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Celebrating Hangeul: Korea’s Ingenious Script

 

Seated in Gwanghwamun Square at the heart of downtown Seoul is a large statue of King Sejong the Great, fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Revered as Korea’s greatest monarch, his wise rule inspired a scientific and cultural renaissance. Chief among its innovations was the creation of Hangeul, the Korean language’s script. Today, Korea honors the 15th-century invention every October 9th on Hangeul Day. In observance of the upcoming national holiday, this month’s Speakers’ Corner takes a closer look at the ingenious script.

 
 

Today, with a literacy rate above 99 percent, it’s hard to fathom Korea in the mid-15th century, when literacy was the exclusive domain of a small number of aristocrats. At the time, Koreans used hanja, or Chinese characters, and transliteration was a cumbersome and complicated process.

In 1420, King Sejong established the Jiphyeonjeon. This group of scholars was tasked with creating a simple, yet scientific script accessible to the common  man. Upon Hangeul’s public unveiling in 1446, a usage manual of sorts explained the script’s genius. “A wise man can acquaint himself with it before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”

Hangeul’s popularity has made it a target of tyrannical rulers and foreign powers over the centuries. Most recently during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), teaching Hangeul and even speaking Korean was prohibited. Despite colonization, globalization and Koreans’ zealous pursuit of English, Korea’s unique language and script enjoy robust health.

 
 

Worldwide, about 77 million people speak Korean as a native language. Many thousands more are non-native speakers who have studied Korean at universities, cultural centers and language institutes.

Perhaps because of its non-Latin script, many newcomers to Korean incorrectly refer to Hangeul letters as “characters.” In fact, Hangeul is a phonemic system of consonants and vowels that are presented in syllabic units. The ease with which letters and syllables are combined is why many linguists have praised Hangeul. In the words of author and linguist Insup Taylor, Hangeul is “the most perfect phonetic system devised.”

One of Hangeul’s most intriguing characteristics is its unique and featural design. For example, not only are the script’s 14 consonants and 10 vowels easily distinguishable by their shape, but the shape and stroke placement of each letter reflects how the sounds are produced in the mouth. Furthermore, Hangeul’s three basic vowel shapes of “ㅇ,” “ㅣ,” and “ㅡ” were conceived to imitate a round heaven, a flat earth and a human being. In Oriental philosophy, these three symbols are said to be the foundation for harmony among all things.

 
 

For newcomers to the Korean language, learning Hangeul is instantly rewarding. Foreign shapes are quickly recognized, and thanks to the nation’s ubiquitous signage, in a matter of hours or days you can read restaurant names aloud, even if you have no idea what you’re saying!
And yet, it’s not long when the thrill of modest success turns into frustration as the language learner attempts to pronounce difficult diphthongs or spell the irregular gyuchik of conjugated verbs. Even for conversant speakers, the Korean language’s colorful expressions can be a mine field of confusion.

Yo Gyeok, a member of the VisitKorea Chinese Team, recalled taking her Korean friend’s comments a bit too literally:

One day I was introducing a Korean friend to my other friends, who had come from abroad. When my friend exclaimed, "Wow your feet sure are wide!" I felt angry because I thought my friend was insulting me in front of everyone. I retorted, "So what if they're huge?!," without realizing that my friend’s expression actually meant that I have a wide range of acquaintances.

Even when a word or phrase makes perfect sense to a native speaker, cultural differences can turn the mundane quite peculiar to foreign ears. A VisitKorea Russian Team member described an example:

In Korea, the word “kkonminam” is a combination of the words “flower” and “handsome,” which basically refers to a good-looking guy. However, in the Russian language, the word flower is never used to describe a man's good-looks!

Although mistakes and cultural differences are inevitable, even proficient speakers face challenges. Namely, how do you explain a uniquely Korean word to a friend from home, who hasn’t accumulated years of experiences in Korean culture? Kimberly Paul of VisitKorea’s English team explains:

“After getting past the basics, you start to learn Korean through context and you don’t have to translate it into your own language first. The problem is that some Korean words don’t have an exact English equivalent, so when I want to express that word to an English-speaking friend who doesn’t speak Korean it can be difficult. Words off the top of my head that are hard to translate into English are, “아쉽다,” “답답하다” (suffocating?), and “안타깝다.” If anyone finds a succinct way to translate these into English, please let me know!”

