Hangeul is an exceptional writing system
By Robert J. Fouser
Hangeul made big news in 2009, the end of the first decade of the 20th century, with reports that the Cia-Cia people, an illiterate Indonesian tribe, adopted Hangeul as the writing system for their previously unwritten language. This is the first case of Hangeul becoming an officially acknowledged language outside Korea. Closer to home, meanwhile, the Presidential Council on National Branding adopted the branding of Hangeul and Korean language education overseas as an important project. And the much-awaited Gwanghwamun Plaza opened with a grand statue of King Sejong the Great (1397–1450), the inventor of Hangeul, sitting at its center.
Compared with spoken language, writing systems generate little news. Most languages around the world use writing systems that have evolved from other systems and that are the same or similar to the system of their neighbors. People complain about the inconvenience of orthography, but they rarely stop to think about how the structure of the writing system, let alone the possibility that one writing system might be “better” than another. Hangeul is fascinating because it forces numerous questions about writing systems to the surface while offering insight into the contours of Korean history. To understand Hangeul in full, it is best understood from linguistic, historical, and political perspectives.
Koreans are taught that Hangeul is the most scientific writing system in the world. By nature linguists take a relativistic approach to language that views all languages as equal; no language is better than another; no language more beautiful than another. Claiming Hangeul superiority, or “Hangeul exceptionalism,” then, goes against the heavy weight of the traditional of linguistic relativism.
As a writing system, Hangeul is unique in many ways, giving credence to Hangeul exceptionalism. Of the G20 nations, which include the world’s most widely spoken languages, Korea is the only nation with a writing system invented especially for the language. All other nations use writing systems that either evolved slowly through years of use or that were borrowed from other languages. Korea is thus the only major nation in the world with a writing system that can truly be called its own.
The most prominent unique feature of Hangeul is how some of the letters indicate the shape of the tongue and mouth in making the particular sound. The letter ㄱ, for example, shows the shape of the tongue in pronouncing the /k/ and /g/ sounds. This feature, which Hangeul exceptionalists take so much pride in, led Geoffrey Sampson, a noted expert on writing systems, to classify Hangeul as a “featural writing system,” the only such system in this category.
The addition of extra lines in Hangeul letters indicates a more complex sound. The addition of short line to ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ, for example, indicates aspiration, or the sound of air flowing, in ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ. Likewise, the doubling of letter ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅊ into ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, and ㅉ indicates a strong sound.
Hangeul also has a philosophical side. The vowels are divided into “light” and “dark” vowels, reflecting the ideas of “yin” and “yang,” the two polar opposites that coexist and complement each other in nature in Chinese philosophy. Letters for light vowels all have short lines, which were originally dots, facing up or to the right, whereas as letters for dark vowels are all written with short lines facing down or to the left.
Hangeul exceptionalists also take pride in how economical Hangeul is. All of the letters are composed of a combination of two common shapes: lines and circles. Hangeul has only 24 distinct letters, 14 consonants and 10 vowels, making it easy to learn. Hangeul is also easily adapted to computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices. Some people argue that the ease of inputting Hangeul into a computer or mobile phone stimulated the early diffusion of IT in Korea.
King Sejong the Great started the development of Hangeul in 1443 and promulgated it officially in 1446. The preamble to the promulgation is as famous to Koreans as, say, the Declaration of Independence is to Americans.
“Because the speech of this country is different from that of China, the spoken language does not match the Chinese characters. As a result many common people cannot express their concerns adequately. Saddened by this, I have developed 28 new letters. It is my wish that people may learn these letters easily and that they be convenient for daily use.” (Four letters have become obsolete and are no longer used.) The preamble has since become a symbol of “Koreanness” and is used as a decorative motif for wall paper, scarves, and even Starbucks coffee mugs.
Koreans revere King Sejong today for developing Hangeul more than any of his other major accomplishments, such as strengthening the military and promoting technological development. The development of Hangeul allowed Korea to break away from its 1000-year dependence on Chinese characters as the only way to express Korean language in writing.
The promulgation of Hangeul caused a flurry of experimentation with the new writing system, but it failed to dislodge adherence to the classical Chinese. The “Songs of the Flying Dragons,” a series of 125 cantos extolling the founding of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, was published in 1447, and was the first literary work written in Hangeul. By the early 16th century, official writing in Hangeul faded, and classical Chinese reigned supreme in government and among the elite until the end of the 19th century. Hangeul was used for poetry, popular novels, and private writing, such as diaries. It was also used to annotate classical Chinese texts for children, such as the “Thousand Character Classic.”
The weakening of the Joseon Dynasty and rise of Japanese imperialism beginning in the late 19th century destroyed the centuries-old Sino-centric world, causing a nationalistic awakening in its wake. Nationalists adopted Hangeul as a symbol of Korea’s independence from China, and promoted its use as the primary writing system in Korea. “The Independent,” a nationalist newspaper, which was published from 1896-1899, was the first newspaper to use only Hangeul, setting the standard for what has become the norm today. The newspaper with an English version was published by Soh Jai-pil (Philip Jaisoh). Ju Si-gyeong (1876-1914), the father of Hangeul exceptionalism, was the assistant editor of “The Independent.” He also coined the term Hangeul in 1912.
