Happy Hangul Day!

By October 9, 2017Literacies

King Sejong the Great (1397-1450) (Image source: Wikipedia)

Today, South Koreans celebrate Hangul Day. Hangul Day is a national holiday to celebrate the Korean script. I am not aware of any other national holiday anywhere else to celebrate a particular script (except for the North Koreans who also have a national day to celebrate the Korean script but they call it Chosŏn’gŭl Day and celebrate on January 15). What is so special about the Korean script that it gets a national holiday in both Koreas you might ask?

There is actually a good reason: the invention of Hangul is not only a major linguistic achievement but also of significant social importance.

Hangul was invented by King Sejong the Great who lived from 1397 to 1450 CE and was the fourth king of Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392–1910).

As a small nation, Korea at the time was overshadowed by its powerful Chinese neighbor which was styled as “elder brother”. As is often the case in such relationships, and is still true today, powerful nations not only rule over less powerful ones but they also come to be seen as providing the standard of all fashion, culture and knowledge. As today, subaltern people are apt to misrecognize the language and culture of the powerful as an intrinsic feature of their power. The hegemonic nation comes to be seen as the source of knowledge and local ways are often denigrated and dismissed as lacking value. Same old story back in 14th-century Korea:

China was considered the source of all culture and learning. The Korean elite therefore thought it natural that becoming literate meant learning the Chinese language: everything worth reading was written in Chinese. (Gnanadesikan 2009, p. 193)

Despite all the Chinese learning, not all was well in the kingdom of Korea; in fact, it was a rather backward place. Unlike many feudals, King Sejong was not content with living the good life at the expense of his subjects. On the contrary, committed to serving the good of his nation, he wanted to improve his country and better the lot of all Koreans. In addition to being the king, he had a lot going for him: he had received an excellent education (through the medium of Chinese, of course), he was bilingual in Korean and Chinese and he was an immensely talented scholar with wide-ranging interests. All his reading and writing obviously was in Chinese but Chinese publications were the only game in town.

One of King Sejong’s interests was related to agriculture, an area with obvious potential to improve the lot of Koreans: the growing population needed food. So, he started numerous scientific and technological projects to help increase agricultural production. However, all the agricultural knowledge of the time was based on Chinese climatic conditions and he realized that existing knowledge could not just be taken holus-bolus from China but needed to be adapted to Korean conditions. He saw the need for localization, if you will. One example of such a localization measure was the development of a specifically Korean agricultural calendar to determine sowing and harvesting times that were ideal for the Korean peninsula.

Another example of his wisdom in adapting Chinese knowledge to the Korean situation related to medicine where he commissioned a medical encyclopedia that focused on native Korean herbs and remedies and described their uses and where to find them.

King Sejong also was interested in jurisprudence:

Throughout his reign he showed a passion for justice, working to improve prison conditions, set fairer sentencing standards, implement proper procedures for autopsies, protect slaves from being lynched, punish corrupt officials, set up an appeals process for capital crimes, and limit torture. Nevertheless, one problem continued to vex the king: the litigation process was carried out in Chinese. Were the accused able to adequately defend themselves in a foreign language? Sejong doubted it. (Gnanadesikan 2009, p. 195)

The basic consonant signs of the Korean alphabet representing their pronunciation (Source: Gnanadesikan 2009, p. 198)

The justice system was not the only area where King Sejong discovered that all his reform attempts continually ran into a language barrier: whether it was agriculture, medicine, law or any other area of life: dissemination of knowledge, development and progress were stymied by the fact that only a tiny minority of Koreans could read. As mentioned above, all writing was in Chinese and Chinese literacy was restricted to a tiny elite. The vast majority of Koreans had no access to all the knowledge that was available. Teaching everyone how to read and write in Chinese was obviously not practical.

King Sejong concluded that, in order to achieve broad dissemination of knowledge, Korean needed a writing system of its own; not one based on Chinese but one that was based on Korean and easy to learn.

