THE HISTORY OF HANGEUL, THE KOREAN ALPHABET

Last October 9 in Korea was Hangeul Day. For the two or three people in the background who are lost, Hangeul is the Korean alphabetBut why establish a holiday for an alphabet? Because Hangeul is not just a simple alphabet, a whole story is hidden behind it and it is this story that we will discuss today!

An alphabet to educate the people

Before the invention of Hangeul, Chinese characters were used for the script called Hanja. The study of Chinese characters was then reserved for the elites, which made literacy not or hardly accessible to the poorest people. The illiteracy rate was therefore high in the country, especially in the countryside.

It was in 1443 that King Sejong, fourth king of the Joseon dynasty, decided to remedy this problem. Its goal was to enable all Korean people to access writing and reading by creating an alphabet that was easier and faster to learn than Chinese. It was on October 9, 1446 that Hunmin Chongum (literally “The true pronunciation taught to the people”), the first name of Hangeul, was created. At that time, it is said about Hangeul that an intelligent man could learn it in one day and an idiot in ten.

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     Statue of King Sejong at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul

An alphabet that is not unanimous

This new alphabet then attracted the wrath of intellectuals, arguing that only Hanja was able to transcribe Korean. The latter saw their status threatened by this new access to education. Shortly after, it is up to the government to oppose this new writing. In 1504, King Yeonsangun formally banned the use and learning of Hangeul. Hangeul then disappears from publications and the ministry in charge of research on the subject is abolished in 1506. However, the alphabet will continue its journey with the people, which will ultimately save them. And it was not until the end of the 19th century , beginning of the 20th century , that the term Hangeul made its official appearance, introduced by Chu Shigyong.

Hangeul was again targeted during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1894-1945). Indeed, the Japanese authorities are trying to impose Japanese and Chinese instead of Korean. It was then forbidden in Korea to speak Korean, Japanese or Chinese were compulsory. At the end of the Second World War, North Korea imposed the systematic use of Hangeul, as for South Korea, it continued to make the two systems coexist, Hanja and Hangeul. It was not until 1995 that Korean newspapers stopped using sinograms.

Hangeul today

Many scientists have looked into the question of Hangeul, some even consider it to be a perfect writing system. Indeed, its writing is based on the form that our vocal organs take when we pronounce it. Difficult to understand ? Let’s take an example ! The symbol  corresponds to the sounds “n” and it is also the form that our vocal organs take when we pronounce it! A little diagram might be clearer…

Hangul pronunciation

Today, even if Hangeul has become the official alphabet of Korea, Hanja is still taught but this teaching is mainly used to distinguish homophones as well as to write first and last names.

Sources: Wikipedia , Typographie.org , “History of Korea, from its origins to the present day” by Pascal Dayez-Burgeon

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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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