Today (9 October) is Hangul Day. Hangul is the name used in South Korea and most of the world for the writing system used in writing Korean.
Origin of Hangul
Before the 15th century, most written documents in Korea were in Chinese. When Korean was written, people used Chinese characters, known in Korean as Hanja (written in Chinese characters as 漢字). King Sejong (who reigned from 1418 to 1450) created the Korean alphabet (possibly himself, or possibly with advisers) around 1443. He first published it in 1446 in an official document known as the Hunmin chŏngŭm (‘The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People’, Chinese: 訓民正音), written in Classical Chinese. A Korean translation, the Hunmin chŏng’ŭm ŏnhae (훈민정음언해 訓民訓 音諺解) appeared in 1451.
The name Hangul 한글 by which the Korean script is known in the Republic of Korea and internationally was coined by a Korean linguist Chu Sigyŏng around 1912. The first component (Han) of the word Hangul can mean either great or Korea. The 2nd component means ‘writing’.
Although the spelling ‘Hangul’ is often used in English, the official transliteration in South Korea is now Hangeul or Han-geul.
Because Han appears in the official name of South Korea (Tae Han Minguk, Republic of Korea), North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) calls the Korean writing system Chosŏn’gŭl (조선글), instead of Hangul, using Chosŏn, the North Korean name for Korea.
Hangul Day falls on a day intended to be close to an anniversary of the date when Hangul was first published as an official writing system. North Korea has an equivalent celebration, Chosŏn’gŭl day, but this falls on a different date, 15 January—perhaps at least partly because 9 October is the date of a public holiday celebrating the anniversary of the Foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Features of Hangul
Alphabetic scripts (for example, the English alphabet, which is based on the ancient Roman alphabet) use an arbitrary symbol to represent an individual sound. Syllabic scripts (such as the Hiragana and Katakana scripts used as part of the complex Japanese writing system) use an arbitrary symbol to represent a syllable. Character-based scripts (for example, those used in various forms of Chinese) use a symbol to represent an entire word (or component of a complex word).
Hangul is perhaps unique because it combines properties of both alphabetic and syllabic scripts, and the alphabetic symbols are not entirely arbitrary:
- Hangul uses symbols to represent an individual sound, like an alphabetic script does.
- The shapes of many Hangul symbols are not purely arbitrary. Many of them contain elements that represent a feature that is common to each sound containing that feature. Moreover, particularly for consonants, some elements are stylised depictions of the shape of the tongue or lips used in creating that feature.
- The symbols for sounds are clustered into blocks. Originally, a block represented a syllable, but today a block sometimes represents a complete morpheme (unit of form).
Underlying forms and surface forms
Hangul depicts the underlying forms of Korean sounds. Those underlying forms surface in different forms (different allophones) when they combine with nearby sounds. I don’t try to summarise those changes in this post.
I discuss below:
- Symbols for consonants
- Symbols for vowels
- Symbols for diphthongs
Hangul symbols are written in syllabic blocks. The initial consonant (onset) is written:
- next to the medial vowel (nucleus) if the medial vowel is written vertically (figure 1)
- above the medial vowel if the medial vowel is written horizontally (figure 2)
- to the left of, and on top of the medial vowel if the medial vowel has both vertical and horizonal axes. The initial consonant occupies the top left quadrant, and the medial vowel occupies the other 3 quadrants (figure 3).
If there is a final consonant (coda), it is written underneath the initial vowel and medial vowel. Figures 1, 2 and 3 each include a final consonant, as well as an initial consonant and medial vowel.
If there is no initial consonant, the unpronounced character ㅇis used as a filler where an initial consonant would have gone. This shows that the syllable starts with a vowel.
The word Hangul is written 한글. Figure 4 shows how the blocks composing that word are put together. The symbol on the left is Han (‘Korean’). The symbol on the right is gul (‘script’): in isolation, it is pronounced /gul/.
