Happy Hangul Day!

by Translation Guy on October 9, 2011

View the vodcast version of this post on the Translation Guy YouTube channel.

I haven’t been able to find any hangul cards at Hallmark, and for that matter I’m not even sure how you celebrate this Korean holiday (October 9) that marks the invention of hangul (한글) the native alphabet/syllabary of the Korean language. Maybe a festive spelling bee? It’s not even a day off any more, ever since the Korean chaebol industrial combine guys started complaining about too many days off for their workers, so it’s sort of going the way of Columbus Day here in the US.

The hangul writing system, developed under wraps by a secret team of literary worthies working for King Sejong the Great, first went live in 1446, and was designed to be easy enough to learn in a morning. The user guide published with the new script claimed “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.”

This because it’s what’s called a featural script.  The shapes of the letters come from the way the mouth is shaped to form their sound. Vowels are made from vertical or horizontal lines so that they are easily distinguishable from consonants.  All characters map the location of the tongue, palate, teeth, and throat when the sound of each letter is made.

Combine all the sound signs and you got a letter. But a letter cannot stand alone in Korean. Letters are stacked into syllables of two or three characters, so that every syllable has its own block. Supposedly, it’s easier to read that way, since the stacked characters a shorter scan for each sentence, but as I haven’t put in my ten days yet to learn to read hangul, I can’t say for sure.

This script was developed secretly out of fear of the aristocrats who liked the hanja Chinese characters then used to write Korean, badly. This was a problem for the King, “Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Thus, there are many among the ignorant peasants who, when they have something they wish to say, are ultimately unable to express their meanings. Taking pity on this, I have newly created twenty-eight letters, and simply wish for any and all to learn them with ease and use them at their convenience in daily life.” Neo-Confucianism at its best.

Due to aristo push-back, the script came to be considered low class, used only by mere women and lower class types. In fact, hangul really only established its lock on the language until after the Japanese occupied the country. With the characteristically deft touch of the Japanese bureaucracy, colonial officials banned the Korean language in 1938, thus guaranteeing that this all-Korean script would be the choice of all Koreans.

So one of the first orders of business when the Japanese got the boot at the end of WWII was to make hangul official again, and now the dominance of the script for the Korean language is almost complete. The hanja Chinese characters, which were once mixed in with hangul the same way as kana and kanji mix it up in Japanese, have now almost totally disappeared from the Korean language.

Happy Birthday, hangul!


  1. partrita says:

    Thanks for article “한글 날”
    Hangul is such a great writing system, and how beautiful is it!


  2. Wilber says:

    Oops! Might have lost my first comment on Hangul. OK, try again.

    I too love the Korean alphabet, whose absolutely unique format and rules I deciphered all by myself, with no guidance or explanation, at the age of 13 when funny languages and exotic alphabets were like bread and jam to me. BTW, I have never tried to learn Korean, just the alphabet. My “funny languages” career and profession took a different path.

    After Korea was partitioned, North Korea abolished the use of Chinese characters, and also tried to purge Korean’s thousands of assimilated Chinese loanwords. South Korea continued the use of mixed Hangul and Chinese characters (analogous to the Japanese practice) in publishing and education, although policies were not always consistent, and things might have changed by now, dunno.

  3. Wow, thanks for this post. As a native Korean, also as fellow translator, I’m quite flattered and thankful. I’m equally amazed at your depth of knowledge at our alphabets! Yes, I believe Korean alphabet is one of the most scientific out there. East to pronounce once the mechanics is learned.

  4. I spent a week in Seoul a few years back. The language is pretty cool and the people were great. Thant place never sleeps.

  5. Vaporlock says:

    We don’t get Columbus day off? Of course not! I’m not sure I would want it anymore with all of the atrocities we hear about now from his voyage.

  6. Beatrice says:

    Isn’t it always the rich who don’t want change? Even if it’s for the best?

  7. Stinker says:

    That must have been an all day class to learn in one day.

    • Ken says:


  8. I never knew it was called hangul. When I taught in China I had many students from Korea and they would teach me their language during recess or when we had a little extra time. I got very confused (and lost) learning how to write all of those Chinese characters, but the Korean ones were fun. I always like the characters with the circles (which the Chinese don’t have).

  9. I wonder if North and South Korea use the same hangul language. Think I will look into that.

  10. Smoochy says:

    Not only is October 9 the celebration of hangul, but John Lennon’s birthday as well.

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