Today Koreans celebrate the 569th anniversary of the promulgation of Hangeul, the Korean writing system. When Koreans are asked to name the one part of their cultural heritage that they are most proud of, many will respond “Hangeul” without hesitation.
King Sejong the Great, one of the most revered of all Korean rulers, together with a group of royal scholars, invented Hangeul, also known as Hunminjeongeum, in 1443. After three years of fine tuning, Hangeul was officially promulgated with the publication of Hunminjeongeum Haraebon, which explains the new writing system. A National Treasure, the book, added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Heritage list in 1997, is housed at the Gansong Art Museum in Seoul.
As the name “Hunminjeongeum,” meaning the “correct sounds to instruct the people,” indicates, King Sejong’s foremost goal in creating Hangeul was to give his subjects a way to learn and communicate in writing. Until the invention of Hangeul, people had to use Chinese characters to write Korean. This meant only the yangban class could read and write – as Chinese characters are difficult to master – and the rest of the kingdom remained illiterate.
The creation of Hangeul was a daring political act on the part of King Sejong. His officials counseled him against creating a new alphabet that would certainly be seen as a challenge to the might of the Middle Kingdom, forcing King Sejong and his scholars to work clandestinely on the project.
The powers that be are wont to preserve the status quo and it was perhaps only natural that the officials and the literati shunned Hangeul, which they considered too easy to learn and use, and too humble. Education is a great equalizer, and the ruling class, who most likely preferred to keep the commoners illiterate and uneducated, put up stiff resistance to Hangeul. Thus it came to be that women and children, the weak and the downtrodden in society, were the primary users of Hangeul in its early days.
It was only in 1894 that Hangeul was adopted as Joseon’s official writing system, but Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 meant the suppression of Korean culture and tradition by the colonial power. With the Japanese colonial government’s implementation of a cultural assimilation policy, Hangeul was at risk of being lost if not for a group of brave scholars who continued to work on refining the system and began work on the first Hangeul dictionary at the height of the colonial rule.
Hangeul, at the time of its creation included 17 consonants and 11 vowels, but today 14 consonants and 10 vowels are in use. Each character represents a whole syllable and it is said that 12,768 phonemes are possible using the various combinations of consonants and vowels, making Hangeul a highly flexible writing system.
Koreans are rightfully proud of Hangeul. The ease with which it can be learned – King Sejong said that a wise person could master it before noon and even the dim-witted could learn it in 10 days – is credited with the near 100 percent literacy rate in Korea and this high literacy rate has led to a high level of education. Koreans’ are well-known early adopters and this is also credited to Hangeul. Entering Hangeul on a keyboard is very easy to do and may explain the ease and eagerness with which Koreans take to the latest IT offerings. Not only that, Hangeul has been used extensively as a design element, with designers using Hangeul calligraphy and various Hangeul typography on everything from haute-couture dresses to bags, ties and T-shirts.
Hangeul has come a long way since it was invented by a wise and caring king so that he could communicate with his subjects. King Sejong’s achievement is celebrated with the UNESCO King Sejong Prize created in 1989, which awards two recipients for their fight for literacy. This year, a group in Mozambique received the award for a program that uses literacy to promote changes in traditional practices that are harmful to women and girls. The National Institute of Education of Sri Lanka also received the award for providing an education to isolated communities such as indigenous populations, prisoners and street children.
As a phonemic alphabet that can transcribe numerous languages, Hangeul could be an invaluable tool in preserving languages that face extinction and thus contribute toward preserving endangered cultures. During a recent gathering of international writers in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, the renowned French writer and 2008 Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio pointed out that Hangeul could play a significant role in protecting minor languages of the world.
Indeed, Hangeul can be an important resource in preserving undocumented minor languages. It is estimated that nearly half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century if nothing is done. The loss of minor languages of indigenous peoples around the world would be a huge loss for all of humanity.
In August, a group from Seoul National University successfully completed a three-year project to develop a Hangeul-based writing system to record the language of the Aymara Tribe in South America. The Aymara people, who number some 3 million, live spread across Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. The Latin alphabet used to write the Aymara language is inadequate in rendering the sounds of the Aymara language accurately and the use of Hangeul allows for easier and more accurate rendering of the language in written form, according to the team.
The next stage in the program is the development of a Hangeul-based keyboard that can be used with computers and mobile gadgets. The program, when completed, would not only have preserved a language and possibly culture threatened with extinction but also catapult the Aymara people into the 21st century.
King Sejong the Great would surely be surprised and gratified by how his invention, borne of the love for his people, is helping people around the world improve their lives.
By Kim Hoo-ran