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