We see writing everywhere in our daily lives, but we rarely stop to think about where these squiggly lines came from and how they came to represent words. Some written languages came about thousands of years ago when they were developed from simplified drawings. Others combined writing systems that existed before them in a mix-and-match style to create their own unique writing. Still others sprung up as entirely new inventions in the course of a few years.
In today’s post, I want to spotlight an alphabet dear to my cultural roots: the Korean writing system Hangul.
The Korean language is one of the oldest living languages, but it wasn’t until relatively recently — in the 1430s to 1440s — that it had its own writing system. Before Hangul, Korean writers used Hanja, Chinese characters adapted for Korean usage. However, because Chinese is logographic, Hanja was neither the easiest nor the most ideal writing system for Korean words and grammatical structures. But the bigger issue was that Hanja requires one to memorize thousands of different characters to represent words that did not even match up well to spoken Korean. The only people who had enough time and resources to devote many hundreds of hours of studying to master Hanja were the rich and powerful yangban, or Korean nobles. Commoners were largely illiterate except for a few lucky ones.
The first to propose a change to this system was King Sejong the Great of the Joseon Dynasty, who held the throne from 1418 to 1450. To bring literacy to the masses, King Sejong gathered scholars of the Royal Academy and established a group roughly translated as the Alphabet Commission of the Hall of Worthies. The project required great discretion to avoid detection by the yangban who vehemently opposed the idea of Hangul because it threatened the elitist structure of class-conscious Korean society. They claimed that this change would degrade the sacred nobility of education and learning and result in cultural “dumbing down.” And so, the scholars King Sejong commissioned worked in secrecy for three years to devise an alphabetic writing system that could be learned easily and fit spoken Korean well.
Many sources credit King Sejong with playing a crucial role in the development of Hangul; some historians even believe that King Sejong created the alphabet himself and that the other scholars merely advised him. In any case, his commitment to his project was undeniable, as he carried work related to the development of the new writing system everywhere with him even as his health declined and he was beset by chronic diseases from diabetes to rheumatism.
Finally, in 1446, King Sejong began to disseminate Hunminjeongeum (or “The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People”) as he called the new writing system. He made great efforts to popularize its use — setting up institutions to promote it, having books and poems be written in it, and having classical writings be translated into the new “vulgar script.”
In response, the yangban did everything in their power to suppress any use of the language. When King Sejong died in 1450 just four years after Hunminjeongeum was published, it was “like an illegitimate and abandoned child,” as historian Sek Yen Kim-Cho put it. The next two kings, King Sejong’s eldest son and grandson, were forced by the elite officials to shut down the institutions founded under King Sejong’s reign. Hangul suffered even more in 1504 during the reign of King Yeonsan when someone wrote a letter criticizing the king’s despotic ways in Hangul. In his unsuccessful search for the perpetrator, King Yeonsan burned key Hangul texts and some sources say he even banned males from studying Hangul.
Hangul’s place in politics remained turbulent for centuries afterwards. Things began looking up when Hangul was adopted as the official script for government documents as part of the Gabo reform in the late 19th century. When the Japanese colonized the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century, they banned all sorts of things related to Korean culture, including speaking or writing in Korean. Hangul became associated with Korean nationalism, and it gained increasing popularity. Hanja was quickly phased out of general use although South Korea continues to teach a list of 1,800 essential Hanja in middle schools and high schools. North Korea on the other hand completely rejected Hanja because it was seen as a form of cultural imperialism. Currently, both North and South Korea have near complete literacy among their people (~98%).
Modern linguists consider Hangul one of the most scientific phonetic alphabets in the world. It is also the only writing system to have its own national holiday. South Korea celebrates Hangul Day on October 9th, which is roughly the date King Sejong first presented it to his subjects. You can read more about the development of this incredible writing system in the following links: