Sample from Chapter 13. Han'gul: Alphabetic Syllabary

Creation and Adoption of Han'gul

Inconvenience is the mother of invention. The sheer complexity and inadequacy of using only Hancha to write the Korean language prompted a Korean king to create a novel and efficient phonetic script. This king was Sejong (1398­1450), the fourth in the Chosoen dynasty. His portrait is shown in Figure 13-1.

The king assigned a royal commission to provide a learned commentary on the Correct Sounds. The royal commission consisted of seven young scholars, all but one of whom were members of the Academy of Scholars, which was involved in research in many subject areas, including phonology. As part of their phonological research, the Korean scholars studied the languages and scripts of neighboring nations, such as Japanese, Mongolian, Manchurian, and Chinese. Through Buddhist texts some of them were likely to have been familiar with Indian phonetic scripts as well. The scholars' commentary, entitled the Explanations and Examples of the Correct Sounds,was published in 1446. It is composed of six sections: the shapes of the letters; initial sounds; medial sounds; final sounds; syllable blocks; and examples of letters in actual use. It concludes with a postface by the head of the commision, Choeng In-ji. One sentence from Choeng's postface is the second epigraph to this Part II.

Han'gul as an Alphabet

Han'gul is first and foremost an alphabet, in which one letter codes one phoneme. But it is not like other well-known alphabets of the world, such as Roman and Cyrilic. As an alphabet Han'gul has the following five unique characteristics.

  1. The shapes of simple consonant letters suggest the manner in which the letters' sounds are produced by the articulatory organs (table 13-1).
  2. Consonant letters and vowel letters are distinctively shaped so that no consonant letter could be taken to be a vowel letter, and vice versa (table 13-2).
  3. Simple consonant and vowel letters are used as basic elements to build increasingly complex letters that code consonants and vowels having added articulatory features, such as aspiration and tenseness (table 13-1).
  4. The handful of phoneme-coding letters are used as elements in building syllable blocks for a few thousand syllables, which are the actual reading and teaching units (table 13-3).
  5. The explanation of the alphabetic letters was originally couched in Chinese philosophy, in particular, the doctrines of Yin­Yang and the Five Phases.


Han'gul Syllable Blocks

Han'gul is an alphabet, as described so far, yet when it is written its letters are not strung together in a line, as are the letters of the English and other alphabets. A Han'gul letter, whether for a consonant or a vowel, is always used in combination with other letters to form a block, which may represent a CV, CVC, or CVCC syllable. For a syllable with no initial consonant, such as a, the letter o with no sound value takes the place of the missing consonant letter, thus ensuring that the syllable is constructed according to the same pattern as a CV syllable, as shown in Table 13-3 (rows 1 and 5). An appropriate label for such a package of Han'gul alphabetic letters seems to be "syllable block."

<-Previous sample | Table of Contents | Next Sample->