Syllables and morphemes
In the original form of Hangul, a block represented a syllable, although today a block sometimes represents a morpheme (a unit of form) if parts of the morpheme are spread over more than one syllable. For example, the word nomi (person, in the nominative case) consists of the noun nom and the nominative suffix /-i/:
- It is pronounced as 2 syllables /no-mi/. So it was originally written노 미 <no-mi> (with the symbol for /m/ as the initial consonant in the 2nd block of symbols).
- It is now written놈이 <nom-i> (with the symbol for /m/ as the final consonant in the 1st block of symbols, as part of the morpheme nom).
Symbols for Consonants
Hangul has symbols for 14 consonants, shown in table 1.
|ㅁ [m]; ㅂ[p]
|ㄴ [n]; ㄷ [t]
|ㄹ [r, l])
|ㅅ [s]; ㅈ [tɕ]
Not shown in table 1 are 5 ‘tense’ consonants (ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅉ ㅆ). The symbols for them are double copies of the symbols for the corresponding lax consonants. It seems there is little consensus on how best to distinguish these 2 series of consonants. Suggestions made include: tense v lax; strong v weak; and unvoiced v voiced.
The symbolㅇhas two functions:
- in initial position, it shows that no consonant is present there. Thus, that syllable starts with the medial vowel.
- in final position, it represents the consonant /ŋ/ (like <ng> in English sing). /ŋ/ does not occur in the initial position in native Korean words.
Features of consonants
Hangul portrays various features of the consonants. The symbols include elements representing:
- the place of articulation: for example, whether the tongue comes together with the lips, alveolar ridge or velum; and
- the manner of articulation: whether the consonant is aspirated.
Moreover, the shape of some of those elements is not just arbitrary, but attempts to depict, for example, the shape of the tongue or lips as the sound is produced. Here are the elements:
- for velar consonants (ㄱ /k/, ㅋ /kʰ/): the elementㄱ shows a side view of the back of the tongue raised toward the velum at the back of the mouth.
- for sibilant consonants (ㅅ /s/, ㅈ /tɕ/, ㅊ /tɕʰ/): ㅅ shows a side view of the teeth.
The horizontal line at the top of ㅈ represents the firm contact with the roof of the mouth.
- for alveolar consonants (ㄴ /n/, ㄷ /t/, ㅌ /tʰ/, ㄹ /r, l/), the element ㄴ is a side view of the tip of the tongue raised toward the gum (alveolar) ridge.
The horizontal line at the top of ㄷ depicts steady contact with the roof of the mouth.
And the top of ㄹ shows a flap of the tongue.
- for labial consonants (ㅁ /m/, ㅂ /p/, ㅍ /pʰ/), the element ㅁ shows the shape of the lips brought together.
The top of ㅂ represents the release burst of the b.
- for dorsal consonants (ㅇ/ŋ/, ㅎ /h/), the element is an outline of the throat.
ㅎ is pronounced in the throat with a close represented by the top horizontal line.
- for aspirated consonants (ㅋ /kʰ/, ㅊ /tɕʰ/,ㅌ /tʰ/, /pʰ/, ㅎ /h/), the extra horizontal stroke represents aspiration
Symbols for vowels
Hangul distinguishes 8 vowels and 13 diphthongs. The shapes of the 8 vowel symbols can be summarised as follows:
- 2 symbols made up of a single line: vertical (/i/) or horizontal (/ɨ/).
- 2 symbols based on the symbol for /i/, with the addition of a short horizontal line to the right (/a/) or left (/ə/)
- 2 symbols based on the symbol for /ɨ/ with the addition of a short vertical line above (/o/) or below (/u/)
- 2 symbols containing 2 components—because they originally represented diphthongs. In both cases, the right-hand component is the symbol for /i/. The left-hand components are the symbol for /a/ (within the symbol for the modern vowel /ɛ/) and the symbol for /ə/ (within the symbol for modern /e/).
Table 2 shows the 8 vowel symbols.
|[ə] or [ʌ]
|eo; ŏ; e
|[ɨ] or [ɯ]
|eu; ŭ; u
Modern Seoul Korean has been analyzed as having as few as seven and as many as ten vowels. The 8 vowels in table 2:
- include two non-high front vowels /e/ and /ɛ/ that have now merged for most younger speakers.
