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Happy Hangul Day!

King Sejong “The Great” – characterized by Harrold Navea

King Sejong “The Great” – characterized by Harrold Navea

If there were ever a World Linguists’ Day, you could make a great argument that it would be Hangul Day, observed on Oct. 9 each year in South Korea. Today is Hangul Proclamation Day or Korean Alphabet Day, the day when Koreans commemorate and celebrate the publication of the Korean national alphabet by King Sejong the Great.

The alphabet was invented in 1443 and published in 1446 by King Sejong and a group of scholars who formed the “Institute of Correct Sounds.” The Korean alphabet is that it was artificially, systematically and scientifically created. The basic shapes of the consonants are based on the shapes of the speech organs when the sounds are being pronounced. Thus, it is touted as a superlative achievement of linguistic science several centuries before modern phonology.

The Korean alphabet also had a democratizing effect on writing in Korea. It was much easier to learn than the Chinese characters, which previously had been the only writing system. In his rationale for creating a new script, King Sejong cited the fundamental difference between the Korean language and Chinese. Chinese was so difficult for the common people that only privileged aristocrats, usually male, could read and write fluently. Before the invention of Hangul, the majority of Koreans were essentially illiterate. Today, UNESCO awards the King Sejong Prize to the organization with the greatest achievements in fighting illiteracy.

Compared to organic alphabets, Hangul was developed with the common man in mind. It is said to be so simple that a wise man can acquaint himself with the characters before the morning is over and a stupid man can learn them in the space of 10 days. Because of its simplicity, the literate elite often referred to Hangul as vernacular, a national script, or a women’s or children’s script.

Hangul has 24 consonant and vowel letters that are grouped into syllable blocks of two to five letters, including at least one consonant and one vowel. If you do the math, there are 11,172 possible blocks, though many end up being nonsense syllables. The blocks are arranged from left to right or top to bottom.

Many Koreans take time on Hangul day to visit the King Sejong Memorial Hall in Seoul. Other ideas: Eat some alphabet soup and improve your literacy by curling up with a good book!