Hangeul: an alphabet for the Korean people

The invention of the Korean alphabet, known as Hangeul (in South Korea) or Chosun-gul (North Korea), is a source of pride for many Koreans. In fact, in 2013, after years of debate, South Korea made Hangeul Day a public holiday on 9 October, to coincide with the apparent first public proclamation of the writing system. In the North, although it is not a public holiday, Chosun-gul Day is celebrated on 15 January, to commemorate the day they believe the alphabet was created.

To many non-Koreans, it may seem strange that a people should choose to celebrate the creation of their writing system (a whopping 83.6% of South Koreans surveyed by the country’s Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism agreed that it should be “properly commemorated”), and some have even viewed it as an excuse to give expression to “Korean ethnic nationalism”. To be sure, according to a Korean Broadcasting Station and Hallyum University survey, a great many Koreans view all [ethnic] Koreans as “brothers and sisters, regardless of residence or ideology”. This is reflected in the honorifics in the language. The celebration of Hangeul/Chosun-gul, however, is probably more reflective of Korean pride in their national history, as a brief look at its origin will show.

Sejong the Great was the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty and is still revered as a king who loved his people. He was also the creator of Hangul, which he had promulgated in a volume called, Hunmin-jeongeum (transl. “The right sound to instruct people”) in 1446. Up until that point, Chinese characters were used by the educated elite. In his preface to the Hunmin-jeongeum, King Sejong writes:

The spoken language of our country is different from that of China and does not suit the Chinese characters. Therefore amongst uneducated people there have been many who, having something that they wish to put into words, have been unable to express their feelings in writing. I am greatly distressed because of this, and so I have made twenty eight new letters. Let everyone practice them at their ease, and adapt them to their daily use.

Hangeul, therefore, is a system that the Korean people were intended to take ownership of from the very beginning. And own it and adapt it they have.

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