Celebrating the Korean Alphabet: Hangeul Day

 

October 9th is a national holiday to commemorate the proclamation of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. The day was declared a holiday quite recently, in 2013. The commemoration itself has a longer history, however. It was in 1926 that a group of nationalistic activists, gathered to work towards the preservation of the Korean language under the Japanese colonial rule, designated the last day of the ninth month (then according to the lunar calendar system) to celebrate the 480th anniversary of the invention and declaration of Hangeul.

Hangeul was invented in the 15th century by the King Sejong (1397~1450), known as Sejong the Great, and his scholar-officials. There are only a couple of monarchs in the entire Chosun dynasty always mentioned by the people of today along with the epithet ‘the Great’, and King Sejong is one of them mainly because of his work on the Hangeul system. Hangeul was proclaimed under the title of Hunminjeongeum – roughly translated as “Correct Sounds for the Education of the People”. The term Hangeul was suggested by Ju Si-gyeong, a scholar of the Korean language and culture, in 1913: soon after Japan’s annexation of Korea.

In 1940, the exact lunar date of the proclamation of Hangeul was discovered, and the day was fixed as October 9th according to the Gregorian calendar.

 

 

It is a popular belief that the introduction of Hangeul was the result of consideration and care for the common people, who were not educated enough, or could never be educated enough to read or write in classical Chinese. A more somber perspective would be that Hangeul was intended to strengthen the barrier between the gentry and the common man. It should also be noted that whatever the intention behind the Hangeul system had been, there must have been a need felt by at least some of the ruling class for letters for the uneducated, for various purposes, perhaps including commercial and contractual ones.

Whatever the truth may be, Hangeul is today the national alphabet system of Korea. It is easy enough for anyone to learn, definitely one of the reasons why it has survived for so long in more or less the same form. Hangeul originally had 28 letters, 17 of which were consonants and 11 were vowels. Four of them were dropped to make in total 24 letters, or 14 consonants and 10 vowels.

Hangeul is thought to be very reflective of phonology, with consonants that are shaped to resemble the sounds they are supposed to make. One may not realize this at first but even without knowing, it makes the learning curiously easy. It is trickier, however, to get the exact placement of letters right for every sound (work equivalent to “spelling” in Roman alphabets), because of the irregularities that exist within the Korean diction and sound system.

Still, Hangeul is a very instinctive way of expressing basic sounds present in all languages. Unlike other alphabet systems that cannot be traced back to their inventors Hangeul is, as an invention by a great king, celebrated every year.

 

 

— J. Chung.

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