He started to look around for ways to develop a script for Korean. In addition to Chinese, he was able to study Japanese, Jurchen and Mongolian scripts. While these syllabary-based scripts provided some inspiration, it must be considered a stroke of genius that he figured out the difference between consonants and vowels – characteristic of alphabetic writing – by himself. In a next step, he divided the consonants into groups according to their place of articulation – another impressive feat in the absence of any phonetic models.

Having identified the phonetic characteristics of the sounds of Korean, he devised signs that represent pronunciations. This is in contrast to all other writing systems where signs initially started out as ideograms representing objects. At the danger of overusing the expression “stroke of genius” – that’s precisely what it was!

The new script was published in early October 1446 and the preface, written in Chinese, states:

The speech sounds of our country’s language are different from those of the Middle Kingdom and are not communicable with the Chinese characters. Therefore, when my beloved simple people want to say something, many of them are unable to express their feelings. Feeling compassion for this I have newly designed twenty-eight letters, only wishing to have everyone easily learn and use them conveniently every day. (Quoted from Gnanadesikan 2009, p. 204)

Korean consonant letters. Easy to learn, right? Even if you’ll need to allow for some more time to learn the vowels, too … (Source: Gnanadesikan 2009, p. 198)

Maybe unsurprisingly, the Korean elite hardly welcomed the new script. They probably saw the threat it posed to their monopoly on learning and education. In any case, they did not like it and the script was widely denigrated as “morning script” (because it was so easy it could be learnt in a morning) or even as “women’s script” (because it was so easy even women could learn it …)

Wise King Sejong did not risk a fight and did not impose the exclusive use of Hangul. As a result, Korean elites let the script slip into oblivion after his death and it almost did not survive the Japanese invasions of the 16th century, which devastated the country.

In fact, history has hardly been kind to Korea; and in 1945, after the ravishes of wars and colonization, the illiteracy rate in the country stood at close to 80 percent. Hangul played a key role in turning these figures around and the illiteracy rate in both Koreas is today close to zero: testament to the continued relevance of the vision of a centuries-old wise ruler intent on serving the common good.

The story of Hangul presents an inspiring case study in the ways in which language arrangements can form obstacles to progress and social justice and the ways in which these can be overcome. For details on the story of Hangul, read Chapter 11 “King Sejong’s One-Man Renaissance” of Gnanadesikan (2009), on whose account I have drawn here. For a general discussion of the relationship between linguistic diversity and social justice, see Piller (2016) – today and tomorrow is your last chance to tweet about #linguisticdiversity and enter our draw for a copy of the book.

References

Gnanadesikan, A. E. (2009). The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Jinhyun Cho

    Sejong is the only Korean king who was posthumously awarded “the Great” on the basis of his impressive achievement. Despite its scientific ingenuity, Hangul has been undervalued due particularly to its association with commoners (vs. Chinese characters for Korean elites). Hangul Day was designated as a national holiday in 1945 following Korea’s independence from Japan but was demoted in 1991 because of the government’s perception that Korea had too many holidays… It was reinstated only in 2013 after a long hiatus, and a real cause of celebration for Koreans and those who are interested in learning Korean!

  • David Marjanović

    While these syllabary-based scripts provided some inspiration, it must
    be considered a stroke of genius that he figured out the difference
    between consonants and vowels – characteristic of alphabetic writing –
    by himself.

    Not quite. Another script he knew was ‘Phags-pa, which is an alphabet except for not spelling out short /a/ (it’s based mainly on Tibetan which does the same thing). The shapes of the phonologically (not graphically!) simplest letters are simplified from ‘Phags-pa, too.

    (Also, Mongolian is a very quirky script that can be interpreted as a quirky alphabet as well as as a very quirky syllabary, though it’s traditionally taught the latter way.)

