Hangul - the Korean Writing System Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Hangul - the Korean Writing System

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The Korean alphabet is used for nearly all written communication on the Korean peninsula. There are a number of interesting things about it, many of which come about from its uniqueness, as Hangul is unrelated to any other writing system on Earth. It's very popular in the two Koreas, where literacy rates are high1, partly because it is easy to learn. Books, magazines, newspapers, TV, and online media all use it, except for occasional words that make more sense in English. An example of this is 'IMF'. The International Monetary Fund was involved in bailing out South Korea following the currency collapse in the late 1990s; and its name is now used as an adjective in Korean meaning 'bargain'. The only notable exceptions to this are in newspaper headlines and highbrow literature, where Chinese symbols are sometimes mixed with Hangul. However, this habit is sometimes considered a bit pretentious.

Here are some key facts:

  • Hangul is no use for anything other than communicating with Koreans. This means that you'll only get to communicate with about 50 million people if you learn it, which, comparatively speaking, isn't very good value per unit of effort - there are estimated to be roughly six billion human beings on Earth. But, on the plus side, Koreans are well worth communicating with; they might even give you some kimchi to show their appreciation.

  • If you're quite clever, it will take you about two hours to learn to read and write Hangul as well as a Korean eight-year-old. If you're more like the rest of us, it will take you about a week. Either way, it's not very hard. And a lot of Koreans will be very pleased with you for making the effort.

  • You can really impress your European friends by reading it, as the text looks a tiny bit like Chinese at first glimpse. Like Chinese, a sentence is made up of a sequence of symbols of roughly square proportions. Unlike Chinese, each symbol is formed from about three letters from a simple alphabet that's easy to learn.

  • There are almost no exceptions to pronunciation in Korean. So it sounds the way it looks... assuming you've learnt the alphabet correctly, that is.

  • There are about 24 letters in the alphabet, and ten are vowels... which sounds like quite a few vowels. But the large number is mostly because different vowel sounds, such as o and oh, have different letters. Contrast this with English, where the letter 'U' is the written the same in 'fundamentally' and 'confusing', even though the two sounds are completely different.

  • It's easy to type Korean because it's alphabet-based. The only difference between Hangul and Roman alphabets is that the computer has to form your key strokes into groups of about three characters as you type.

  • Hangul is written left-to-right then top-to-bottom, just like western European languages.

  • The alphabet was invented by a certain King Sejong, who decided that Koreans needed their own writing system to replace the complicated Chinese system. So, during his reign, which began in 1418, a committee developed a scientific and straightforward alphabet from scratch. Literacy rates soared as the alphabet caught on, and although its usage waxed and waned over the following centuries, it is now used for nearly all written communication in both Koreas.

  • Since the writing system is alphabetic, the spoken languages in North and South Korea cannot diverge too far unless literacy rates drop to very low levels. So we can thank King Sejong for ensuring that the North Koreans will still be able to share a joke with their Southern neighbours when their 50 year separation finally ends.

Almost everything you need in order to learn Hangul is available on one page at LearnKorean.com.

1The Republic of Korea (South Korea) and The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) were created before the Korean War (1950 - 1953) in 1948. According to the CIA World Factbook, 2001, North and South Korea have literacy rates of 99% and 98% respectively (roughly the same as the UK and the USA), compared to 81.5% in the People's Republic of China and 93% in Taiwan.

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