20151010_ASP002_1From the outside hangul, the alphabet used in Korea, may look to us rather like Chinese or Japanese script, but it is very different, having been invented in 1443 by King Sejong (who reigned from 1418 to 1450) explicitly to get around the problems of using Chinese characters to transcribe the Korean language. Sejong saw this reliance on Chinese logograms as restricting literacy to an elite few. In North Korea hangul is called Chosŏn’gŭl, 조선글 because they use a different name for Korea: Chosŏn (조선) in the North, and Hanguk (한국) in the south.

The Economist provided an account of hangul’s origins a couple of years ago. This piece tells us that it is one of the world’s few featural alphabets — others are Pitman Shorthand, the Shavian alphabet and Tengwar, one of Tolkien’s fictional writing systems. A featural alphabet is a system in which the shapes of the letters encode phonological features of the sounds they represent (see below). The Economist has another article about hangul in their issue of 10 October 2015. [Sorry. You probably need a subscription to access these pieces.]

It’s allegedly a very simple script and easy to learn. Hangul letters are grouped into blocks each comprising a syllable. Although 한 may look like a single character, it is actually three separate letters: ㅎ h, ㅏ a, and ㄴ n, making up the syllable han. Each syllabic block consists of two to six letters, including at least one consonant and one vowel. These blocks are then arranged horizontally from left to right or vertically from top to bottom. The horizontal arrangement is the one commonly used nowadays. The featural aspects of the script include the fact that consonants are shaped to correspond with the position of the mouth in articulation of the sound. Thus g,ㄱmimics the position of the tongue in sounding it. Adding another stroke to it, ㅋ, makes it aspirated. Closed vowels are represented by horizontals, and open ones by verticals.

Hangul naturally faced opposition by the literary elite, but it entered popular culture as Sejong had intended, being used especially by women and writers of popular fiction. Yeonsangun, the tenth king, forbade the study or use of hangul and banned hangul documents in 1504, and King Jungjong outlawed hangul research in 1506. Popular poetry stimulated a revival of hangul in the late 16th century, and in the next century hangul novels became quite common.