So you’re interested in learning Korean? Understanding the Korean alphabet is an excellent place to start. But what is it called?
Luckily we have your back.
In South Korea, the alphabet is known as Hangul (한글), while in the North, it’s called Chosŏn’gŭl (조선글). Although they are named differently, the North and South share the same alphabet. The Korean alphabet is considered to be one of the most efficient in the world due to its intentional design.
“Han” means “great”, while “gul” means “script”. So Han+gul = great script.
The Korean alphabet has a long, but fascinating history. Trust us when we say there are a lot of twists and turns in this story.
Grab your popcorn and let’s take a look at it in a bit more detail.
The Korean Alphabet – An Origin Story
Before the invention of Hangul, Koreans wrote using classical Chinese characters.
The Chinese characters however were difficult to use, as they did not properly fit the flow of the Korean language.
It was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
To try and fix this issue, scholars attempted to introduce their own alphabet. The trouble was only the most educated could understand and use it.
Back to square one.
In 1443, the ruler at the time, King Sejong, had enough. He was saddened that his people couldn’t communicate their worries to him.
Nice guy, right?
In response, he developed a system of 28 letters.
Boom! Hangul was born.
By the way, 4 characters died out (boo hoo) so there are only 24 in use today.
It’s All About The Mouth
Is there something wrong with your mouth?
No, I’m practicing my HangulKorean Students
Legend has it that the letters of the Korean Alphabet are designed so that they look exactly like the shape your mouth makes when sounding the individual letters.
Let’s practice now with a g (ㄱ).
Now try an o ( ㅗ).
Notice the way your tongue and lips move when pronouncing each?
The alphabet is designed so you can easily combine any of the letters to create the word you are looking for.
The new alphabet was a runway success (well anything would have been an improvement).
The Korean people could finally communicate with eachother in written form.
It was such a success, that the day it was launched, October 9th 1446, became a national holiday.
To this date, Korean’s celebrate this day with a national holiday.
The Death of Hangul
That’s right, the alphabet didn’t last long.
A bunch of really mean guys named the Yangban didn’t like the new alphabet.
What was their problem? Well, they were a group of aristocrats who enjoyed a feeling of superiority over the poorer Korean folk who were previously illiterate.
The introduction of Hangul put them on a level playing field, and they weren’t happy.
The King at the time, Yeonsangun became increasingly paranoid too and put a ban on the use of Hangul.
Just when things were getting easy.
The Resurgence Of Hangul
Despite its outright ban, the Hangul still remained popular for use in the underworld (not as scary as it sounds).
Poets and writers (we told you) continued to use the language to tell popular folk stories, using the system of writing that most of the lower classes could understand.
In the late 1800s, things were getting a bit uneasy in Korea, and civil unrest began to spread through its towns and cities.
The King at the time (yes, another new one), King Kojong needed to stamp it out quickly.
Kojong swiftly implemented the Gojong reforms to satisfy the Korean people. One of the terms would be that all government documents must now be written in Hangul.
Rejoice! It’s back!
Wait, I thought we were talking about Korea?
Yes, stick with us.
In 1910 Japan annexed Korea, effectively putting Korea under Japanese rule.
The first thing they did? Make Japanese the official language of Korea. Oh, they also enslaved many Koreans, but that’s for another day.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the end for Hangul.
The Japanese were especially worried about their bloodline, and were determined that it shouldn’t be mixed with Korean. They banned Korean women from taking Japanese names, and let them stick to the use of Hangul.
The victory was short-lived.
The Death of Hangul Part II
You have to be kidding right?
With World War II looming, Japan wanted to further tighten its grip on Korea. A period of assimilation ensued, which saw the Japanese encourage (cough) Koreans to get on board with the Japanese culture.
Korean culture was gradually stamped out, and the teaching of Hangul was no longer allowed in Korean schools.
RIP Hangul. You had a difficult life.
Hangul Rises From The Flames
So we all know what happened in the war. Devastation and despair wrecked most of the world. But this is probably the best part of the story of the Korean Alphabet.
With no oppressive regime to outlaw it, Hangul was finally declared the official script of both the Korean Government and the Korean people.
Oh – the North and South thing.
Despite the split of the two countries during the Korean War, both North and South maintained Hangul (thankfully).
Letters of the Korean Alphabet
Ok we said it up there but the moden Hangul contains just 24 letters.
You can break these down further into 14 consonants and 10 vowels.
Compare this to Chinese or Japanese, with their thousands of different symbols, and you can begin to understand why this was seen as efficient!
Blocks snd Syllables
For some, this is where it can get a little confusing.
But trust us, stick with it, and you will master it in no time.
In English, letters are written in sequential order. Say what you see.
In Korean, individual letters of the Hangul are combined into blocks to form syllables.
1 block = 1 syllable
I Heard It Was Easy To Learn?
Us linguits know the Korean Alphabet as a featural alphabet.
To put simply, this means that each of the letters are shaped the way your mouth moves when saying them (more on this below).
This is different from logographic alphabets (such as Chinese), where each symbol is a pictorial representation of the word they represent.
For foreigners learning the language, it makes Hangul incredibly easy to learn.
Remember The Fallen – Missing Sounds in Hangul
Despite being an incredibly efficient language, you may encounter some sounds from your mother tongue, which simply don’t exist in the Korean alphabet.
In English, F, R, V, Z and Th don’t have a direct equivalent.
But don’t worry, there are similar Hangul pronunciations you can use (simple table below):
|The Missing||The Replacements|
|Th||ㅅ [s] / ㅆ [ss]|
Missing Letters in Hangul
Ok, this is not as bad as the missing sounds.
In Hangul, capitalisation doesn’t exist!
Same letters regardless, less for you to learn. Easy.
Reading Is Harder Than Writing
I thought you said learning the Korean Alphabet was easy?
It is, we weren’t lying.
Where some students can trip up is believing the pronunciation and spelling go hand in hand.
Sometimes they just don’t.
A number of Korean words are spelt differently from their pronunciation.
This is something that will just come with practice. Don’t worry about it too much right now.
Just accept it, ok?
How long does the Korean Alphabet take to learn?
How long is a piece of string?
As we mentioned, learning Hangul is pretty easy, provided you put in the work and are motivated to learn.
Setting aside an hour each day to practice Hangul is a great way to start.
Check out our list of best Korean language apps for beginners, to get a headstart.
But there are so many variables to take into consideration, that we can’t give you a simple answer.
The more time you have to practice, the quicker you can learn – in theory.
The truth is, if you put in the work, you can really grasp the basics in just a few hours.
But it all starts with you. Start practising and don’t give up, and you will soon notice significant improvements.
The North and South Divide – Is the Language Still the Same?
Despite the closed border between North and South, both territories still share the same alphabet.
However, it is reported that language drift has started to occur, given the length of time the countries have been separated.
After over 70 years of separation, evolution has occurred. Pronunciation, grammar rules and vocabulary have all started to differ.
It’s now reported that up to a third of the language rules are different between the two territories.
The Korean alphabet has a long and exciting history.
It is one of the youngest alphabets in the world but is praised for being a perfect example of linguistics.
It’s logical formulation, means it is incredibly quick to learn.
Even for foreigners.
If you’re looking to start your Korean language journey, now is good a time as any.
Start with the Korean alphabet and be consistent.
“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow”