Language: Who’s for Hangul?

Who invented English? French? Sankrit? Many languages, especially their written form evolved alongside spoken languages and this have no fixed inventor; no creative genius that lay down the ground rules which are still followed today, and grew organically.

These languages we call a true-writing system, in which the characters depicted on the page layout the sounds required to be reproduced, allowing a reading to re-speak the text near identically to the writer’s vision.

Languages like Chinese, or to a lesser extent Egyptian hieroglyphics, depicted objects and ideas pictorially; readers were required to know the sounds by memory – proto-writing. The character’s shape and components offered little to no help in pronouncing the word. (There are examples of phonetic pronunciation with some hieroglyphic texts, equally, rather than invent new characters for loan word, China is increasingly using character with approximately the correct sound and meaning to create new words).

But what if I were to tell you there is one language, maybe the only language with a definite, undisputed and verifiable inventor, whose system remains mostly unchanged since its creation?

You’d call me a liar!

But there is…

Korea, 1442

You are Sejong the Great, leader of the Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. You’re doing a swell job, and you decided to set up a Hall of Worthiness, a group of talented scholars designed to help you strengthen your rule and your nation.

At the time, your people are writing with the Hanja system – characters taken from the Chinese writing system and adapted for the Korean language. And when we say ‘your people’ what we really mean is a highly educated and elite group of males whom have the time and resources to devote to the study and development of fluency in a proto-written language, with thousands of pictographic symbols to master.

Depending on your level of cynicism, what greater way is there to raise the living standards of your people than through education, or, what greater to spread the stories of your success throughout your people and time than to create a language that even the most common man could hope to learn and unite a nation under a unique and truly Korean written language.

To be clear, Korea already had a very different spoken and grammatical language to China, this further added to the difficulties of assimilating the Chinese characters with Korean.

In 1443, a new Korean language was completed. A new true-writing language was born, Hangul, that could ratify the Korean people into a single nation.

What was invented is perhaps one of the most elegant language solutions ever, largely devoid of all the evolutionary garbage of more organically produced written text.

Hangul Structure

In it’s simplest form Hangul is made up of 14 constants, and 10 vowels sounds (our 5 vowels in English fail to capture the varying long and short vowels sounds; cap and cape anyone?). These therefor make up the 24 letters of Hangul. From here it starts to deviate from English structure in that there are 27 digraph or trigraphs – 2 or 3 letter combinations that are treated as a single sound (Such sounds as Ch, Fr, Ai in English – don’t let our mere 26 letters fool you! We’ve hidden a lot of the complexity!).

There is whole lot of linguistic mumbo-jumbo here, so let’s move onto the next cool aspect…

It’s all in how you say it

So what form do these letters take? They are based on simplified diagrammatic representations of the mouth, tongue and teeth created for each sound!

Enough said!

Morpho-syllabic Blocks

Nothing would get me out of bed and into class faster than a double period of Morpho-syllabic blocks…

It’s much cooler than it sounds, and gives Hangul its distinctive look.

As with many Asian languages, Hangul maintains the square block perimeter for its writing system. In the image below, you can clearly see the white space around clusters of markings.

Vertical Hangul Text

So what is a morph-syllabic block? Remember in English how sometimes, you just don’t know how to divide up the syllables in a word, for example;

Li-ter-a-ture / Lit-er-at-ure

Lan-gu-age / Lang-ua-ge

Arrrgh English is so hard! Well in Hangul, no worries!

Each block is its own syllable!

Hangul Letter order

Letter order in morpho-syllabic blocks

No sound may stand alone in Hangul. So every block consists of two or three sounds, and fits within the structure laid out above. The chosen layout is dependent on the shape of the component sounds, and each letter is squished to fill the appropriate space.

Disregarding obsolete letters, according to Wikipedia, there are 11,172 possible block formations.

There you have it!

So Hangul, created from scratch, designed for the masses, it’s letter based on physiology, and divided into clear, pronounceable blocks! Rather uniquely, it simultaneous utilises the vertical and horizontal fields of the reader, and it’s operates a one sound for one word policy more robustly than any other language.

Sejong the Great is quoted as assuring 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” and it’s often said that the alphabet on average is learnt in 2 hours, and is attributed to both North and South Korea’s high literacy rates.

Use it or lose it

Despite all this, when publicly released in 1446, pressure from the aristocratic classes relegated Hangul to the diaries of women and children’s story books (certainly not the language of the rich man about town) and was almost stomped out entirely by Japanese occupation in the early 20th century.

Today, Hangul no doubt highly contributes to the nationalistic pride in Korean. It certainly stands high in intellectual vs organic language construction (which English could certainly take some lessons from) and looks fricking awesome.

And that’s something I learned today (well… when I was in Korea last week)

 This post was originally written for ilearnedsomethingtoday – see what you can learn!

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James Molkenthin is an enthusiastic and energetic British Designer, with a background in Graphics, Website and Product Design.