October 9 of every year holds a very special place in the hearts of Koreans. This year, it is the 570th 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!
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.
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.
Photo: Statue of King Sejong the Great centering at the Gwanghwamun Plaza
Born 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 common people 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!
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).
* This column was last updated in September 2016, and therefore information may differ from what is presented here. We advise you to check details from the official websites before visiting.
<Last updated on September 29, 2016>