Birth of a Written Language
Hangul was created under King Sejong Daewong (세종대왕) during the Choson Dynasty (1393-1910). in 1446, the first Korean alphabet was proclaimed under the original name Hunmin cheong-eum (훈민정음), which literally meant “the correct sounds for the instruction of the people.” The nobility (양반 Yangban) refused to accept this new writing system, since they were instilled with the view that China is the center of the world and it separated them from the common illiterate people. The ruling class used Chinese writing as a means to maintain power and status.
In the early days of the 20th century, Japan occupied Korea for 36 years. They forbade Koreans from writing and reading Hangul, as well as speaking Korean but the Chosun Linguistics Association and the Independence Movement did their best in order to keep Hangul alive. It was at this time that Hangul specialist Ju Si-gyeong (주시경) used the name ‘Hangul’ for the first time. Han (한) meant “great” in archaic Korean, while geul (글) is the native Korean word for “script”. The name Hangul was gradually spread and after the independence of Korea, Hangul was officially recognized.
Hangul is easy to learn. Seriously, it is. It is made of 24 consonants and vowels with other variations. It is considered one of the most well-made alphabets by linguists and practitioners alike. The shapes of the letters are related to the features of the sounds they represent: The letters for consonants pronounced in the same place in the mouth are built on the same underlying shape. In addition, vowels are made from vertical or horizontal lines so that they are easily distinguishable from consonants. It’s no coincidence by the time Korean kids are three years old, they can read and express themselves as easily as they can.
Since 1989, the Korean government has been giving out the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize to NGO’s or government agencies that display merit and achievement in particularly effective results in contributing to the fight for literacy. Illiteracy is almost non-existent in this country. In the late 1930s the adult illiteracy rate was over 70% and now it is less than 2 %. Interestingly enough, UNESCO argues that Korea does need to heed a bit more in maintaining a high literacy rate,
“In the 1950s and 1960s, the government launched the nationwide literacy campaign, which turned out to be very successful, Since then, the Korean government has paid little attention to literacy and failed to produce the official literacy rates. The government is increasing interested in computer or functional literacy in place of traditional literacy.”
Hangul Day (한글날)
So October 9th is the official day to commemorate King Sejong’s creation of the Korean written language. It is celebrated on January 15th in North Korea and Chosun-gul Day. According to Wiki, after the South Korean government was established in 1945, Hangul Day was declared as a legal holiday, on which governmental workers were excused from work.
Its legal status as a holiday was removed in 1991 because of pressure from major employers to increase the number of working days, along with the introduction of the Korean United Nations Day. However, Hangul Day still retains a legal status as a national commemoration day. The Hangul Society has campaigned to restore the holiday’s former status, but with little impact.
I learned Hangul BEFORE I got to Korea, which was a lifesaver. I mean, of course, as soon as I got off that plane I was overwhelmed by the initial “pictures” I was seeing everywhere. But then, after the panic attack subsided I was able to ….read! Do you know how amazing it is to see something SO foreign and understand it?!? It is pure ecstasy, but I’m a nerd, what can I say? It helps though when they are directly translated from English to Korean, and it’s known as Konglish. Like the word “coffee” is read as “Keo-Pi” (커피). The BFF has taken full advantage of this EASILY learned skill ::cough cough::, so ANYONE who wants to encourage her to learn to read Hangul is more than welcomed to comment ^^ .