrates the invention of the Korean alphabet, called Hangul (한글), which was invented in 1446. Until then, the Korean language had no official written form. Chinese characters were used by the Yangban (양반), Korea’s upper classes, when writing anything. Most ordinary Koreans couldn’t read and write at that time and even the Yangban thought using Chinese characters for writing Korean was limiting. King Sejong the Great (세종대왕) wanted to fix that, he wanted all Koreans to be able to read and write easily so he asked his best scholars to create an alphabet that everyone could easily learn.
And so they did! I learned the alphabet over a couple of bottle of beer in a bar (no joke) in my second week in Korea, mainly so I could read the menus in restaurants. Yes, ordering food was my primary reason as randomly pointing at pictures in restaurants gave me some interesting dinners (chicken feet anyone?). And while I’m still learning the language (Korean grammar is quite different from English and I’m not so good with languages), it was easy to learn Hangul! If I can learn in a bar, anyone can! Really!
But back to Hangul…
Since 1446, Hangul has been lauded as one of the most scientific writing systems in the world – there’s even a UNESCO literacy prize named after King Sejong the Great. The 24 characters are easy learn (hey, I did it in a couple of hours… over beer) and recently, it was discovered that the scholars that King Sejong the Great commissioned in fact did approach the creation of Hangul scientifically. The letters were created to reflect the shape of the mouth while making the sounds (especially consonants). Those who study linguistics must love Korean!
I won’t get into the scientific or linguistic description of Hangul, not my thing, but it is fascinatingly easy to learn and write. King Sejong the Great accomplished what he set out to do. Hangul is an alphabet that everyone can easily learn, it’s perfect for expressing oneself in the Korean language and virtually all Koreans (and many foreigners) are now able to read and write Korean. Plus how often do we know when and how an alphabet is created? It’s kind of cool.
How is it celebrated?
One of the ways it’s celebrated today is by a public exhibition of foreigners using Hangul that is being run by Talk To Me In Korean – my favourite website for learning Korean. I wish I had found out about this earlier as I would have loved to participate in it. But if you’re in Seoul, check it out! For more details about the exhibit, check out Talk To Me In Korean’s YouTube Channel or their exhibit fundraising page.
2. Language Log