Happy Hangul Day, ladies and gentlemen. Today we celebrate the national language of Korea (Hangul) and King Sejong the Great, one of Korea’s most revered leaders. To commemorate the day (which everyone else had off), I will tell you the story of how the national language was formed, as told to me by my language exchange partner, Soohyun.
It was the year 1443 and King Sejong, the 4th ruler of the Joseon Dynasty, decided in order for Korea to become a great nation, the entire population had to be united by literacy (great man, this King Sejong). Up until that time, only the ruling upper class was privy to the written language called hanja, which was adapted from Chinese characters. The written word was very complex and divided the people of Korea. King Sejong was a great uniter and fought the courts to create such a language that could be written easily by all people.
So where to begin, you might ask, when creating a language from the air? As a unifier and egalitarian, Sejong looked to the one thing shared by most all members of Korean society, from lower to upper classes – the same metal-grated doorframe. Starting in the top left of such a doorframe and working one’s way left to right, square by square, Sejung drew up a 28-character language consisting of ten vowels and fourteen consonants. Each syllable was made up of a combination of vowels and consonants and is written as a three part symbol with a consonant-vowel-consonant formation. The letters are also said to mirror the shapes your mouth makes when pronouncing them.
If a syllable starts with a vowel, a circular placeholder fills the spot of the first consonant. That is why Hangul is so easy to identify of all Asian languages – just look for the circles. I bet if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see Korean restaurants all over.
The sign of the X above is very common in Korea – obviously meaning “no” it’s either signed with your index fingers or your full arms across your chest. This non-verbal form of communication is successful when fending off an overzealous shopkeeper as well as unwanted advances on the subway. Remember, children of the 90s, just say no.
Another fun language find is that ne (pronounced “nay”) means “yes” in Korean. Since I say “nay” in real life to mean “no”, this has been a fun twist.
Though this language is considered very simple to read, I am digesting it slowly. It’s been fun to be out and about and working to sound out subway stops on the train and signs of local businesses. It will take some time, but it’s something I’m really enjoying.
Many colleagues have assured me that you don’t need to speak or read Korean to live here. This is definitely true, but what’s the fun in moving to a new country without giving communication a shot? So far, I can only see an upside. I’m getting pretty good with cab directions and starting to understand restaurant menus. Try your hand at it below. Japanese included as well. No pressure!