An introduction to Hangeul – part 1

002-hangeulBy Matthew Jackson.

I heard a few years ago there was a plan to make Hangeul1 Korea’s National Treasure No.1. Given that there are a number of candidates for this position, I was puzzled, although aware that Hangeul’s technical merits are not disputed in the world of linguistics. John Man, for example, in his book ‘Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World’, writes:

The perfect alphabet may be a hopelessly remote ideal, but it is possible to do a better job than history has made of the western alphabet, in any of its manifestations. We know this because there is an alphabet that is about as far along the road towards perfection as any alphabet is likely to get. Emerging in Korea in mid-fifteenth century, it has the status among language scholars normally reserved for classic works of art.

Two features of the alphabet that make it unique have been identified.

1. Shape-function relationship

“One of the most…interesting features of the Korean alphabet is the strict correspondence it shows between graphic shape and graphic function. Not only are the shapes of the consonants of a pattern different from those of the vowels, but even within these two main groups the shapes decided upon by Sejong clarify other important relationships…” – G. K. Ledyard

hangeul-diagram

2. “Featural” Alphabet

Hangeul is commonly classed as a phonemic alphabet like the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets, but this is not strictly correct. “ㄱ”, for example, is a character in the shape of the root of the tongue blocking the throat. In other words, the Korean consonant has not only its own phoneme, but also its own “phoneme feature”. Geoffrey Sampson therefore calls it a “featural alphabet”, and concludes that Hangeul is the most developed alphabet in the history of written language.

Hangul diagram

More importantly for your average non-linguistic scholar, anyone who has ever tried will know that Hangeul is incredibly easy to learn. It is has been suggested that Korea’s economic development owes much to the high literacy rate it has enjoyed as a result of the alphabet. Furthermore, the IT industry has benefited from the comparative docility of the script compared with Chinese or Japanese pictographs.

Links:

You can discover more about Korea’s past at kscpp.net

  1. The “Script of Han (Korea)” or the “Great Script” []

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