This is the action-packed Part One of my long-promised review of Hangul, the Korean writing system. Even with the liberal lashings of foul language and obscene anecdotes, it may bore the tits off you – if so, feel free to either skip it entirely or send me the bill for the mammary reattachment procedure. (It will help to have Asian fonts installed, as explained here, but is not essential. My next post in the series will require them, though…)
Chinese writing in its various historical manifestations has been known and used in Korea for more than 2 millennia, dating back to the time of the Chinese occupation of northern Korea from 108 BC to 313 AD. By the 5th century CE, the Koreans were starting to write in Classical Chinese – the earliest known example of this dates from 414 CE, and by the 7th century, educated Koreans were speaking Korean and writing in Chinese. Later, three different systems for writing Korean with Chinese characters were created and adopted to various degrees : Hyangchal, Gugyeol and Idu.
The Hyangchal (향찰) system used Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Korean, and was used mainly to write poetry. (A similar system in use in Japan at about the same time, known as man’yogana, eventually evolved into hiragana, one of the syllabaries used to write modern Japanese. Man’yogana was developed under the supervision of Koreans in the Japanese court.) The Idu(이두) system, created in the 8th century by scholars of the Shilla Dynasty, used a combination of Chinese characters and special symbols to indicate Korean verb endings and other grammatical markers, and was used in official and private documents for centuries thereafter. Gugyeol (구결) was introduced in the 13th century, and was basically a simplification of some Chinese characters in an attempt to remove some ambiguity arising from the use of some Chinese characters for their sounds and others for their meanings.
China has always been the great civilization next door in Asia, a very big brother sometimes benevolent and more often not, the source of cultural borrowings for all of its smaller neighbours, including the Koreans, and for much of Korean history the language used for learned, official purposes in Korea was Chinese, in somewhat the same way as medieval Europeans used Latin.
By the 15th century, though, it was time for Korea to find a way of writing their own language that was more appropriate to its own sounds and grammar. It could be argued that Koreans had limited need to write their language down up to this time and for a some time afterwards, and when they did, it was sufficient to use Chinese writing to spell it out, but Chinese and Korean were and are very different languages. Korean is a subject-object-verb language, for example, and has a rich system of postpositional case markers. Chinese, a subject-verb-object language, does not. Korean has a complicated system of honorifics, part of which is expressed as verb endings. Chinese does not, and doesn’t have any characters to represent these verb-ending morphemes.
The Korean writing system 한굴 (hangul) was finally created in 1440s, through the patronage of King Sejong, the fourth king of the Choson Dynasty, who ruled from 1418-1450. The new script was easy to learn – a matter of hours in many cases. (Hell, I even developed basic reading skills years ago after a couple of beer-fueled sessions at my favorite bar!) It was elegant, scientific, rooted in philosophy and study of the phonemes of spoken Korean, and is truly a thing of beauty. At the time, it was called 훈민ì •ê¸ˆ(hunmin jeongeum, or ‘proper sounds to instruct the people’). According to King Sejong’s preface to the book in which it first appeared in 1446, the invention of the script was nationalistic in intent, devised to enable the Korean people to write their own language without the use of Chinese characters. He states, in immodest Kingly (but surprisingly egalitarian) fashion :

“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.”

possibly starting as a side-effect the long and treasured tradition of Korean men taking credit for the hard work of their underlings.
Even after the invention of the Korean alphabet, though, most Koreans who could write continued to write either in Classical Chinese or in Korean using the Gukyeol or Idu systems – the new script was seen to be the province of people of low status : women, children, and peasants, those who did not receive the necessary years of education required to learn to write Chinese.
Reading and writing weren’t the only political issues with regard to the language at the time, of course – spoken Korean at the time was basically a vernacular, used mostly for more homely means. Chinese was still mainly the language of power, of art, of loftier pursuits. With the similar (and certainly more despised) position of Japanese as the language of power during the brutal occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century coming hard on the heels of the collapse of the Choseon Dynasty, the idea that Korean (both written and spoken) should be the common language of all levels of society is still a relatively new one. Ideas like universal literacy and egalitarianism weren’t exactly popular ones in the society of that time (nor were they for the 5 and a half centuries after King Sejong, for that matter).
When Korean was written in the newly devised hangul script, it did still make sense for Chinese loan words, of which there were and are a multitude, to be written in their original Chinese. During the 19th and 20th centuries a mixed writing system combining Chinese characters and Hangul became increasingly popular, and literacy rates rose precipitously (as much as a consequence of changes in society as anything else, of course), until today, when the literacy rate in Korea is amongst the world’s highest. Although it has been fading since 1945 (and was outlawed in North Korea in 1949) the use of Chinese characters still persists today – the front page of many South Korean newpapers today are littered with Chinese characters, although to a lesser degree than they were even 10 years ago.
Stay tuned for Part Two, coming as soon as I bloody well feel like it, which in addition to details about the writing system itself, will include naked pictures and senseless violence! Or not. I haven’t decided yet. Please feel free to point out any factual inaccuracies – I am well aware that there are many folks around with more knowledge of this subject than I could possibly lay claim to.

