09 October 2007

happy hangul day!

the preface to king sejong's introduction of hangul, the korean alphabet.

today is 한글날, or hangul day, the national commemorative day celebrating the invention of the ingenious native alphabet of the korean language.

commissioned by king sejong (jangheon yeongmun yemu inseong myeonghyo) the great in 1446, hangul was designed to facilitate mass literacy among the korean people. prior to hangul, classical chinese characters were used to express korean in part for their sound and in part for their meaning. since korean and chinese represent different language families, this complex and cumbersome system ensured that literacy was a privilege of a small elite.

in introducing the new script to his people, sejong explained:

"because the national language is different from that of china, it [spoken language] doesn't match [chinese] letters. therefore, when the ignorant want to communicate, many of them cannot achieve their intentions. because i am saddened by this, i have newly made 28 letters. it is my intention that everybody learn the letters easily so that they can conveniently use them everyday.
what a guy! korean society was dominated by a rigidly hierarachical confucian ideology. consequently, the king's decision to make literacy accessible to the masses was fiercely opposed by the aristocractic class. following his death, hangul's use was repressed to delay widespread adoption. because it was a striking symbol of korean independence, hangul was also forbade during japanese colonial occupation of korea from 1910-1945 and some 200,000 books on korean history and culture were burned.

a "perfect" script, hangul has no ambiguity. it incorporates 24 letters (not characters!) - 10 vowels and 14 consonants that combined can express 11,000 different sounds (more on that here). remarkably, someone can learn to read korean in just a day (of course you won't know what you're reading... that takes longer ;). it's the 12th most used language in the world, and is being considered by ethnic minority groups in china and east timor who need a written form of their spoken languages.

if you don't have hangul installed on your computer, most of my posts will include puzzling sets of empty parentheses and other evidence of missing letters. to celebrate hangul day, you can download free, legal and non-virused version for your pc here. most macs should already have korean language software installed (my powerbook g4 is 4+ years old and has it). there are also several easily-located hangul fonts online.

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