On Oct 9th South Koreans celebrate the 567th birthday of Hangul, the country’s native writing system, with a day off work. South Korea is the only country in the world to celebrate its writing system.

How was Hangul invented?

Oct 8th 2013, 23:50 by S.C.S.


ON OCTOBER 9th South Koreans celebrate the 567th birthday of Hangul, the country’s native writing system, with a day off work. South Korea is the only country in the world to celebrate its writing system. The public holiday, originally introduced in 1945, has been reintroduced this year after being discontinued in 1991 at the request of employers. The day commemorates the introduction of the new script in the mid-15th century, making Hangul one of the youngest alphabets in the world. It is unusual for at least two more reasons: rather than evolving from pictographs or imitating other writing systems, the Korean script was invented from scratch for the Korean language. And, though it is a phonemic alphabet, it is written in groups of syllables rather than linearly. How was Hangul created?Before 1446, Koreans had no writing system of their own. The educated elite wrote in hanja, classical Chinese characters, to record the meaning—but not the sound—of Korean speech. The Chinese script, however, was poorly suited to languages with complex grammars like Korean; though a leading scholar of the 7th century formalised Korea’s Idu script, a mixture of hanja and special grammatical markers, including new characters for Korean names, only the privileged few with a Confucian education could understand it. In 1443 King Sejong noted that using Chinese characters for Korean was “like trying to fit a square handle into a round hole”. He disliked the fact that so few of his subjects could express their concerns to him. “Saddened by this”, he proclaimed, “I have developed 28 new letters. It is my wish that people may learn these letters easily and that they be convenient for daily use”.

Initially known as Hunmin Jeongeum (or “proper sounds for instructing the people”), the script was proclaimed as the first Korean alphabet in 1446—though its muted reception, especially within Korea’s aristocratic class, meant it was relegated to women’s diaries and children’s storybooks for centuries. It was revived by Japanese occupiers in the late 19th century as a means of limiting Chinese influence—only to be banned again in favour of the Japanese language. Its origins are disputed. Koreans celebrate King Sejong as its creator: one account says he almost lost his eyesight working on the alphabet. He appears in historical records as a scholarly king who wrote poetry (and is also credited with inventing a sundial and a rain gauge, among other things). But some scholars doubt he created Hangul single-handedly. It is more likely, they say, that linguists in the Hall of Worthies, a royal academy he set up, were its masterminds. Its letters are composed of a combination of lines and circles only, combined to form 12,000-odd phonemes. Its three main vowels (ㆍ, ㅡ, ㅣ) represent the sky, the earth and man. The shape of its consonants is derived from that of the mouth, lips and tongue in forming their sounds, so that a ㄱ is the shape of the tongue as it forms a ‘g’ sound (add a line, like so ㅋ, for an aspirated ‘g’, and double the letter , ㄲ, for one with a glottal stop). This makes Hangul one of just a handful of so-called featural alphabets, including Pitman Shorthand, the Shavian alphabet and Tengwar, one of Tolkien’s fictional languages. For Hangul exceptionalists, all this points to the script’s uniqueness; others suggest that the shapes of five Hangul letters came from the Mongol ‘Phags-pa script, designed by a Tibetan monk in the 13th century as a universal language for the empire.

The script has since evolved. Its syllabic blocks were first penned in vertical columns, but are now written from left to right, with Western spacing and punctuation. Four characters have become obsolete, so that just 24 are now used. But their simplicity—King Sejong assured his people that “a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days”—is widely thought to have contributed to Korea’s exceptionally high literacy rate, in both North and South (where it is close to 100%). Advances in computing, some say, may also have been boosted by the ease with which Hangul can be entered into PCs and phones. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, it is not just used to write Korean. The Cia-Cia, an ethnic minority in Indonesia, has adopted Hangul to record its Malayo-Polynesian language, which lacks an indigenous writing system of its own.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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