Long ago in ancient Korea, Chinese characters were used to write the Korean language. These characters took years to learn, and only the elite knew how to read and write them. As a result the illiteracy rate in Korea was astoundingly high. Luckily, in the year 1443, King Sejong the Great came up with a plan to boost the literacy rate and enable everyone, including women and children, to learn to read and write. This plan was to bring together the best scholars from around the country and have them create a phonetic alphabet that would allow words to be written exactly the way they sound. The result was Hangeul, one of the greatest accomplishments in Korean history and the most scientific writing system in the world. Following the introduction of Hangeul into Korean society, the literacy rate rose sharply, as there was no longer any need to memorize individual characters.
Just how easy is it to learn? It is said that one can learn to read and write Hangeul proficiently after just a week of study. That means that the Korean language is much easier to study than character based languages like Chinese or Japanese. Just like learning your “abcs” all you need to do is learn your 가나다’s and you will be well on your way to learning Korean.
In fact, the system was so well designed that it was even chosen by the people of the Chiachia tribe in Indonesia as their official writing system.
Despite being so easy to learn, the theories and concepts behind the creation of hangeul are actually quite incredible. For example, Eastern philosophy like yinyang played a big part, and all consonants were assigned a value according to one of the five elements of the world. In addition, scientific considerations such as how the mouth is actually shaped when making that sound were considered. For example, take “ㅁ” for example. The sound represents an “m” sound in English, and in order to make that sound, ones lips must be pressed together in a shape that looks very much like an “ㅁ”.
Now let’s take a more detailed look at how this fascinating language works.
The Korean alphabet is composed of syllables made up of beginning, middle, and stopping sounds. The beginning and stopping sounds are consonants, while the middle sounds are vowels.
Next, lets learn more about the creation of the consonants and the sounds they make.
The first consonant and the middle vowel are first combined from left to right and top to bottom with the final consonant is added to the combination. However, before discussing consonants and vowels in more detail, it is necessary to know that consonants and vowels must be combined to make a sound and should not be confused with sound units. For example, [-냐] of “어디 가느냐 (Where are you going?)” is made of [ㄴ] and [ㅑ]. However, the sound values include /n/, /j/ and /a/. Also, [내] of “내 고향(my hometown)” is made of [ㄴ], [ㅏ] and [ㅣ], but the sound values include /n/ and /ɛ/.
The Origins of Hangeul & The Structure of Korean
The Making and Pronunciation of Beginning Consonants
The Making and Pronunciation of Vowels
The Principle and the Reading Method of Syllables