Koreans have developed and use a unique alphabet called Hangeul. It is considered to be one of the most efficient alphabets in the world and has garnered unanimous praise from language experts for its scientific design and excellence.
Hangeul was created under King Sejong during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). In 1446, the first Korean alphabet was proclaimed under the name Hunminjeongeum, which literally meant "the Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People."
King Sejong, the motivating force behind Hangeul, is considered to be one of the greatest rulers in the history of Korea. Highly respected for his benevolent disposition and diligence, King Sejong was also a passionate scholar whose knowledge and natural talent in all fields of study astounded even the most learned experts.
When King Sejong was not performing his official duties, he enjoyed reading and meditating. He could also be very tenacious at times and would never yield on what he thought was right. Love for the people was the cornerstone of his reign (1418-1450), and he was always ready to listen to the voices of the common folk. He was a ruler of virtue, with the welfare of the people dictating all policy formulations.
King Sejong also established the Jiphyeonjeon, an academic research institute, inside the palace. Noted scholars from all academic disciplines gathered here to engage in lively discussions and also to publish a variety of scholarly books.
During his reign, King Sejong always deplored the fact that the common people, ignorant of the complicated Chinese characters that were being used by the educated, were not able to read and write. He understood their frustration in not being able to read or to communicate their thoughts and feelings in written words.
The Chinese script was used by the intelligentsia of the country, but being of foreign origin, it could not fully express the words and meaning of Korean thoughts and spoken language. Therefore, common people with legitimate complaints had no way of submitting their grievances to the appropriate authorities, other than through oral communication, and they had no way to record for posterity the agricultural wisdom and knowledge they had gained through years of experience.
King Sejong felt great sympathy for the people. As a wise ruler strongly dedicated to national identity and cultural independence, he immediately searched for solutions. What he envisioned was an alphabet that was uniquely Korean and easily learnable, rendering it accessible and usable for the common people.
Thus, the Hunminjeongeum was born. In the preface of its proclamation, King Sejong states as follows:
"Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have invented a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people." The statement captures the essence of King Sejong's determination and dedication to cultural independence and commitment to the welfare of the people.
When first proclaimed by King Sejong, Hunminjeongeum had 28 letters in all, of which only 24 are in use today. The 24 letters are as follows.
In particular, because of its simplicity and the rather small number of letters, Hangeul is very easy for children or speakers of other languages to learn.
Most children are capable of expressing their feelings and thoughts by the ages of two or three, albeit in primitive form. However, most Korean children by the time they reach school age, have mastered Hangeul, which is unusual. This fact clearly attests to the easy learnability and accessibility of the Korean alphabet.
It is ironic that the strongest proof of the easy learnability of the alphabet came from the critics who argued against the creation of Hunminjeongeum. Some scholars vehemently railled against the "new" alphabet because of its learnability, and in derision, they called it Achimgeul (morning letters) or Amgeul (women's letters).
Achimgeul meant that it could be learned in one morning. For those scholars who had spent years learning the complicated ideographs of the Chinese language, Hangeul did not appear to be worthy of learning. Amgeul meant that even women who had no academic training or background at the time Hangeul was invented could easily learn the alphabet. At that time, there were those who considered the pursuit of academic studies and the subject of reading and writing to be the sole domain of a few privileged scholars.
Such misconceptions were the result of confusing simple linguistic learning with more advanced academic studies. Without learning the basic alphabet, reading and writing would be impossible, let alone the study of more advanced subjects. Without being able to read and write, there can be no indirect communication of one's feelings and thoughts. Surely, King Sejong's intent was to enrich the lives of the people by introducing Hangeul, and not to make scholars out of all his subjects.
In its subsequent history, Hangeul has been a mainstay of Korean culture, helping preserve the country's national identity and independence.
Illiteracy is virtually nonexistent in Korea. This is another fact that attests to the easy learnability of Hangeul. It is not uncommon for a foreigner to gain a working knowledge of Hangeul after one or two hours of intensive studying. In addition, because of its scientific design, Hangeul lends itself to easy mechanization. In this age of computers, many people now are able to incorporate computers into their lives without difficulties, thanks to a large number of programs written in Hangeul.
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You'll probably notice some curiosities in the above table, such as a "place holder" character and letters with two interpretations. Also, some letters are catigorized as either "stressed" or "aspirated." Let's discuss these very briefly.
Some of the characters, such as ㄱ are listed as "g(k)". This is because, initially, the pronounciation of the character is a bit inbetween both of these sounds in english. However, when a ㄱ is at the beginning of a sentence, it sounds more like a k, rather than a g. The rest of the characters with similar interpretations, namely ㄷ,ㅂ, and ㅈ, share the same quality.
The ㄹ has a slightly more difficult pronounciation to speakers of English. It is pronounced like a half "r" and half "l" sound. While difficult at first, mastery is fairly easy.
Thirdly, you'll notice that the ㅇ is also listed as a "place holder". This means that the particular syllable has no initial consonant. To keep the writing style uniform, the ㅇ is put where the consonant would normally be written. However, if the ㅇ is not in the initial consonant position, then it is pronounced like the english "ng".
Finally, let's discuss "aspirated" and "stressed" consonants. An "aspirated" consonant means that, instead of making a vocal sound, air is expelled instead. For example, say "j" and "ch" and listen closely to how you pronounce them. You'll notice that saying "j" produces a vocal sound, while saying "ch" produces no vocal sounds. In korean, the aspirated consonants are like the "ch" in that you must expel more air to say them.
A "stressed" consonant means that it is said harder, with the diaphram tensed. For example, imagine you were to say "duck!" kind of loudly. This hard "d" sound is like the sound made by the Korean ㄸ. Similarly ㄲ,ㅃ,ㅆ, and ㅉ are pronounced with that similar stress.