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All You Need To Know About The Korean Alphabet!

Having been developed by King Sejong as a method to afford literacy to the lower classes, the Korean alphabet was constructed with the intention of being relatively easy to learn. However, because Korean has so many consonants and vowels, writing it using the “Roman” characters we use in English (also known as “romanization” or more generally as “transliteration”) presents more problems than for most languages.

This is particularly true when politics become involved. When the French came to Korea, they spelled the two-syllable Korean capital city “Seoul” (Se-oul), reflecting their own sound system. They pronounced the first syllable “se” (rhymes with “je” as in “je m’appelle [name]”); this was the closest equivalent they possessed. The vowel in the second syllable,”oul”, was written “ou” as – in the French language, “u” possesses a different sound, pronounced as a high vowel with rounded lips.

The Koreans assumed that “u” was the vowel in the second syllable, the second syllable thus being “ul,” and so the rest (“seo”) must be the first syllable. This mistake was perpetuated by the official Ministry of Education’s educational system, although no language anywhere in the world at any known time (except for a Middle English spelling) used “eo” for anything close to this vowel.

After much ridicule and even an empirical study showing its inferiority by a wide margin, in 1984 the Korean government finally scrapped the Ministry of Education system in favour of a modified version (with, for example, Cho’s hacek rather than the breve) of the McCune-Reischauer system which virtually everyone publishing outside Korea had already been using anyway (a notable exception being Martin’s “Yale” system for specialized linguistic studies).

Unfortunately, a recent decision by the Korean government revived the widely reviled Ministry of Education system with some modifications (but preserving the mistaken “eo” spelling) under the name “Revised Romanization.” It is highly recommended that students of Korean learn the alphabet as quickly as possible.

Hangul, (Korean: “Great Script”) also spelled Hangeul or Han’gŭl, is an alphabetic system used for writing the Korean language. The system, known as Chosŏn muntcha in North Korea, consists of 24 letters (originally 28), including 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The consonant characters are formed with curved or angled lines. The vowels are composed of vertical or horizontal straight lines together with short lines on either side of the main line.

 

©Periodic Table of Hangeul Poster, www.amazon.com

 

The development of the Hangeul alphabet is traditionally ascribed to Sejong, fourth king of the Chosŏn (Yi) dynasty; the system was established as the official writing system for the Korean language in 1446 by one of Sejong’s decrees. The script was generally known until the 20th century by the name Sejong gave it; Hunminjŏngŭm (Hunminjeongeum; loosely translated, “Proper Sounds to Instruct the People”). Because of the influence of Confucianism and of Chinese culture, Hangeul was not used by scholars or Koreans of the upper classes until after 1945.

Every Hangeul letter has a name and its own sound.  Some characters even have multiple sounds depending on whether they’re at the beginning of a word, beginning of a syllable or the end of a word. Here are the Hangeul consonants, their names and the sounds they make.

Giyok (기역):

Start of word: k like in kite
Start of a syllable: g like in go
End of a word: k like in talk

(니은):

Start of a word: n like in no
Start of a syllable: n like in no
End of a word: n like in no

Digeut (디귿):

Start of a word: t like in talk
Start of a syllable: d like in find
End of a word: t like in not

Rieul (리을 ):

Start of a word: r like in run
Start of a syllable: r like in run
End of a word: l like in feel

Mieum (미음):

Start of a word: m like in mom
Start of a syllable: m like in mom
End of a word: m like in hum

Bieup (비읍):

Start of a word: p like in pool
Start of a syllable: b like in back
End of a word: p like in lap

Siot (시옷):

Start of a word: s like in show
Start of a syllable: s like in show
End of a word: t like in not

Ieung (이응):

Start of a word: no sound
Start of a syllable: no sound
End of a word: ng like in king

Jieut (지읒):

Start of a word: ch like in chop
Start of a syllable: j like in jar
End of a word: t like in not

Chieut (치읓):

Start of a word: ch like in itch
Start of a syllable: ch like in itch
End of a word: t like in not

Kieuk (키읔):

 

Start of a word: kh like in khaki
Start of a syllable: kh like in khaki
End of a word: kh like in khaki

Tieut (티읕):

Start of a word: t like in tip
Start of a syllable: t like in tip
End of a word: t like in not

Pieup (피읖):

Start of word: p like in pit
Start of a syllable: p like in pit
End of a word: p like in nap

Hieut (히읕):

Start of word: h like in hot
Start of a syllable: h like in hot
End of a word: no sound

 

Note: There are also a couple of double Hangeul consonants in the Korean alphabet.
They are as follows:

