|Fig.1: Korea's two biggest contributions to culture. You
decide which one is more important.
Prior to the 15th century, Korea relied on the Chinese writing system to express their language on paper. After all, Korea had already borrowed Confucianism, Buddhism, as well as most of the Game of Thrones DVDs from their westward neighbor, so it was only fitting for them to snag China's 2,000-year-old logograms as well. The adaptation of Chinese characters for the Korean language is known as hanja. Unfortunately it's not exactly a seamless fit: the hanja didn't match the Korean pronunciation of certain words, and looked almost as silly as Chinglish does to us (almost, since nothing is as silly as this). In addition, Chinese retained its status as one of the hardest writing systems to pick up even back then; the fact that each character had to be memorized to its corresponding word meant that only the best and the brightest (aka: only people rich enough to afford a decent education) could learn how to read and write. The majority of the population in Korea had no idea how to decipher all the lines and squiggles that was supposed to signify their language, and therefore even subtitles wouldn't have helped them figure out whatever Sofia Vergara is saying.
|Fig.2: King Sejong, memorialized by reading the
Hangul version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas"
to all the children of Korea.
So what makes Hangul as easy to pick up and use as a set of Ginsu knives? Originally it was comprised of twenty-eight letters, though it was eventually reduced to twenty-four after a few were kicked off the team for juicing. Instead of writing each letter in a straight line, they are grouped by syllable and written within a square, with the order of pronunciation going from left to right and up and down. For example, compare the figure below on the left, which is "Hangul" written in Hangul, with the figure on the right, which highlights the different letters it contains in vibrant, eye-catching colors. To make it easier, the shape of the letter mimics the shape that a mouth or tongue makes when making the sound. So for "Hangul":
H: You curl your upper lip and open your mouth. It also helps to have a mustache.
A: You widen your mouth, and stick your tongue out the side.
N: You curl your tongue to the front of your mouth, like a tongue sit-up!
G: You tighten your mouth and let a little bit of drool to peak out.
U: Like a "ew" sound, which should have been your response to the drooling thing.
L: You curl your tongue so much that it does the worm. Your tongue is so fit!
Just by mimicking what the letters are doing with your mouth, you would be able to read Korean (though knowing what the gibberish means is another matter entirely). Thus, Hangul was extremely effective in helping the common people learn to read and write their language. In fact, in a manual for Hangul written by Sejong's scholars published soon after the Hunminjeongeum, it is said that, "A wise man can acquaint himself with [Hangul letters] before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days." Obviously, the era of political correctness did not dawn during the reign of Sejong of Joseon.
Of course, whenever a new innovation comes along that makes life easier for people, a bunch of jerks come out and try to stir up opposition to it. In this case, the Confucianists who retained much control and influence over the royal court saw Hangul as a step backward for Korean civilization. The fact that even a stupid man could learn the letters quickly and easily only meant that it was too simplistic, and could very well undermine the entire system of education in the land. They saw hanja as the only legitimate writing system, especially since it was derived from the language used by Confucius himself when he was berating people for not honoring their parents enough. In reality, these scholars feared that if most of the population could read and write, those mouth-breathing commoners could eventually take their jobs! Social mobility! How dreadful!
|Fig.3: Unfortunately by the 1600s, "Oh my
god, Tae-hyun is soooo cute!" was the most
oft-repeated phrase written in Hangul.
By the end of the 19th century, however, the perception of Hangul finally began to change. A growing sense of nationalism in Korea convinced many people that they should not be using a foreign script like hanja to convey words in their own language, causing Hangul-using hipsters to proclaim that they believed that before everyone else did. Starting in 1894, all official documents from the government were printed in Hangul, all textbooks and lessons in school were to use the alphabet, and episodes of Sesame Street would be brought to you by letters such as ㅈ or ㅎ. The Korean Language Society, founded in 1908 by renowned linguist Ju Si-gyeong, helped to standardize the script and gave it the shorter, two-syllable name it thankfully has today. Of course, just when it looked like Hangul was finally enthroned at the adult table, in come the Japanese to kick it back to sit with the kiddies. After Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910, they tolerated Hangul as a way to make sure all citizens could read the decrees of their overlords, but eventually banned it (alongside the Korean language) once they realized smacking people around did the job just as well. Korea was liberated in 1945 after Japan literally blew it during World War II (too soon?), allowing Hangul to stage yet another comeback.
Fig.4: Though most North Koreans can
read, maybe they would be better off
illiterate than having to believe this crap.
It may seem silly, but Hangul could very well be the most important invention ever produced in Korea (and they were the ones who brought us the exploding phone). The ability to convert a spoken language into a hand-made, brand-new, easy-to-use, just-pay-shipping-and-handling writing system is an accomplishment that has practically no equal in world history. Other ethnic groups are beginning to take notice: in 2009, when the Cia-Cia in Indonesia where looking to adopt an alphabet to preserve their unique language, they turned to Hangul since their mouth-mimicking symbols were easier to learn than those stupid Latin letters (I'm sorry, but it's always a problem when some P's are silent, some X's sounds like Z's, and Y can't make up its mind about what kind of letter it wants to be). In addition, an organization called the King Sejong Institute has established schools and programs to promote Hangul, as well as Korean culture, around the world (though I doubt King Sejong himself envisioned the horror that is K-Pop). It has also been argued that Hangul is simpler to use in computer programming, partially explaining South Korea's huge share in the modern world's technology industry, as well as North Korea's ability to keep the modern world's technology a secret to everybody who lives there.
As a symbol of national identity, it might be difficult to compare Hangul to others around the world. Sure, it's easy to think of France and the Eiffel Tower, Cambodia and Angkor Wat, or Mexico with an eagle eating a snake on a cactus (it's true). However, I argue that Hangul is considerably more useful than all those silly things put together, as it actually makes a impact on the everyday lives of the people. Unless the Washington Monument can be used as a giant pencil to help children learn their own language, Korea should be pretty darn proud of their national symbol. As they say in Korea: 우리를 중국이나 일본과 혼동하지 마십시오.