Dr Yeon’s introduction to Korean

Not only am I lucky enough to be studying Korean for free at the Korean Cultural Centre in London, but I managed to obtain a ticket to a special lecture (again free) on the Korean Language by Dr Jaehoon Yeon, Senior Reader in Korean Language and Literature, SOAS, on Wednesday, 27th October 2010.

A page from the Hunmin Jeongeum
A page from the Hunmin Jeongeum

The Centre was packed for Dr Yeon’s engaging and informative talk on the origins of the Korean Alphabet, Hangeul, and its relationship to the Korean language more generally. Dr Yeon started by explaining the common confusion between the Korean Language and Hangeul. In 1446, a book on the alphabet and detailed explanations of the scientific and neo-Confucian philosophy of its design, called, Hunmin Jeongeum (which translated means “the correct sounds to teach people”), was published by order of King Sejong (1397-1450), the fourth King of the Choseon Dynasty (1397-1910) and widely regarded as one of the most important figures in Korean history. The alphabet was designed by King Sejong together with the Crown Princes with the aid of the Court’s scholars in 1443 as a unique writing system designed for all Koreans based around the sounds of the spoken language in order to promote literacy as the Chinese Script which was used at the time was seen as too difficult for the ordinary person to learn. However it did not come into common currency until the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

hangeul characters

Dr Yeon also explained that while Hangeul is one of the easiest alphabets to learn as it consists of five basic geometric figures which mimic the shape of the mouth and tongue when the letters are said and the remaining letters formed by adding lines to the basic shapes (based upon philosophical concepts), Korean is one of the more difficult languages. This was a statement that I was heartened to hear as I struggle with the intricacies of the structure of the Korean Language on a daily basis. The three basic shapes of the vowels are symbolic of the Sky, Earth and Mankind, fundamental concepts on the nature of the Universe according to Neo-Confucian thought at the time.

While Dr Yeon pointed out that the lack of written evidence means that it is difficult for scholars to pinpoint the origins of Hangeul, he said that Korean is thought to belong to the Altaic family of languages in that there is phenomenological correspondence with Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic languages: the three main branches of the Altaic family. Dr Yeon then went on to explain that while today there are 24 simple letters in Hangeul (10 vowels and 14 consonants), with complex vowels and consonants adding up to 40, 4 of the simple letters have fallen into disuse over time although the reasons for this is not clear. He finished the talk by reminding the audience that English is also a difficult language to learn, by showing a quote based upon words which had no phonetic correspondence with their written script.

During the lively discussion which took place during the remaining time allocated which was mainly spent talking about the debates surrounding the invention of the Korean language and alphabet and its usage in other Countries, Dr Yeon told us that although there are some differences between the Korean language in North and South Korea as a result of the division of the Korean nation, these are not substantial.

I found the talk informative and enlightening. It renewed my enthusiasm for learning the Korean language although my enthusiasm was slightly dampened by my inability to remember the simplest information at my next Korean lesson. One day I hope I will be able to speak and read Korean, and am indebted to the Korean Cultural Centre for enabling me to do this. However I still am afraid that I will be forever stuck in Beginners 1.

The 11 Thousand Plus Combinations of Hangul
Some of the 11 thousand-plus combinations of hangeul

Photo credit: Seoul by Subway

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