The History Behind the Language: Hangeul
Woven into the Korean language is a history of culture and politics of the far east. Rising from the intersection of a mixing pot of ethnicities, arts, tribes, and peoples, 한국말 (hanguk-mal, spoken Korean language) and 한글 (hangeul, written Korean language), specifically designed with the people and the culture in mind, revolutionized Korea as they made their name in the world.
Unity and Division of the East
The vast lands of the east were unified through trade and migration, as well as through the exchange of religion and knowledge shared from person to person and dynasty to dynasty. Though China was a major world power and a collecting ground of knowledge and information, influences from all over the far east passed through the Korean Peninsula. Despite the many scholarly debates behind the origin of the spoken Korean language, many agree that it arose from the Altaic languages of central Asia including Mongolian and Manchu-Tungusic, with influences from places as far off as Turkey and languages spoken from western Europe and across the Eurasian steppe. Regardless, no single proposed language pedigree has been agreed on, as language origin proves to be complex.
Additionally, the as-old-as-time history between Korea, China, and Japan has layered on centuries of linguistic influence on each respective dynasty’s language. Specifically, the Chinese writing system used to be the only method of writing shared among scholars throughout Korea and Japan to notate their spoken language in text and scrolls, similar to the romanization of other foreign languages in Latin or English. Later on, Korea would be known for the development of their own distinctive and revolutionary written language. Due to the heavy influence of Confucian classical writings shared across eastern Asia, many Chinese characters have been adopted into the Korean written language, and it’s this that eventually gave rise to a hybrid writing system. Additionally, written content was more far more commonly recited aloud than read to oneself.
Creation of a New Writing System
Across civilizations old and new, oral traditions including the passing along of knowledge and information by recitation and word of mouth are prominent forms of relaying knowledge from generation to generation, though this was also the main culprit in delaying the development of the written Korean language. Present-day Korea and Japan adopted the Chinese writing system for their own spoken languages, even though the general population didn’t speak Chinese. Traditionally, text was written vertically, or 세로쓰기 (serosseugi), meaning from top to bottom, though instances have been recorded in which the reverse occurred. Historically, scrolls were rolled open with the left hand while the dominant right would transcribe from right to left, but as time passed, writing horizontally, or 가로쓰기 (garosseugi), became commonplace, with a shift in the 19th century as a result of Western influence establishing the flow of written language from left to right.
Image Description: Above is the “Hunminjeongeum,” or the book of “The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People,” displayed at the National Hangeul Museum in Seoul. The text describes the new alphabet and the proper corresponding sounds. Notice the differences in text with a combination of hanja (Chinese characters), hangeul, and phonetic markings as well as the vertical writing (as opposed to horizontal).
The Joseon Dynasty, also known as the Chosun or Yi Dynasty, brought forth revolutionary change. Despite the power-hungry struggle for the throne, the drastic changes during this dynasty molded the future of Korea. Yi Seonggye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty, relocated the capital from Gaeseong to Hanyang, present-day Seoul. One of the most notable rulers of this dynasty was King Sejong the Great. With his rule came a plethora of advances in the agriculture, medicine, and natural sciences, but his biggest success was the creation of the Korean alphabet, hangeul, in 1443 in his efforts to tackle illiteracy. With his people in mind, the alphabet consisted of 24 letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Simplified letters phonetically linked to the sounds of the spoken language made it easier for people to learn and simultaneously apply this knowledge to writing in comparison to the extensive list of characters that needed to be memorized for Chinese. The implementation of the Korean alphabet and its simplicity helped the country boast one of the highest literacy rates in the world at the time, and the figure continues to impress. To commemorate his contributions, King Sejong is even depicted on the 100 won banknote. Additionally, October 9 was selected to celebrate and commemorate the development of hangeul.
Image description: Statue of King Sejong the Great
Image Description: King Sejong depicted on the 100 won banknote
Linking History and Language
With Korea being a largely homogenous country where a majority of residents are ethnically Korean, many traditions hold strong despite changes in today’s society. As continued industrialization and globalization expand throughout the streets of Korea, a steady stream of change continues to bring people from all around the globe to the country, with many eventually settling down and calling Korea their home.
With over 70 million people speaking Korean around the globe, the spoken language keeps true to its cultural and historical roots. A long period of historical influence from China means many Korean words have Chinese origin, and as people embark to learn the Korean language, the culture inevitably tags along as an inseparable part of the journey. Respect and hierarchy are built into the language with etiquette and proper ways to address people, recalling centuries and centuries of history as well as Confucian beliefs. With language comes the complex dynamics of formality and respect where language can be altered so speech may indicate inferiority, equality, or superiority depending on the situation, location, relation, and environment. Thus, language has singlehandedly formed the backbone of Korea’s filial and bureaucratic culture and will continue to do so for years to come.
A clear example of how culture intertwines with the Korean language is the use of “우리” which translates to “our” in English. Instead of using the possessive “my,” Korean language, as well as mindset, maintains emphasis on the importance of a collaborative effort where the group is considered more important than the individual. This collectivist viewpoint is evident in the everyday work life from the way companies and political/academic institutions are run, which may be one of the reasons for Korea’s economic success. A theory as to how this societal subconscious arose relies heavily on the historic homogeneity of the country. Another contributor may very well be the significance of ancient dynasties and the language used in royal court, similar to the royal “we” also known as the majestic plural. Regardless of the origin, both hangeul and the Korean language are key in taking those interested in the language on a linguistic trip filled with culture and history.
References & Additional Readings:
Center for Global Education asiasociety.org/
Brigham Young University Linguistics http://linguistics.byu.edu
Cornell University Research https://research.cornell.edu/news-features/korean-language-cultural-legacy
Summer Institute of Linguistics http://www.sil.org/ethnologue/families/Altaic.html
Learn Korean Language http://www.learnkoreanlanguage.com
Asian Society https://asiasociety.org/education/korean-language