The revival of Hangeul in the 19th century stirred debate over how best to arrange Hangeul into a standard orthography. Until the early 20th century, words and grammatical elements were written as they were pronounced, meaning that they could be written in different ways depending on where they occurred in a sentence. The limitations of this approach, known as “shallow orthography” became clear as more people learned Hangeul. Scholars in the Korean Language Research Society, the forerunner of today’s Hangeul Society, worked to rectify the situation by developing a standard orthography in which words and grammatical elements were the same way regardless of where they appeared in a sentence. As a result, many Korean words and grammatical elements are not pronounced as they are written, a source of frustration to foreign learners of Korean. This “deep orthography” was published in 1933, making Korean much easier to read and write. Deep orthography remains the underlying principle behind standard orthography in both Korean states today, with minor differences between the two systems.
Korean lost its status as the official language of Korea under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, but the Korean Language Research Society promoted Hangeul through classes and the publication of books and dictionaries. Hangeul, with occasional use of Chinese characters, became the dominant writing system in all forms of Korean-language publishing during the colonial period until the Japanese banned Korean publications and the use of the Korean language in the late 1930s. In 1942, Japanese authorities arrested 13 leading members of the Korean Language Society because of their work in writing a dictionary of Korean.
Nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment since liberation in 1945 has led to Hangul-only policies in both Korean states. North Korea adopted a Hangeul-only policy early, but the matter has caused considerable debate in Korea. President Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) adopted a Hangeul-only policy in 1970 and the teaching of Chinese characters stopped in schools. Amid strong opposition, Park reversed himself and teaching of Chinese characters in elective classes resumed in 1972. Though most children learn Chinese characters, they are rarely used in daily life today.
Hangeul is not without controversy, many of which are politically charged. Shortly after its promulgation, some Confucian scholars wrote essays against the new system, arguing that it was designed to replace classical Chinese. To assuage these fears, King Sejong published a dictionary of Hangeul pronunciations of Chinese characters in 1448. Jump 500 years into the future, and this early debate about the appropriate role for Chinese characters in Korea continues today in debates over the place of Chinese characters in the national curriculum. Hangeul-only supporters argue that Koreans must honor Hangeul by using it exclusively and that learning Chinese characters takes time away from more important subjects, whereas supporters of Chinese characters argue that teaching them creates an important link to Korean linguistic and cultural history and neighboring languages Chinese and Japanese. At heart, both sides have a different view of Korea’s place in the world.
The debate over linear Hangeul and other experiments is lesser known. As Hangeul achieved dominance during the Japanese colonial period, various alternative ways of writing Hangeul were proposed. Ju Shi-gyeong and later Choi Hyeon-bae (1894-1970), his student and renowned linguist, were among a number of scholars to propose writing each Hangeul letter separately on a line instead of grouping letters into distinct syllables. They argued that linear Hangeul was more “advanced” and that it was more suited to typewriters. Linear Hangeul never caught on, though remnants of it remain in a few school seals.
A spirited debate over the origin of Hangeul has continued for years. Some scholars argue a group of scholars developed Hangeul under King Sejong’s leadership, whereas others argue that the developed Hangeul largely by himself. More controversial is Korean studies scholar Gari Ledyard’s argument that the shapes of five of the Hangeul letters came from the Mongol 'Phags-pa writing system developed by Kublai Khan in the 13th century. Most linguists doubt Ledyard’s claims, but it provokes thought about a possible relationship between Hangeul and other writing systems. Needless to say, Hangeul exceptionalists take umbrage at it because it strikes at the heart of Hangeul uniqueness.
Finally, there is the controversy over Hangeul Day, Oct. 9 should become a national holiday again. From 1945 until 1991, Hangeul Day was a national holiday, making South Korea the only nation in the world to celebrate its writing system officially with a day off work. Hangeul Day was removed from the list of national holidays because the government thought the nation had too many holidays. The move sparked calls to reinstate the holiday, and such efforts continue today. Since 2005, Hangeul Day has been observed as a day of national commemoration, but with no time off work. (North Korea celebrates the equivalent of Hangeul Day on January 15, though not as a national holiday.)
In the end, the story of Hangeul is the story of Korea’s struggle to nurture its most important cultural product, a struggle mirroring Korea’s efforts to create an independent, strong, and prosperous nation amid aggressive powers. Hangeul began as the ingenious invention of a benevolent King only to languish as a second-class writing system for centuries before being rediscovered by newly awakened nationalists in Korea’s hour of greatest peril. Now pre-eminent in Korea, Hangeul is making its way around the world through an ever-increasing number of foreigners learning and using Korean.
And what of Hangeul exceptionalism? In discussing Hangeul in his 1985 book entitled “Writing Systems,” Geoffrey Sampson concluded dryly: “Whether or not it is ultimately the best of all conceivable scripts for Korean, Han’gul [Hangeul] must unquestionably rank as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of humankind.” Hangeul is exceptional not for its “superiority,” but for the uniqueness and magnitude of its intellectual achievement.