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Hangeul − More Brilliant Than We Know!

You probably would have already heard many stories about the excellence and artistic value of Hangeul.
However, do you know that it’s not just Koreans that think so? The more we understand how valuable Hangeul is, the more surprising it is.
Let’s take a closer look at Hangeul, which has scientific and artistic value as well as meaning, and compare it with other languages around that world.
Article: Editor’s Office/ Reference: 『Hangeul Gyoyang』, 『Babel』, 『A Little Book of Language』

Among all the stories of how Hangeul was invented, which one makes the most sense?

All Koreans are familiar with the history of the invention of Hangeul, yet there are many narratives that give different accounts of its evolution. One of them has to do with exactly who it was that created Hangeul. Although it has been known for a long time that Sejong the Great and Jiphyeonjeon invented the language together, the theory garnering the most attention suggests that it was King Sejong himself who created it on his own.

It is recorded in Sejongsillok, or "The Veritable Records of King Sejong," written in King Sejong’s 28th year, that the king created 28 letters of eunmun (the Vernatular Script) personally. The letters were modeled after the shape of the Old Seal Script, and divided into three groups: initial, medial, and terminal sounds. This idea is supported by Jeong Inji, one of the most prominent scholars of the time. In the preface written by Jeong Inji to Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon, he wrote “In the winter of 1443, our King created 28 letters, explained them with simple examples and meanings and named them Hunminjeongeum.”

Another theory is that Hangeul was co-created by King Sejong and the Crown Prince Munjong. Supporters of this theory argue that it would have been difficult for Sejong to create Hangeul by himself, considering that he was suffering from various illnesses including diabetes, edema, and headaches. In the preface of "Jikhae Dongja Seup," Seong Sam-mun wrote, “Now that King Sejong and Munjong created Hunminjeongeum to help illiterate people, there’s not a single sound in the world that can’t be recorded.”

There are many views on the theory of Kings Sejong and Munjong co-inventing Hangeul, for example that they really invented Hangeul together, and that the Crown Prince merely helped Sejong the Great ─ and that not only the Crown Prince, but also King Sejo (Grand Prince Suyang), Grand Prince Anpyeong, and Princess Jeongui assisted in the invention process. Advocates believe that this view is reasonable, as Grand Prince Anpyeong was well known for his deep knowledge of art, and Princess Jeongui for her excellence in astronomy.

Then there’s the hypothesis that has recently begun to gain popularity, which is that Hangeul was co-invented by King Sejong and Shinmi, a Buddhist monk. Naranmalssami, a 2019 movie, is about Sejong the Great inventing Hangeul with help from Shinmi. After its release, the movie was at the center of heated controversy over whether it reflected falsification or distortion of historical facts. The producer of the film rebutted this claim, saying that the movie was just a combination of one of the many theories surrounding the invention of Hangeul and imagination, but it was not well-received by the audiences.

As you can see, the reason why there are so many differing views on the creation of Hangeul is because there’s a lot of interest in this great achievement. And perhaps it’s a result of imagination added to historical facts, as these reconstructed narratives tend to be more interesting.

Hangeul, simple, scientific, and strikingly beautiful at the same time

“Chosun has extraordinary letters that can express every single sound using the alphabet that the country created.” These words from Dr. Homer Hulbert, known as a Royal envoy sent to The Hague by King Kojong, were published in his article “The Korean Language”, contributed to the New York Tribune in 1889. Hangeul is still praised for its excellence to this day. Professor of Linguistics, Robert Ramsey, spoke very highly of Hangeul, calling it Korea’s "gift to the world," adding that "it is unlike any other writing system in the world."

That’s not all, though. Dr. Werner Sasse, a German professor of Korean Studies said that “King Sejong systematized the phonological theory in the 15th century, which was five centuries earlier than the West which completed its phonological theory only in the twentieth century. Hangeul is the best alphabet in the world which combines traditional philosophy and scientific theory.” Professor and linguist of the United States, James McCawley went even further to say, “I take it for granted that the academic world of linguistics praises and celebrates Hangeul Day as a holiday” and has celebrated Hangeul day every year on October 9th.

Hangeul’s excellence has been officially acknowledged. UNESCO listed "Hunminjeongeum Haerye" in its Memory of the World Register in 1997 and has been awarding the “King Sejong Literacy Prize” to people or organizations that help fight illiteracy every year on September 8th since 1990. In addition, in 2012, Hangeul won the gold medal at the World Alphabet Olympics, an international contest of world alphabets hosted by the World Alphabet Academy.

Hangeul’s Ongoing Cultural Expansion

Hangeul is a unique yet scientific alphabet, made based on the shape of one's speech organs and Chunjiin. Also, the Hangeul alphabet is phonetic, meaning that each letter represents a specific sound and that the 24 letters can be put together in various combinations to create numerous words. It’s also easy to learn and efficient. This is why Baubau City on Indonesia’s Buton Island officially adopted Hangeul in 2009 to complement its spoken-only language, Cia-Cia. Meanwhile, India also adopted Korean as its second language.

Hangul is also receiving a lot of attention as an element of literary arts.

Last spring, Professor Han Jae-Jun teaching in the Visual Design department at Seoul Women’s University shared his interpretation of Hangeul using various sculptures and forms to highlight its excellence. Chung Minsae, a ceramist, also portrayed the beauty of Hangeul with ceramic art pieces.

Last year, Joe Menosky, the star writer behind the popular Star Trek television series released "King Sejong the Great," a historical fantasy novel about the creation of Hangeul, saying that “If a European ruler had invented an alphabet for his or her people, everyone in the world would have heard about it.”

Furthermore, with Korean B-Boys band BTS gaining explosive popularity around the globe, an increasing number of fans are starting to learn Korean or post Korean lyrics that they wrote on social media. As you can see, Hangeul is gaining recognition for its scientific and artistic value and continuing its cultural expansion across over a hundred countries worldwide.

Languages around the world and their status

According to a 2005 study conducted by the UN, there are 6,809 official languages around the world. The reason why there are more languages than countries is because some countries are multilingual, meaning that their people speak more than one language. Among them, around 2,500 languages have less than 1,000 speakers, which are on the decline, and around 500 languages are on the verge of becoming extinct, with only 50 to 60 speakers. Also, among all these languages, only around 100 can be expressed with letters and only 18 have consonants and vowels like Hangeul. Out of the 18 languages, when excluding modifications of the Roman alphabet, there are only six languages that have their own alphabet system, namely, Hangeul, Chinese, Roman, Arabic, Indian, and Ethiopian.

In addition, there are not many countries in the world like Korea where everyone speaks the same language. For example, although it may seem as if Americans speak only English, Spanish is also widely spoken, and India even has three or four official languages.

Finally, let’s use this time to briefly look at English, the most powerful language on the face of the Earth. English originates from multiple different languages. Out of 10,000 commonly used English words, around 45% are derived from French, 32% from German, 17% from Latin, and the rest from other languages.

Gaston Dorren, a Netherlands-based linguist said that “English became a global language due to changes in the political landscape and multinational companies that leveraged these changes.” In short, English became the first global lingua franca as the consumer goods, television shows, movies, and music made by multinational corporations spread across the world after the end of the Cold War in the late-20th century.

In an era where languages reflect a country's economic, political, and cultural status or power, we, as Koreans, can’t help but feel proud to see Hangeul spreading worldwide, and gaining a more prominent presence on the global stage.

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