 
 

A few decades ago, few foreigners pursued the Korean language. It was only in the late 1990s that the popularity of Korean music and dramas overseas became Hallyu or the Korean Wave. Not long after, Seoul classrooms were filled with Japanese and Southeast Asian young women eager to speak like their favorite actors and pop stars.

As Hallyu experiences what some have coined the Second Wave, there’s plenty of evidence that its ripples have reached Western shores. This year, Korean cultural festivals and sold-out K-Pop from Paris to Mexico City this year are expected to contribute to projected revenue of $4 billion. In contrast to previous years, the government is tapping into foreign interest by investing in in-country language facilities.

In 2009, the government established the King Sejong Institute. Known as Sejong Hakdang in Korean, the institutes have taken a leading role in promoting Korean overseas. Currently, there are 28 branches in 16 countries with ten more in the pipeline. This year, Korean language schools in France and the United States witnessed a two-fold increase in applications over previous years.

 
 

Of course, the truly enthralled will make their pilgrimage to Korea. And once they are here, there are a number of attractions that celebrate Korea’s ingenious script. The most notable is located beneath King Sejong’s statue in Gwanghwamun Square. Called the “King Sejong Story,” the sprawling underground space features 3,000 square meters of exhibits. Opened in 2009, the museum explains the king’s life and cultural contributions. Considerable space is dedicated to Hangeul, including an interesting look at the story behind its iconic shape, which looks equally appropriate rendered by a paintbrush or on a computer screen.

 

King Sejong Story
Cost: Free
Hours: 10:30-22:30 (until 20:30 on Sundays, holidays); (Closed Mondays)
Tel: 02-399-1154
Address:81-3 Sejong-ro Jongno-gu (Gwanghwamun Station underground passageway)
More info

 

A lesser known destination on the Hangeul circuit is the Memorial Museum of King Sejong the Great. Opened in 1973 in Seoul’s Dongdaemun-gu district, the museum’s collection is divided into four galleries, of which the Hangeul and Science exhibits might be of greatest interest. The former includes some of the first documents to use the script, which is why they are designated National Treasures. On a related note, the Science Gallery provides an overview of Korea’s ancient typesetting and printing process.

 

Memorial Museum of King Sejong
Cost: 1,800 won
Hours: 09:00-17:30 (until 18:00 March-October) (Closed Mondays)
Tel: 02-969-8851
Address: 1-157 San Cheongnyangni-dong Dongdaemun-gu (Korea University Station, Exit 3)
Web: http://www.sejongkorea.org (Korean)

 

Finally, the Typography Gallery and ㅎ (Hieut) Café is located in the popular Hongik University neighborhood. Run by two typography designers, their affection for Hangeul is expressed in a small library and sales area stocked with an eclectic array of Hangeul-themed products. In addition to coffee and fresh juices, the space periodically hosts special exhibitions and Hangeul-related film screenings.

 

Typography Gallery & ㅎ(Hieut) Café
Cost: Free
Hours: 12:00-24:00
Tel: 02-336-6236
Address:86-30 Sangsu-dong Mapo-gu (Sangsu Station, Exit 2)
Web: http://www.hiut.kr (Korean)

 
 

In less than 18 months, the Hangeul enthusiast will have a new state-of-the-art facility at their disposal. On July 13th, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism broke ground on a 36.8 billion won ($34.2 million) museum dedicated to the Korean alphabet. Located on the grounds of the National Museum of Korea in central Seoul and set to open in February 2013, the four-level space will provide visitors with exhibits about how Koreans communicated prior to the widespread use of the alphabet. The permanent collection will also compare Hangeul to other global scripts and display hundreds of rare books and historical documents.

Gazing over an artist’s rendering of the new museum, the Korean script’s form reveals itself as both ancient and modern. Designed to reflect Hangeul’s classical concepts of harmony among heaven, earth and humans, the thoroughly modern structure also shows how Hangeul has adapted easily to the digital era. In fact, four-and-a-half centuries after its invention, some say that Hangeul is the world’s most suitable writing system to combine with digital technologies. King Sejong the Great was certainly a man ahead of his time.

 
 

Visit the Digital Hangeul Museum Nurijip (http://www.hangeulmuseum.org)

We’ve put together information for people interested in various Korean language learning programs in Seoul.

 
Date 09.19.2011

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