Home > 8. The Dragons of Grammar, 9. The Alphabet & Redefining Intelligence, F. Politics & the Velvet Revolution > Hangul, Literacy, and Culture–What an Alphabet Can Do For You

Hangul, Literacy, and Culture–What an Alphabet Can Do For You

King Sejong the Great

I might be skipping ahead a bit folks, but I think it’s time to introduce you to what many people consider to be the world’s most effective alphabet: Hangul.

But before I launch into a description of this alphabet’s extraordinary history and many virtues, a word of warning is in order for English speakers. Hangul was designed for speakers of Korean, a tonal language situated pretty much at the opposite end of the language spectrum from English. What makes Hangul important for the English-speaking world is 1) the story of its creation; 2) its approach to representing the sounds of language; and 3) the hope that its logical design and gradual success might serve as a model in creating an alphabet that can be used to write the major world languages, in particular, English, Chinese, Spanish, French, and Russian.

1) History. Let’s start with the story of Hangul’s creation. King Sejong (r. 1418-1450) faced a not-unfamiliar situation in East Asia: an extremely low literacy rate resulting from the use of the Hanja, the Chinese character set, which arrived with Buddhism in Korea in the 7th century A.D. Sejong decided to create an alphabet for writing Korean that anyone could learn, with the goals of making literacy universal and strengthening Korea’s cultural identity. Overcoming opposition from court officials who did not want to lose the power their literacy gave them, the king summoned his Hall of Worthies–the eminent scholars of his time–and together the king and Hall devised the twenty-eight letters of the new alphabet, publishing the definitive text on Hangul in 1446.

The alphabet was an immediate success, allowing the poorly educated and women to read and write for the first time. But, needless to say, this social revolution prompted a backlash after Sejong’s death in 1450. Confucian scholars fought fiercely to retain the privileges their monopoly on writing had given them, and in 1504, the use of Hangul was forbidden by royal decree. The Hanja were reinstated as the sole legitimate writing system.

But at this point something remarkable happened: in defiance of the official ban, the use of Hangul among the educated class flourished. Starting in the late 1500’s, two entirely new genres of poetry, gasa and sijo, developed, and the novel written in Hangul became a major literary form. Although the use of Hangul among ordinary people disappeared, the literacy rate may nonetheless have increased, since Hangul is extremely easy to learn.

Finally, in the late 19th century, Hangul was reinstated for official use, and during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), the use of Hangul was encouraged as a means of separating Korea from Chinese influence. Although Japanese became the official language, a mixed Hangul-Hanja script was taught in the colonial school system; education, moreover, was mandatory, and for the first time the use of Hangul letters became universal in Korea.

Soon after independence in 1945, an official Hangul orthography was adopted, and today in both Koreas Hangul has replaced the Hanja as the common writing system.

2) The Hangul Alphabet. Hold onto your hats, folks: the alphabet that King Sejong and his Hall of Worthies created is remarkable by any standard. In its current form, Hangul has 24 letters, of which 14 are consonants and 10 vowels.

a) Hangul is a partially featural alphabet; that is, the shapes of its letters (or letterforms) reflect the sounds they represent. It is the only featural script in widespread use.

b) Consonants are classified by the vocal organ that produces them: molar (velar), tongue (coronal), lip (bilabial), incisor (sibilant), throat (guttural), and light lip (labiodental). The letterform of each of these classes is based on a shape that is meant to resemble the vocal organ involved, with additional strokes being added to indicate the particular letter’s modification(s) from the model/basic shape.

Other consonant’ featural characteristics include a vertical top stroke over a letter to indicate a plain stop; the nonstops lack the stroke.

c) Sejong and his scholars designed the letterforms of Hangul vowels themselves; they are based on just three symbols: a dot (representing the sun), a horizontal stroke (representing the earth), and a vertical stroke (representing man). Vowel harmony was an important consideration in the design of the vowels, though VH is not as important in spoken Korean as it was during Sejong’s period.

d) Letters in Hangul that are pronounced as a syllable are not written consecutively, but are rather grouped together in blocks. The syllable blocks have three advantages: the letters within them are arranged in the block in an order reflecting the sequence of sounds in the syllable;  the blocks save space in writing and printing; and the blocks are beautiful.


Of course, there’s more to the alphabet than the brief description above covers; to get an better idea of the script, study this chart of jamo, or Hangul letters:

3) Modeling a Future Universal Alphabet on Hangul. A writing reform based on the development of Hangul would go far towards  increasing literacy and bringing cultures across the globe closer together. Here are some of the Hangul principles that one might use to create this alphabet:

a) A strict adherence to phonetic letters;

b) A letterform design that reflects that vocal organs used in producing the sound;

c) A uniform method of marking the same kind of modification to a class’s basic letterform;

d) A logical arrangement of the letters by class; and

e) The continued use of current alphabets until their use become burdensome.

RT’s Related Posts: 1) The Greek Alphabets, An Independent Tradition? 2) Breaking the Code: Points of Articulation & the DoGs

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Photos: Top: Public Statue of King Sejong in Seoul, Korea. Author: David Hepworth. WikiCmns. CC 2.0 Generic. Bottom: Papers printed with Hangul letters. Author: jared. WikiCmns. CC 2.0 Generic.

  1. April 5, 2012 at 3:42 am

    Having lived in South Korea for a few years I would have to agree with you. Hangul is a great language. Sadly, I have forgotten much of it after 20 years though.

  2. mj
    June 15, 2012 at 10:53 am

    This is very informative. As you describe it, it sounds a bit like Hindi, the language we speak in India… I suppose, the two languages might share a root or a common remote ancestor. Thanks for enriching my knowledge!

    • June 16, 2012 at 3:59 am

      & thanks for stopping by and commenting, mj! RT

  1. December 11, 2012 at 7:51 pm
  2. September 22, 2013 at 2:51 am

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