- exclude two front rounded vowels /y/ and /ø/ that exist only in the speech of older speakers. Younger Seoul speakers now pronounce those vowels as the diphthongs /wi/ and /we/ respectively and Hangul spells them like diphthongs, as ㅟ <ui> and ㅚ <oi>.
Features of vowels
The design of the vowel symbols reflects classes of vowels that existed in Late Middle Korean system:
- the vowels /o/, /wo/ and /a/ were classified as yang vowels; and
- the vowels /ŭ/, /wu/ and /e/ were classified as yin vowels.
In general, words had to contain only yang vowels or only yin vowels. The neutral vowel /i/ could occur with either yang or ying vowels. Cho and Whitman suggest that all the yang vowels were pronounced with a retracted tongue root and the yin vowels were pronounced with the tongue root not retracted.
Most of this vowel harmony system has broken down since the late middle Korean period, but traces remain in onomatopoeia and in some verb inflections.
Yin and yang in Hangul vowel symbols
The short horizontal lines on the left, right, top or bottom of the Hangul vowel symbols were originally dots. Their position distinguished yang vowels from yin vowels:
- the vowel /o/ was written just as a dot <•>, associated with Heaven.
- for the other yang vowels, a dot was placed on the right (/a/) or top (/wo/) part of the symbol.
- the vowel /u/ (pronounced /ɨ/ in Middle Korean) was written as a horizontal line <―>.
- for the other yin vowels, a dot was placed to the left (/e/) or below (/wu/).
- the neutral vowel /i/ was represented by a vertical line only, associated with Earth.
Symbols for Diphthongs
Hangul provides symbols for 6 diphthongs starting with the semi-vowel /y-/ and for 7 more diphthongs starting with the semi-vowel /w-/ or /ŭ-/. For each diphthong, the Hangul symbol contains the symbol for the full vowel contained in the diphthong, together with:
- a short horizontal or vertical stroke (diphthongs starting in /y-/); or
- the symbol for /o /or /u/ (diphthongs starting in /w-/ or /ŭ-/).
Table 3 lists the 13 diphthongs. The 2 left-hand columns show diphthongs starting with /y-/. The 2 right-hand columns show the diphthongs starting with /w-/ or /ŭ-/.
In some or all positions, some people pronounce the diphthong /we/ as a vowel /ö/ and the diphthong /wi/ as a vowel /ü/.
There is a useful online tutorial teaching Hangul at http://letslearnhangul.com/
Transliteration into the English alphabet
Four main systems exist for transliterating Hangul symbols into the English alphabet. For example, the word used in South Korea for Korea is 한국. Each of the 4 main systems transliterates them differently:
- Hanguk: in the official system used in South Korea since 2000
- Hankuk: in the official system used in North Korea since 1992
- Hankwuk: in the Yale system
- Han’guk: in the McCune-Reischauer system
Using Hangul on a keyboard
Two approaches exist for graphic encoding of Hangul syllables:
- a 3-set keyboard devised in 1949. This requires the user to select between syllable-initial consonants, vowels, and final consonants.
- a 2-set keyboard has become dominant since the 1990s. This distinguishes only consonants and vowels, thus reflecting the insight—present from the very beginning in the design of Hangul—that initial and final consonants are the same sounds (with some variations). The word-processing application decides whether to place a consonant in initial or final onset position.
Test out Hangul in an online game
I’ve written before about a new online game in which players compete to develop rules describing the shapes of letters in a wide range of writing systems. I’ve now earned enough points to unlock access to Hangul. So, I’m looking forward to trying to develop some rules that will describe Hangul. https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/05/play-an-online-game-to-help-science
Korean: a Linguistic Introduction, Sungdai Cho and John Whitman (2019)
A History of the Korean Language, Ki-Moon Lee and S Robert Ramsey (2011)