Most written languages use an alphabet. English uses the Roman alphabet, named after the Romans of Roman Empire fame. Because English is one of the descendants of Latin, it shares its alphabet with other Romance languages like French, Spanish, and Italian. Move a little further east and you get to Russia which uses the Cyrillic alphabet.
It’s when you get to Asian countries that it gets a little more complicated. While Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia all use the Roman alphabet, neighboring East Asian countries don’t. In fact, it’s almost like they love making things complicated. The great grandaddy of complicated scripts — Chinese — has over 100,000 characters in total with the exact figure still up for debate.
Apparently, one script with thousands of characters wasn’t enough because Japan decided to add two alphabets on top of it called hiragana and katakana.
But Korea had different ideas. In 1443, one Korean king took up the task of creating a writing system that actually made sense. He called it hangul and it made it possible for even the poorest peasants to learn how to read and write.
Just how easy is it to learn the hangul system? Some learners say you can learn to read it in a day and while I never memorized the letters, I managed to learn how it works within three hours.
How Hangul Democratized Literacy in Ancient Korea
China has always been a major player on the eastern side of the globe and its influence was felt strongest by its East Asian neighbors. China spread Confucianism to Korea and Japan and shaped the way the people of both countries dress. Don’t believe it? Look at the Chinese hanfu, the Japanese kimono, and the Korean hanbok side by side. The similarities don’t end there. China’s superior military, political power, and cultural influence also meant Japan and Korea adopted the Chinese writing system.
China’s writing system is complicated, though. It isn’t so much an alphabet as it is a list of characters where one character is automatically one word that can be read in multiple ways. This made Chinese characters difficult and tedious to learn. Only the wealthy upper class had the time and resources to learn the script. This left poor commoners, who were too busy trying to survive, completely illiterate.
To King Sejong, who ruled Korea during the Choson dynasty, mass illiteracy was a major problem. While other kings before him were fine with their people being illiterate, Sejong was a man of letters. An academic at heart, he had established an organization dedicated to funding research for scientific advancement. You’d be right to think he was a busy guy with a country to run, but he took time out of his day to write a book about farming methods to help the average farmer make a living.
He called it the Nongsa jikseol. But there was a problem: his target audience couldn’t read the book because farmers couldn’t read traditional Chinese characters. His plan to create an ancient Korean farmer’s Wikipedia wasn’t looking too good. How was he going to make millions of illiterate peasants learn thousands of characters so they could actually benefit from his book?
The answer? Create an alphabet so simple it could be taught in a day.
King Sejong brought his smartest scholars together and collaborated with them to create what is still recognized today as one of the most efficient alphabets in the world. It’s called hangul now, but Sejong himself named it hunminjeongeum meaning “proper sounds to instruct the people.” His intent was clear: hunminjeongum was designed to make literacy accessible.
The book about hunminjeongeum is divided into two parts. The first one is Sejong’s own personal work and contains a preface explaining why he made the new alphabet in the first place and detailing how the system works.
It was a new alphabet focused on getting the job done rather than the tradition, art, and prestige of the more established Chinese writing system.
Hunminjeongum contained 28 letters, 17 of which were initial sounds (consonants in English) while the other 11 were medial sounds (what we call vowels). The new letters could be mixed and matched to create syllables that were organized into neat blocks. Speaking of neat, this new writing system also used far fewer “strokes,” or brush movements, to form words.
If you look at the photo below, you’ll find that it’s easy to tell hunminjeongum apart from traditional Chinese. It’s cleaner, bigger, and just simpler to write.
Fast forward to the late 1800s and Ju-Sigyeong, a prominent Korean linguist, began the effort to standardize the Korean language in terms of spelling and grammar. This included polishing hunminjeongum and giving it its modern name hangul in 1912. Han (한) referred to Korean and the Korean people while geul (글) stood for script. It was a uniquely Korean alphabet that later helped Koreans maintain a sense of national pride and identity during and after the Japanese occupation in World War II.
What Makes Hangul So Efficient?
There’s a video on YouTube made by Sam Gellman entitled “Learn to Read Korean in 5 Minutes (seriously)” and it’s not just clickbait. Gellman manages to go over how to read Korean in only five minutes.
Why is hangul so easy to learn? It all comes down to how it’s the alphabet equivalent of playing with Lego blocks.
Modern hangul is written from left to right, much like English, and has 14 consonants and 10 vowels. After that, you take a slight detour south since hangul stacks its letters vertically into blocks. For example, “hello” in Korean is annyeong haseyo and is written as “안녕하세요.”
