Beyond Words: The Perfection of Hangul Orthography

The current writing system of Hangul (한글) in South Korea, or Chosŏn’gŭl (조선글) in North Korea, is a writing system invented to represent the specific sounds and grammatical nuances of the Korean language that the previous use of classical Chinese Hanja (漢字) failed to adequately express. 

Hangul was created in the 15th century by King Sejong (세종) of the Joseon (조선) Dynasty to introduce a writing system which would both complement and provide an alternative to Hanja. Most Koreans were illiterate as a result of the costly education required to learn the thousands of Hanja characters, so Sejong proposed to create a writing system accessible to all.

Hangul has been described by linguists as being as close to a perfect writing system in existence because of its systematic orthography (the conventional spelling system of a language) and ease to learn and use. As a result, the literacy rates in Korea surged, remaining considerably high today. 

Beyond classification

The classification of the Hangul writing system itself is exceptionally distinct, as it encompasses a combination of features from both alphabetic and syllabic writing systems.

An alphabetic system uses individual characters to represent the individual sounds of a language. Hangul consists of basic letters called jamo (자모) which each represent a sound. (diagram on the left)

A syllabic system uses characters to represent complete syllables (combinations of consonant and vowel sounds). In Hangul, jamo are organised into syllabic blocks, in which each block represents a syllable. (diagram on the right)

As a result of this fusion, Hangul is referred to by linguists as an alphabetic-syllabary. 

Pushing the boundaries 

Hangul was also the cause for the invention of a new category of script: the featural writing system. A featural writing system constructs its characters to represent how the speech of a language sounds and the shape and configuration of the speech organs used when producing those sounds.

The consonants

The design of the main Hangul consonants (ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ, ㅇ) can be visually compared to how they are produced in the mouth (diagram on the right). This is called their articulation place, which corresponds to the shapes of the letters.

Additionally, each of the main 5 consonants are systematically modified (such as by adding extra vertical or horizontal lines) to display the sound of each letter. (diagram on the left) 

For example, try making each sound of the bilabial (two-lipped) consonants: ㅁ (m), ㅂ (b), ㅍ (p), ㅃ (hard bb). For each letter, the use of the mouth remains very similar, but the addition of extra lines to the base letter ㅁ (m) shows that the sound must be produced differently. For example, ㅁ (m) is a nasal sound, whereas ㅂ (b) is an oral sound. Try making an ‘m’ sound whilst holding your nose, or a ‘b’ sound without opening your mouth – it is impossible.

The vowels

The vowels are designed to show their differences in pitch and tone. Pitch dots (which in modern Hangul are now written as short lines) are added either to the left, right, top, or bottom of the vertical and horizontal lines in order to convey this. (diagram below)

Vowels with pitch dots added to the right or the top are ‘bright vowels’, which means they have a lighter and happier sound.

Vowels with pitch dots added to the left or the bottom are ‘dark vowels’, which have a heavier and denser sound. 

Compare ㅏ(a) and ㅓ(eo). The sound ‘a’ feels brighter and more open, whereas ‘eo’ sounds thicker and more closed. The same can be noted with ㅗ (o) and ㅜ(u). 

Hangul’s systematic orthography and ease to learn have contributed to its reputation as a near-perfect writing system. Hangul revolutionised literacy in Korea and stands as one of the most unique scripts both in its design and classification. It prevails as a prime example of the hidden depths of language and writing, and by doing so unveils the remarkable human capability for creativity and progress.

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