Over the thousands of years of Korean history, only two kings managed to earn the moniker "The Great." One of these kings, Sejong, was the fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty.
Although I could fill an entire blog series with Sejong's many achievements, today we're going to focus on one of his most famous achievements, facilitating the invention of the 28-letter Korean alphabet, hangeul (lit. the great script), sometime around 1443.
Now, initially, this might seem a bit odd. The Koreans were a literate people, and one of the reasons we know so much about Korean history despite the many upheavals, wars, invasions, and other assorted unpleasantness is that they wrote a lot of things down. They even had metal movable type printing by the 13th century (a good two centuries before Gutenberg). So, why would they need a new alphabet? What were they using to write?
At the time, literate Koreans relied, fundamentally, on Chinese characters (hanja) to write. Chinese writing is a mainly logographic system. The characters themselves represent words. This is distinct from a phonetic system, such as an alphabet, where the individual letters/characters represent sounds.
General reading fluency with hanja requires knowledge of thousands of characters. This is also one of the reasons why things like movable type printing didn't produce the dramatic impact in Korea (or in China, where it had been invented even earlier) they did in Europe. Printing books using hanja required the printing press to account for these thousands of characters.
The use of hanja, as you can imagine, had a large impact on literacy at a time when many people didn't have the time or resources for extensive education. This, among other things, made literacy even more a province of the elite than it was in many other societies.
There's also the linguistic reality that Chinese characters are poorly suited for representing the Korean language. I've studied both Mandarin Chinese and Korean. The languages are radically different. They have different grammar, different phonetics, different morphology, and even different syntax. Mandarin (and all past and present Chinese dialects) is a tonal language. Korean is not. So, in a sense, pretty much everything that defines a language as different from another is different between Korean and Chinese. Fundamental differences in grammar, such as morphological changes in words present in Korean that are not present in Chinese, can be difficult to represent using hanja. The Koreans of the early Joseon, and earlier periods, thus relied on a cumbersome hybrid of hanja supplemented with special characters, even further complicating the entire system.
|Page from the Hunmin Jeong-eum Eonhae with both hanja and hangeul.|
The third column from the left is totally in hangeul.The other columns mix the hanja and the hangeul.
In the Joseon Dynasty, hanja and hanja-related scripts were held in high-esteem. The aristocrats and Confucian scholars that controlled Korean society put considerable effort into their study of hanja. There was little real concern among most of these elites about universal literacy. Some of it arguably was about them failing to see the need, and some of it arguably was an attempt to secure their particular positions by limiting the intellectual and cultural resources available to the lesser classes.
King Sejong the Great, however, didn't like presiding over a country were so many people were illiterate. Among other things, he felt this wouldn't allow the commoners to properly express their concerns and complaints via writing, something that was a fundamental limitation in the highly organized and often bureaucratic society. To combat this, he decided upon a language reform with one goal in mind: the creation of a simple phonetic script, what we now call hangeul.
There's still debate to this day how much King Sejong personally participated in the creation of the script, but, at the minimum, he put together a team of scholars from his group of elite scholars, the Hall of Worthies, and may have even worked in the linguistic trenches, as it were, with them on some aspects.
For centuries, there were only myths and folklore to explain many aspects underpinning the desire hangeul. In the early twentieth century, a copy of a document from 1446 detailing the creation and logic of hangeul was discovered, the Hunmin Jeong-eum Eonhae (The Proper Sounds for Instruction of the People). That name, incidentally, was also the original name for hangeul. This document details the phonetic logic of the script, and the general emphasis on efficiency and ease of learning. For example, the initial shapes were designed to be simple and in some cases even representative of the way the mouth moved. They were (and for the most part still are) simple geometric shapes that are easy to memorize and easy to write.
|Basic Korean consonants (Image from WikiMedia Commons)|
Famously, King Sejong bragged in supplement to the 1446 document that "A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over and even a simple man can learn them in ten days."
|Basic Korean vowels|
The popularity of hangeul would constantly shift throughout the centuries, but by the end of the 19th-century, it finally started becoming the universal Korean alphabet King Sejong the Great had hoped, including being adopted for official use. It was around this time, in 1912, that the modern name, hangeul, was adopted.
The coming of the Japanese threatened hangeul again, as the occupiers attempted to assimilate Koreans into Japanese culture by forcing them to study Japanese and even later outright banning publishing in Korean or Korean script.
After the Koreans were freed from the occupation, the popularity of hangeul exploded. As the generations have passed, the use of hanja is slowly fading. There have been some modifications in the script over the centuries, but overall, it has changed remarkably little since its creation, though in common use, it's dropped from a 28-letter alphabet to a 24-letter alphabet. The clean, careful, and logical design of the script makes spelling particularly easy, and Korean written in hangeul, as compared to many other languages (such as English) has far few phonetic exceptions, silent letters, and other such lingo-historical detritus that can complicate reading and writing.
The creation of hangeul is particularly impressive when you consider the vast majority of the world's alphabets can all be traced back to scripts that originally appeared on the Sinai Peninsula during the Bronze Age. Even when scholars were modifying their alphabets, they were still keeping the core of what had come before.
Though this is a blog series focusing on the Joseon Period, given the continuing division on the Korean Peninsula, I did want to take a brief moment to note that both North and South Korea make use of hangeul, though the North Koreans refer to, for various historical and political reasons, it as Joseongul.