    The stroke of genius is in interpreting these shapes as shapes of the oral cavity, in systematically deriving the shapes of all other consonant letters from these by adding or subtracting strokes, and in creating the vowel letters in a way inspired only by Middle Korean vowel harmony (and its interpretation in Chinese terms like yin & yang).

  • salmat

    This article illustrates how access to language and literature underpins all of humanity’s needs, as outlined in Maslow’s hierarchy. From physiological requirements (food, medicine), to psychological needs (expressing feelings), to self-actualisation (justice and access to education). It’s wonderful to hear about a leader who recognised this, and provided his subjects with such a useful tool to meet their needs. Well worthy of a national holiday to celebrate!

  • Hanne Houbracken

    Koreans made the right decision when establishing the national holiday, Hangul Day, as the Korean language deserves recognition. It is truly one of a kind, in multiple ways. Not only is it the world’s largest language isolate, it is also a cross between an alphabet and a syllabary, which means the symbols both reflect the individual sounds and are assembled into syllabic blocks. And this genius system was designed by just one man, King Sejong the Great. Quite remarkable, if you think about it.

    Reference: http://www.businessinsider.com/a-linguist-explains-why-korean-is-the-best-written-language-2016-6

  • Dhanisa Kamila

    As I had the chance to learn Korean language in my bachelor degree, I certainly have heard about King Sejong and Hangul Day. However, just like @disqus_bcFGvIwXRD:disqus, I wasn’t aware of North Koreans’ Chosŏn’gŭl Day. Thanks to this blog, I always learn something new!

    As a foreigner with experience in learning Korean, I agree that Hangul is easy to learn. Well, it’s not very easy, but it’s easy enough because of its systematic arrangement. It took me couple days to be able to fully read Hangul and 2-3 weeks to fully memorize all the characters. I enjoyed learning it.

    Happy Hangul Day!

  • swati sharma

    I would like to through light on the fact that INDIA also celebrates the “HINDI DIWAS” every year on 14th September. Hindi is considered the mother tongue of India. This day is celebrated because the Constituent Assembly of India had adopted Hindi written in Devanagari script as the official language of the Republic of India. Though we do not have a national holiday on this day , but this day has to be celebrated in all the schools, offices and has to submit the report of the celebration to the Ministry. After the 200 years of British rule in India, English was considered as the official and the communicating language. The story of hangul reminds me of the story of Hindi.

  • Kaniz Rahman

    It is interesting to see how sejong did not just enjoy being the king rather he put an attention in one if the most important aspect of a nation. Using a foreign language is hard for all the people. Elite people can learn a foreign language but for the other locals its hard. I would like to draw attention to my country, we had a war in 1972 when we got our freedom as a nation, however the riot started in 1952 and it was because “urdu” was being imposed on Bangladesh even though “Bengali” was the language all the people used to speak. So it goes to show how much it is neccessary to have an own language and own script.

  • S. J. L.

    Thank you for the impressive article. I think celebrating Hangul day is very meaningful. In the world history, many countries attempted to develop their own scripts for their languages. Unfortunately, many of them failed because of various reasons. So many languages still do not have their scripts. As a result, the languages that do not possess their scripts borrow other writing systems such as Roman alphabet to write their languages. Of course, borrowing another script contains several potential demerits except Western Europe countries that have used Roman alphabet for a long time. Thanks to King Sejong, Koreans do not need to brow another script for their language. And it will be able to bring many merits for Korea.

