Beautiful alphabet, Hangeul
October 9 of every year holds a very special place in the hearts of Koreans. It is the 568th birthday of hangeul, the native Korean alphabet invented by King Sejong (r. 1418-1450).
The invention of hangeul was no accident, but rather the culmination of a methodical and logical process. Before hangeul, Chinese characters called “hanja” had been used in writing. However, hanja, for its sheer plethora of characters, was difficult to learn, especially for people of lower social status with little or no access to education, and this led to rampant illiteracy throughout the country. In order to resolve the problem, King Sejong began developing a new writing system that would be easy to access as well as to learn. At last, on October 9, 1443, hangeul (Hunminjeongeum) was invented and was disseminated with a thorough explanation of logic behind each stroke of its characters. It was published for the first time in 1446. The invention of hangeul had since then contributed substantially to reducing illiteracy in Korea.
Today, hangeul is regarded as one of the most systematic alphabets in the world, and is annually celebrated, designated as “Hangeul Day”. In anticipation of the day this year, we invite you learn and celebrate Korea’s valuable cultural asset, hangeul!
What does Hangeul mean?
The name ‘hangeul’ is made up of two words: ‘han (한)’ and ‘geul (글)’. Han means either “big” or “great,” and geul refers to the alphabet; hangeul, therefore, means “great alphabet”.
Initially, the Korean alphabet was called ‘hunminjeongeum,’ which translates to “the proper guiding alphabet of the people,” and consisted of 28 letters. From its original system, four letters have been dropped and it is now commonly referred to as hangeul. Hunminjeongeum or hangeul is not only easy to learn and convenient to use, but also unique and scientific. In recognition of such virtues, the UNESCO inscribed the Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon (Guidebook) on its Memory of the World Register in October 1997.
FUN FACT Did you know why Hangeul Day is on October 9?
Yangbans (noble class) were vehemently opposed to the creation of Hangeul, fearing social upheavals that could result from having too many “educated commoners.” Consequently, King Sejong had to be extremely discreet about his grand literacy project, resulting in very little documentation during the project’s initial stages.
Since there was very little documentation, historians had initially concluded hangeul’s “birthday” to be around October 29. However, with the discovery of the Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon, historians placed the date of Hangeul’s publication closer to 9th of October.
How does a Hangeul letter look like?
Hangeul is a writing system that involves combining 2 to 4 of the 24 consonants and vowels to form one-syllable blocks. Each vowel is made of a line or lines that represent the sky, the earth and people, while consonants reflect the shape of a human mouth during pronunciation. Together, they form a total of 40 commonly used letter combinations.
Who exactly was King Sejong the Great?
Borned on May 15, 1397 as the third son of King Taejong (third monarch of the Joseon Dynasty) and Queen Min, and inaugurated as the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty in 1418, he was a leader who put his passion for intellectual pursuits, love for his people, and keen interest in improving the lives of the lower class into action. Consequently, the Joseon Dynasty made great strides in various fields during his reign, as well as comforting his subjects in all aspects.
Ultimately, the king’s achievements and benevolence led to the coining of the nickname, “King Sejong the Great.” The warm-hearted king is revered today, as demonstrated by his portrait on the 10,000 won bill!
Where can I learn Korean?
Several major universities across Korea’s capital city of Seoul offer Korean language programs designed exclusively for international visitors and students. Most offer both full-time and part-time study options with schedules that run anywhere from one day (special Hangeul seminars) to weeks, months, or years (intensive language study courses).
TIP Where to buy souvenirs with hangeul?
There are many places in Seoul to find trinkets and knick-knacks decorated with hangeul. Museums throughout the city as well as souvenir stores in the famous Insa-dong area are great places to look for hangeul-themed souvenirs.
TIP Hangeul-themed tourist attractions
☞ WebsiteNational Institute of Korean Language (Korean, English)
Digital Hanguel Museum (Korean, English)
☞ 1330 Korea Travel Hotline: +82-2-1330 (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese)
* This column was last updated in October 2015, and therefore information may differ from what is presented here. We advise you to check details from the official websites before visiting.
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