Korea-related, Uncrappy

Join the conversation! 14 Comments

  1. Great post mon ami… goes to look up morphemes. hehe scoops first comment 😛

  2. Excellent!
    I am enjoying both yours and Jonathon’s posts on the languages of Korea and Japan, respectively — not a dry recital of the mechanics of the written languages, but how they played a part on the society, the politics, and so on.

  3. Echoing Shelley: excellent!
    And I hereby claim 1% of the credit for bullying you into starting this series. Now, if I recall correctly, I said “if you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
    I think I might kick off with a “dry recital of the mechanics of the written language.”

  4. Fascinating. Do the Chinese characters used in the mixed writing system have the same meaning in Korean as they do in Chinese? I’m curious because I’ve noticed that to a certain extent the kanji characters in Japanese share roughly similar meanings to Chinese, and wonder if that is the case with Korean as well.

  5. As I understand it, Lashlar, some Chinese characters were used for their meaning, some for their sound. With regard to today’s 1800 characters or so still in occasional use – which to be fully literate Korean students are still expected to study – I’m not sure.
    My next post will be getting into the mechanics and stuff of Korean.

  6. Unicode rocks

    The feedback on my previous post, This is a test of Japanese, indicate that our East Asian languages experiment is proving to be surprisingly successful. The number of visitors–mainly on Mac OS X and Linux/Unix systems–who could see the Japanese char…

  7. Most of the characters (maybe 80-90%) maintain some of the same meaning as they do in Chinese currently. The problem with saying this though, is that each character can have many meanings, and sometimes has had clearly different meanings in different time periods…
    It’s sometimes funny for Chinese people to see how the characters are used in Japan, because sometimes the most common meanings for them in Japan date back to the Tang dynasty in China, whereas in Chinese, the meaning has shifted over time a bit…

  8. Good post. a few mistakes in the Korean:
    * 향찰 (鄕札) — chal, aspirated
    * 구결 (口訣) — ku-gyeol
    * í›ˆë¯¼ì •ìŒ (訓民正音)
    There is one — obscure — system you don’t mention, called 釋讀口訣 석독구결, seokdok gugyeol, which was used around the 9th 10 12th centuries. It was used by buddhist monks to annotate the texts in Korean, in a way similar to what Japanese call kanbun
    漢文. Fully understandable you didn’t know about it: very few people do!
    Regarding sinograms and their respective meanings in Chinese and Korean, it is not so much a problem of the individual meaning of characters, but rather of the words — compounds of sinograms that make sense (or not!) in both languages. Koreans have their own compounds that Chinese wouldn’t have a wild guess at (try 玉篇), or sometimes the compund is written backwards (자식 子息 vs 息子, for instance). Same with Cantonese… A Korean speaker has lots of fun with some of their words: 小心 means shyness, narrow mindedness in Korean and “Caution!” in Cantonese…
    But overall, if you are familiar with sinograms and their compounds in one language, you can get by in other countries.

  9. One funny example:
    手紙 (tegami) means letter in Japanese…
    手纸 (shÇ’uzhǐ),(shou3zhi3) means toilet paper in Chinese…
    BTW, I can’t see the pinyin characters I entered above, so if you find a font that works for them, please let me know!

  10. P.S. I noticed that pinyin displays in IE (win) when you use font ‘Courier New’ or ‘Verdana Ref’ for Latin in the settings, as long as it’s not overridden by the style on the site.

  11. Thanks for the additional info and corrections, guys.

  12. shouzhi in pinyin, as I see it from Mozilla 1.4b, displays as shou1zhi1, the tone mark looks flat not like a reversed ^.

  13. Very informative post! I’ve forgotten almost all the Korean I picked up ten years ago…


    Detailed exploration of Hangul, the Korean writing system, and the old usage of Chinese prior to its invention

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