  • Nadiah Aziz

    Hi Prof Ingrid,

    I was reading the first few paragraphs of your article ‘accompanied’ by my thoughts on one of the weak hadeeth of The Prophet, that I came across when I was in school (which I later discovered was an exaggeration and not authentic). Hadeeth in Arabic literally means statement or talk, and it also gives me an understanding of ‘to report or tell a happening’. The hadeeth stated that, “Seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China” which was fabricated perhaps more than 1400 years ago. Although everyone in Malaysia knows that this hadeeth is not authentic, some of the teachers in religious schools are still using this statement until this day. It is no doubt that China has a lot of sources of culture and knowledge, and a lot of written resources that are worth reading. Therefore it is not surprising that even the inventor of Hangul looked up to them as the ‘elder brother’. I guess the fabricated hadeeth that became very famous amongst Muslims in Malaysia definitely has its ground or reasoning and rich history to it. It is being referred to a lot, especially in the business world at least, amongst us Malays, as the economy and successful businesses in Malaysia are clearly being monopolised and dominated by the Chinese. Although the hadeeth is being regarded as not authentic, it is not completely useless and there is definitely a logical thought and reasoning as to why China was mentioned instead of other countries and I think it is interesting at least, for me to think of ^_^.

    Best,
    Nadiah AZIZ

  • 44209150

    Thank you for sharing such an informative post that gives me the knowledge about the birth of the distinct writing system of Hangul of Korea. This post also reminded me of the history of the birth of our Vietnamese writing system. Like other Asian countries at the ancient time, Vietnam was overshadowed by its powerful Chinese culture. From the first to tenth century AD, we did not have our own writing system; instead, Chinese characters or so-called Han characters were first employed for the writing system. Until the 10th century, we created Chu Nom based on the simple adoption of Chinese characters but read in Sino-Vietnamese. In the 17th century, we had our own writing system called Chu Quoc Ngu (Vietnamese- the official language orthography) based on Romanized writing system. Even though nowadays there have existed Sino-Chinese words/ phrases written in Vietnamese in some formal documents, at least we possess our own language writing because language is a representative of the distinct identity of a nation.

  • Kris Nguyen

    I am deeply thankful for this informative and inspiring article. As a language learner, specifically Korean, it is fascinating to know more about the history of Hangul. Since I personally have passion for Korean culture and the language itself, I have been wondering for years about the “strange” characteristic that Hangul possesses. By this I mean that, compares to Chinese and Japanese, Hangul has that kind of rules in which they form a word by adding vowels and consonants just like other languages that use the Latin alphabet. To me, this fact is absolutely amazing. Studying reading and writing Chinese or Japanese has no specific rules but to memorize everything, whereas, learning reading and writing Hangul is much simpler and more enjoyable.

  • Katherine Douglas

    It was so clever of King Sejong to design a script that showed the learner the actual pronunciations – this certainly contributed to many people being able to learn it relatively quickly. He was quite wise in not forcing everyone to learn Hangul in 1446 – had he done so, even less people would have learnt it, and it may not have survived after 1945.
    How fortunate that Hangul was not completely lost – it completely transformed the Korean literacy rates, post-1945. From only 20% literate in 1945, to maybe 90-95% literate today! That’s an astonishing impact Hangul had in only 72 years.
    In fact, there are some websites that advertise you learning Hangul in 90 days, if you like (https://www.90daykorean.com/hangul-day ) being one of many. No hint of it being called “women’s script” – rather it’s presented as an honour and an advantage to know and learn it.
    It’s a pleasure to read about a monarch who was well-educated, bi-lingual, concerned about his people’s welfare, and created a script that would enhance each person’s literacy – and thus, amount of potential power in the world.

  • rajni jaishi

    Reading this piece was a complete joy. I had never read anything about Hangul before this. Not only the massive literacy rates of both Koreas today goes to the wise king but the fact that he realised how language was the key link to economic, social and cultural development of a nation. When small countries are landlocked or dependent on a bigger neighbouring nation, it is sure to have influence over such smaller nations in every aspect. What today’s leaders cannot do to exert their autonomy in so many areas, Sejong’s initiation of Hangul is an inspiration for the politicians today, especially of developing countries like Nepal which is virtually dependent on India for almost everything and it has say in every internal matter. I think a script of its own and adapting knowledge to Korean conditions helped in that turnover after 1945 and the result is for everyone to see now. Such vision of a man way back in 14th century is simply commendable.