You have five syllabic blocks with about two or three letters each. This makes it possible to write Korean in a syllabic way, making pronunciation clear to the reader. The blocking system also makes reading faster as familiarity with common syllabic combinations makes blocks instantly recognizable. But that’s not all hangul does.
Hangul has another trick up its sleeve in the way it writes its consonants. The consonants of the Korena language aren’t just fun little shapes the way the English alphabet’s consonants are. The way they look is an instruction on how to position your lips and tongue to say them correctly.
Paul Jorgensen is a Canadian linguist best known for his YouTube channel “Langfocus” where he talks about, well, linguistics and the history of languages. If you want to hear how hangul letters are pronounced, you can check out his video which goes over the Korean language in general.
The Growing Popularity of Korean in North America
If there’s one thing the hit Netflix TV series Squid Game has proven, it’s that South Korean entertainment is for everyone everywhere. Despite the potential challenges of a language barrier, South Korea’s music, movies, and shows have spread far from its oriental hometown.
K-pop (Korean pop) groups, for example, have started to break into mainstream Western music through collaborations with artists like Halsey, Dua Lipa, and Lady Gaga. Though American radio stations aren’t keen on K-pop, that may have more to do with the fact that younger audiences prefer music streaming services like Spotify. Why does this matter?
Because K-pop and South Korean pop culture, in general, are both becoming incredibly popular among Gen Z and Millennials. It’s not just Korean and Asian Americans listening either. The majority of K-pop fans in the U.S are actually white.
This strong fanbase for Korean entertainment in the U.S and other parts of North America is behind the recent boom in Korean language lessons. Before K-pop and K-drama’s popularity, Korean had only roughly 163 students. By the late 2010s, that number had ballooned to about 14,000 along with a 14% rise in Korean language class enrollments in American universities while overall language enrollment was dropping.
Professor Andre Schmid, who teaches Korean history at the University of Toronto, says K-pop has even drummed up interest in his niche field. “Among my students,” the professor explains, “I have a young woman who grew up in an isolated farmhouse in Grey County Ontario, but she chose the University of Toronto because she wanted to learn all about Korea.”
Okay, so non-Koreans are learning Korean, hangul, and Korean history. How about the Korean diaspora then?
It’s no secret that the Asian diaspora in general struggles with maintaining fluency in their heritage language. If you don’t know what a heritage language is, Ann Kelleher at the University of California, Davis defines it as, “languages other than the dominant language (or languages) in a given social context.” A little confusing considering there are several dialects of American English, but heritage languages differ in that they’re considered “foreign” even if the diaspora that language belongs to has been present in the U.S for most of its modern existence.
Heritage languages are divided into three main categories. You have immigrant heritage languages, which is what Korean is for Korean Americans, as well as Indigenous (Native American) and Colonial heritage languages.
While it’s true that some of these heritage languages are actually in the majority in some areas, they remain culturally minor. You don’t hear many heritage languages in American mainstream music or in Hollywood films, making these heritage languages even more culturally irrelevant even though the communities they belong to make up sizeable chunks of the U.S. population.
First-generation Korean-Americans have a better chance of learning hangul and Korean from their older family members. When you get to second-generation Koreans though, fluency starts to take a hit. A study by Lee Jin Sook on the role of cultural identity and heritage language among second-generation Korean Americans aged 17 to 26 found that an overwhelming majority of them aren’t exceptionally fluent in Korean despite knowing that Korean and hangul are important to their cultural identity.
The main reason was a lack of societal recognition about the importance of hangul and Korean. It’s a sad state of affairs considering that hangul and the Korean language are one of the only things tying all Korean people together — especially across the North Korean and South Korean border.
Language and Identity: How Hangul Overcomes Politics
When Japan occupied Korea during World War II, one of the first things the imperial army tried to destroy was the Korean national identity. One of the main ways they sought to destroy the Korean identity was through banning the use of Korean in schools and ordering the shutdown of newspapers that wrote in hangul.
Before the Japanese occupation, there was still an elitist attitude coming from scholars and the upper class with regards to hangul. But the occupation made hangul one of the only forms of protest available for Korean citizens. Hangul had truly become more than a writing system and was now a symbol for the very idea of Korea itself.
Korea’s subsequent split into North and South Korea in 1948, following World War 2, kickstarted an ever-widening gulf between the lives of South and North Koreans. While political leaders remain in a decades-long stalemate at the demilitarized zone, Korean citizens seem to live in completely different eras from each other. One is a soft power giant with one of the best standards of living in the world. The other is, well, North Korea.
South Korean and North Korean are starting to develop differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. But no matter how different the lives of Koreans are today, they all read hangul or, as the North Koreans call it, chosongul.
The way a community uses language forms a major part of its unique identity. Learn how that works for Gen Z here.