King Sejong the Great

The Story of Hangeul: King Sejong’s Legacy

Have you learned the Korean alphabet Hangeul (한글) yet or are you planning to learn Hangeul? You may have heard that the Korean alphabet Hangeul is the easiest script in the world to learn. Why is that?

The Korean alphabet Hangeul is the only alphabet that was invented from scratch, that is, designed from scratch for the Korean language, which makes it unique among the world’s alphabets.

The purpose of this blog post is to provide an explanation of why that is.

How Korean was written before Hangeul

In Korea, Chinese writing was used over 2000 years ago. Since Chinese writing is difficult to learn because of the many characters, most Koreans, especially the lower classes, were illiterate. There were already Korean scripts before Hangeul was invented, but they were similar to Japanese in that they combined their own characters with those of Chinese. That didn’t make things any easier.

One still had to learn Chinese to be able to write and read. Moreover, since the common script was of foreign origin, Korean thought and spoken language could not be fully grasped. These problems dragged on for centuries until King Sejong (세종대왕), the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty (조선 왕조), found a solution in the 15th century. But how did it come about?

How did Sejong the Great become king

Taejong, the father of the later king Sejong, helped his father to overthrow the ruling dynasty and they founded the Joseon dynasty which would last for 600 years. Taejong expected to become heir to the throne in return. However, when his father intended a younger half-brother for the throne, Taejong assassinated him. He did not ascend the throne immediately, however, as he still had an older brother, but the latter voluntarily laid down the crown. Thus Sejong’s father became king.

After Taejong, Sejong’s father, had the crown, he also murdered his wife’s relatives and later his son Sejong’s wife’s relatives. So he eliminated everyone who could stand in the way of his power and his policies. Taejong’s son Sejong had two older brothers, but Sejong was always the favorite and so one was declared unfit for the role and the second brother became a monk.

This allowed Sejong to ascend the throne.

Sejong was well-read and smart even as a child. He has been involved in art, music and business. Having no political opponents, he was able to devote himself fully to these passions. So his father made sure that there were no more opponents and no more conflicts, paving the way for further development.

King Sejong and the Korean Alphabet Hangeul

King Sejong, now known as Sejong the Great, is now considered one of the most influential rulers in Korean history. It is said that Sejong had an extraordinary understanding of the common people and brought people from all walks of life into his government.

He was particularly bothered by the fact that the people had no way of recording their thoughts. Most of them had no other possibility than to pass on their knowledge orally, which meant that a lot was lost. Even messages could only be delivered orally.

The solution King Sejong found was the Korean script Hangeul. This writing should enable everyone to learn to read and write in the shortest possible time.

Sejong is considered a revolucionary for this. After all, many of the upper class were against allowing the people to read and write. Knowledge is power and making this knowledge widely available had the potential to endanger the power structures.

One could compare it with Luther’s translation of the Bible.

But the project of inventing the Korean script was carried through. It began in 1444 and was completed by 1446. The newly invented script was introduced as the official alphabet on October 9, 1446. This day is still a holiday in Korea today. At that time the scripture was not called Hangeul, but Hunminchongeum (훈민정음) which means “the sounds for teaching the people”.

Since the alphabet was invented with the aim of teaching the lower classes to read and write, many Koreans from the upper classes refused to use it at first. They did not want to be associated with the common people. They continued to learn Chinese characters. In the meantime, Hangeul was even banned and only introduced to schools in the 19th century.

Deep Rooted Tree (뿌리 깊은 나무) is a 2011 South Korean television series and aired for 24 episodes on SBS. It’s based on Sejong’s creation of Hangeul. Of course, since it’s a drama, the content doesn’t exactly match the historical facts, but it’s a drama that I also really enjoyed.

The Korean vowels and consonants

When Hangeul was invented, there were 28 letters of which only 24 are used today. But the system was already the same as it is today. A consonant at the beginning followed by a vowel and this combination may be followed by one or two more consonants. Actually, the consonants symbolize the shape of the mouth when pronouncing the sounds. Because this system is so simple and there are only a few letters, suddenly everyone could learn to read and write in a very short time.

Many Korean children can read and write Hangeul even before they start elementary school. My grandmother, who is now almost a hundred years old, never went to school. Nevertheless, she can read and write. She taught herself. If you haven’t started learning the Korean script yet, now you know you can do it. If you’ve already learned Hangeul, you already knew that.

The search for the stolen manuscript of the Hangeul

Having already heard a story worthy of a movie with the story of King Sejong, I would now like to tell another such story from the present. One of two 15th-century books describing how Korean writing came to be is owned by a museum. The other is owned by the state-known conman Bae Yikgi (배익기).

Bae Yikgi released the book to the public in 2008 after allegedly finding it. He was visited by scholars who established its authenticity, but shortly thereafter he was sued by an antique dealer who claimed the book was stolen from him. Bae, meanwhile, wanted 74 million euros but was convicted by the court. Still, he refused to return the book, pretending he no longer had it.

He was sentenced to ten years in prison but was declared innocent by the Supreme Court in 2014 for lack of evidence. Meanwhile, in 2012, the antique dealer passed away and officially bequeathed the book to the government, but no one knew where it was. Not until 2018 when Bae was running for political office and pretended to have over a trillion won because of his possession of the book. At the time, he again posted a photo showing that the book had been damaged in a 2015 fire.

Unfortunately, the book could not be retrieved until today.

What is the romanization of the Korean script?

In the twentieth century, various systems were developed to write the Korean script with Latin letters. These systems are called Romanization because the Latin script we use in the West today comes from the Romans. Romanization is handy, but not if you really want to learn Korean.

Because foreigners are familiar with the letters and pronunciation of their own language, in the case of German, Korean pronunciation would be dumbed down if one tried to learn with romanization. However, as you learned in this article, the Korean alphabet is not difficult to learn. Therefore, you don’t need romanization.

How to learn the Korean alphabet

Learning a new alphabet sounds like a big task, but the Korean alphabet Hangeul is different. In some places on the internet you can read that Hangeul can be learned in one hour. That’s an exaggeration. But you can learn Hangeul in two weeks if you practice half an hour every day. We recommend our series on the Korean alphabet on YouTube, of course, but there are many other resources, especially if you’re looking in English.