October 9th of every year holds a very special place in the hearts of Koreans; it is the birthday of Hangeul, the native Korean alphabet. The Korean alphabet is unique in that it is the only writing system in the world about which both the creation date and creator are known. Before the invention of Hangeul, Chinese characters called “hanja” were used in Korea. However, hanja was difficult to learn, especially for people of lower social status with little to no access to education, and this led to rampant illiteracy throughout the country. In order to resolve the problem, King Sejong the Great (r. 1418-1450) began developing a new writing system that would be easy to access as well as to learn. The invention of the new script was started in 1443 and Hangeul underwent three years of trials before being official completed in 1446. At that time, Hangeul was disseminated with a thorough explanation of logic behind each stroke of its characters in the text.
What does Hangeul mean?
The name Hangeul is made up of two words: han (한) and geul (글). Han means either “big” or “great,” and geul refers to a writing script; Hangeul, therefore, means “great alphabet.” The original name of the Korean alphabet was “Hunminjeongeum,” (훈민정음) which translates to “the proper guiding alphabet of the people.”
When Hunminjeongeum was first created, it consisted of 28 letters. From its original system, four letters have been dropped and the remaining 24 letters are now commonly referred to as Hangeul. Hunminjeongeum, or Hangeul, is not only easy to learn and convenient to use, but also uniquely scientific in its creation. In recognition of such virtues, the UNESCO inscribed the Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon (Guidebook) on its Memory of the World Register in October 1997.
Hangeul is a writing system that involves combining any of the standard 14 consonants and 10 vowels to form one-syllable blocks. Each vowel is made of a line or lines that represent the sky, the earth and people, while consonants reflect the shape of a human mouth during pronunciation. Besides the standard consonants and vowels, there are also 5 compound consonants and 11 compound vowels that make up additional 16 common sounds.
Who is King Sejong the Great?
King Sejong the Great was inaugurated as the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty in 1418. As a leader, he put his passion for intellectual pursuits, love for his people, and keen interest in improving the lives of the common people into action. Consequently, the Joseon dynasty made great strides in various fields during his reign, improving the lives of his subjects in all aspects. Ultimately, the king’s achievements and benevolence led to the coining of the nickname, “King Sejong the Great.” The warm-hearted king is revered today, as demonstrated by his portrait on the 10,000 won bill!
Recommended places to visit
The breath of living language, National Hangeul Museum
The National Hangeul Museum showcases the history and changes over time of the national script. Visitors can also play and learn Hangeul in the museum’s unique activity zones. See the changes to the way Hangeul is written from 1443 until now, play games using Hangeul toys, and learn to read and write your name!
If you’re curious about the creator of Hangeul, visit King Sejong Story or King Sejong the Great Memorial Hall. These two exhibition halls display the story of King Sejong’s life, as well as his many achievements, including Hangeul.
King Sejong Story
The passage behind the Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square is home to The Story of King Sejong Exhibition Hall, which describes some of the king’s most astounding contributions to the development of Korea as a nation. Sejong Museum located at Gwanghwamun Square details the story of not only King Sejong, but Admiral Yi as well. The museum has both artifacts, as well as replicas of various things, including but not limited to, the ancient rocket launcher as well as the sundial and Joseon-dynasty swords.
There are also photo taking opportunities such as the replica of the King's throne, as well as the replica of the famed turtle ship used by Admiral Yi. Aside from these, there are also screening opportunities detailing life in Joseon. The museum also has a souvenir store, various restaurants, as well as a hands-on calligraphy section completely for free! The service staff are well versed in English to guide visitors in making a calligraphy masterpiece.
King Sejong the Great Memorial Hall
King Sejong The Great Memorial Hall was established in Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul, in November 1970, in the memory of King Sejong and his saintly virtues and great achievements. Officially opened to the public in October 1973, the memorial hall is a modern structure housing an exhibition area, auditorium, laboratory, and a reference room. The exhibition area is further divided into the Hangeul Room, Science Room, Traditional Music Room, King Sejong Art Room, and an outdoor exhibition space.