 

Ssang Giyok (쌍기역):

Start of word: g like in gone
Start of a syllable: g like in gone
End of a word: g like in gone

Ssang Digeut (쌍디귿):

Start of word: d like in dog
Start of a syllable: d like in dog
End of a word: d like in dog

Ssang Bieup (쌍비읍):

Start of word: b like in bird
Start of a syllable: b like in bird
End of a word: b like in bird

Ssang Siot (쌍시옷):

Start of word: s like in some
Start of a syllable: s like in some
End of a word: t like in not

Ssang Jieut (쌍지읒):

Start of word: j like in Jim
Start of a syllable: j like in Jim
End of a word: t like in not

The vowels in Hangeul – the Korean alphabet, don’t have names like the consonants do. Instead, they just have one sort of simple sound.  A lot of the vowels have very similar sounds so do your best to try to figure out the difference. You’ll notice that adding another line to it essentially adds a ‘y’ to the sound and adding a or a is like adding a w sound to the vowel.

a – like in hah eo – like in run o – like in dough

u – like in moon eu – like in good i – like in meet

ae – like in at e – like in get ya – like in yawn

yeo – like in yum yo – like in yoke yu – like in view

yae – like in yak ye – like in yes wa – like in wand

 

wae – like in wax wo – like in wonder we – like in wet

oe – like in wait wi – like in week ui – like in quey

Now that you’ve had an introduction to the Korean alphabet you’re ready to start combining these characters into syllables and start writing words!

Timeline of Hangeul


  • Hangeul, the Korean alphabet – was a project promoted by Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty.
  • During his reign, he set up a group of specially selected scholars called the Hall of Worthies. They were involved with publishing a lot of scholarly and scientific writings and because of their contribution to Korean culture this time is widely regarded as the golden age of Korean history.
  • The most well-known accomplishment of the Hall of Worthies was the Hunmin Jeongeum. Translated as “the correct/proper sounds for the instruction of the people”, this document described the brand new Korean alphabet that later became known as Hangeul.
  • The Hunmin Jeongeum was published on October 9, 1446 and that day is celebrated as Hangeul Day in South Korea.
  • Another document called the Hunmin Jeong-eum Haerye (translated as the Hunmin Jeong-eum Explanation and Examples) explains how the consonants were designed upon the shapes the mouth makes when saying the letters while the vowels were designed after the principles of yin and yang.
  • King Sejong decided that the Korean people needed a new alphabet because the Korean language was fundamentally different from Chinese.
  • Until this point, all Korean was written in Chinese characters known as Wen’zi (Hanja) which were very difficult for common people to read and write. In fact, before the invention of Hangeul most Koreans were illiterate.
  • Hangeul was designed so that even commoners would be able to read and write and as you might imagine this caused problems for the literary elite. Many scholars and aristocrats believed that Hanja was the only legitimate writing system and saw Hangeul as a threat to their status. Because Hangeul was so easy to learn and easy to use as a method of spreading information, the tenth king Yeonsangun banned the study and use of Hangeul and banned all documents written in Hangeul.  Hangeul later saw a revival in the last 16th century, however.
  • In the 19th century, increased Korean nationalism led to an increase in the use of Hangeul.
  • Western missionaries also promoted Hangeul in schools and in 1894 Hangeul was adopted for official documents.
  • In 1895, elementary schools started using Hangeul in their textbooks and in 1896 the first newspaper was printed in both Hangeul and English.
  • During the Colonial Rule in 1910 the official language of Korea became Japanese. However, Hangeul was still taught in Korean schools and once public schooling became mandatory for children, the majority of Korea started learning Hangeul.
  • The characters were somewhat standardized in 1912 with a few changes being made in 1930.
  • A man named Ju Sigyeong came up with the term Hangeul which means “Great Script” in 1912.
  • In 1938, the Korean language was banned in schools as part of a policy of cultural assimilation. Later, in 1941, all publications written in the Korean language were outlawed.
  • After Korea’s independence from colonial rule in 1946 Hangeul was brought back and North Korea even tried to add a few new letters.
  • In 1949, North Korea made Hangeul its official writing system and banned the use of Hanja completely.
  • In South Korea, Hangeul remains the official writing system, however in some cases Hanja characters are still used.

    Featured Image: ©Teenager in School Uniform Reading a Book, www.gettyimages.co.uk

Ivy O.

Passionista // Serial Chips & Kimbap Eater // Married InspireMeKorea // Love Human, Wanderlust, Photography and Just Kimzy // Internet Nut // to be continued......

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