About Hangul

Prior to the middle of the 15th Century, the Korean language had, for over one thousand years, been written using Chinese ideograms.  Korean sounds were represented using Chinese characters with similar pronunciations.  This was however unsatisfactory on two counts.  Firstly, the types of sounds used in both languages are considerably different - a reflection in part of the different origins of the two languages. The result was that it was difficult to represent in writing many "pure Korean" sounds.(1) Secondly, the Chinese writing system is not phonetic, making it somewhat difficult to learn.  As a result, literacy in Korea was limited to the upper classes and the aristocracy.

In the early 1440s, King Sejong (세종대왕 - r.1418-1450) of the Yi (or Choson - 조선시대) Dynasty (1392-1910) commissioned a group of Korean scholars to formulate a writing system that was suitable for the Korean language and that was relatively easy to learn.  The system they invented was called HunMinChongUm (훈민정음 - "Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People").  Originally the system comprised 28 letters but modern Hangul now contains 24 letters - 14 consonants and 10 vowels.

Hangul is an extremely easy writing system to learn. Syllables are based on 2,3 or 4 letters grouped into a character. A word comprises one or more syllables.  Each syllable begins with a consonant (which may be silent) and is followed by a vowel.  Syllables may end in one or two consonants.  Diphthongs are also able to be constructed using a combination of two vowels.

Chinese characters (HanCha - 한자) were still used widely until after the Korean War.  Confucian scholarship imbued HanCha with a prestige which it still enjoys in some circles of modern Korea.  During the Japanese Colonial period, the use of Hangul was seen as nationalistic and was suppressed by the Japanese.  After the Korean War nationalist movements promoted the exclusive use of Hangul. With some further development, including a slightly more sophisticated spelling convention, Hangul was adopted as the official national script.

However, up until the early 1980s school children continued to learn Chinese characters (a minimum of 1000 called the ChonChaMun - 천자문) because they continued to be used in some newspapers and in academic manuscripts. President Chon Du Hwan's administration removed HanCha from school curricula although many schools have reintroduced the study of HanCha.

As a result of a long history of using the Chinese script and close cultural, religious and commercial links between Korea and China, over half of the modern Korean vocabulary came to be made up of Sino-Korean words, the pronunciation of which derive directly from Chinese.  As a consequence of Chinese being a tonal language and Korean not being tonal, there are many Sino-Korean words with identical Korean pronunciations. This can result in confusion and HanCha is often required to overcome this.  Mr Kim Dae Jung (김대중대통령), the current President of South Korea, has been pushing for a reintroduction of Chinese characters into school curricula and there has been considerable debate in South Korea in this regard recently.

(1) This could explain the fact that vocabulary of modern Korean is now one half Chinese derived and one half "Altaic" pure Korean.



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