Origin of writing in Korea
Chinese writing has been known in Korea for over 2,000 years. It was
used widely during the Chinese occupation of northern Korea from 108
BC to 313 AD. By the 5th century AD, the Koreans were starting to write
in Classical Chinese - the earliest known example of this dates from
414 AD. They later devised three different systems for writing Korean
with Chinese characters: Hyangchal (향찰/鄕札),
Gukyeol (구결/口訣) and Idu
(이두/吏讀). These systems were similar to those
developed in Japan and were probably used as models by the Japanese.
The Idu system used a combination of Chinese characters together
with special symbols to indicate Korean verb endings and other grammatical
markers, and was used to in official and private documents for many centuries.
The Hyangchal system used Chinese characters to represent all the
sounds of Korean and was used mainly to write poetry.
The Koreans borrowed a huge number of Chinese words, gave Korean readings
and/or meanings to some of the Chinese characters and also invented
about 150 new characters, most of which are rare or used mainly for
personal or place names.
The Korean alphabet was invented in 1444 and promulgated it in 1446
during the reign of King Sejong (r.1418-1450), the fourth king of the
Joseon Dynasty. The alphabet was originally called Hunmin jeongeum,
or "The correct sounds for the instruction of the people",
but has also been known as Eonmeun (vulgar script) and Gukmeun
(national writing). The modern name for the alphabet, Hangeul,
was coined by a Korean linguist called Ju Si-gyeong (1876-1914). In
North Korea the alphabet is known as 조선글 (josoen guel).
The shapes of the consonants are based on the shape the mouth made when
the corresponding sound is made, and the traditional direction of writing
(vertically from right to left) most likely came from Chinese, as did the
practice of writing syllables in blocks.
Even after the invention of the Korean alphabet, most Koreans who could
write continued to write either in Classical Chinese or in Korean using
the Gukyeol or Idu systems. The Korean alphabet was associated
with people of low status, i.e. women, children and the uneducated.
During the 19th and 20th centuries a mixed writing system combining
Chinese characters (Hanja) and Hangeul became increasingly
popular. Since 1945 however, the importance of Chinese characters in
Korean writing has diminished significantly.
Since 1949 hanja have not been used at all in any North Korean
publications, with the exception of a few textbooks and specialized books.
In the late 1960s the teaching of hanja was reintroduced in North
Korean schools however and school children are expected to learn 2,000
characters by the end of high school.
In South Korea school children are expected to learn 1,800 hanja
by the end of high school. The proportion of hanja
used in Korean texts varies greatly from writer to writer and there
is considerable public debate about the role of hanja in Korean
Most modern Korean literature and informal writing is written entirely in
hangeul, however academic papers and official documents tend to be
written in a mixture of hangeul and hanja.
Notable features of Hangeul
- Type of writing system: alphabet
- Direction of writing: Until the 1980s Korean was usually written from
right to left in vertical columns. Since then writing from left to right in
horizontal lines has become popular, and today the majority of texts are
Number of letter: 24 (jamo): 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The
letters are combined together into syllable blocks.
- The shapes of the the consontants g/k, n, s, m and ng are graphical
representations of the speech organs used to pronounce them. Other consonsants
were created by adding extra lines to the basic shapes.
- The shapes of the the vowels are based on three elements: man (a vertical
line), earth (a horizontal line) and heaven (a dot). In modern Hangeul
the heavenly dot has mutated into a short line.
- Spaces are placed between words, which can be made up of one or more syllables.
- The sounds of some consonants change depending on whether they appear
at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a syllable.
A number of Korean scholars have proposed an alternative method
of writing Hangeul involving writing each letter in a line like in English,
rather than grouping them into syllable blocks, but their efforts have been
met with little interest or enthusiasm.
In South Korea hanja are used to some extent in some Korean texts.
Used to write
Korean (한국어 / 조선말),
a language spoken by about 63 million people in South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan,
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. The relationship between Korean and other languages
is not known for sure, though some linguists believe it to be a member of the Altaic
family of languages. Grammatically Korean is very similar to Japanese and about 70% of its
vocabulary comes from Chinese.
The Hangeul alphabet (한글)
A recording of the Korean consonants by Ng Kiat Quan
The double consonants marked with * are pronounced fortis. There is no
symbol in IPA to indiciate this.
A recording of the Korean vowels by Ng Kiat Quan
Note on the transliteration of Korean
There are a number different ways to write Korean in the Latin alphabet.
The methods shown above are:
(first row) the official South Korean transliteration system, which
was introduced in July 2000. You can find
further details at www.mct.go.kr.
(second row) the McCune-Reischauer system, which was devised in 1937 by two
American graduate students, George McCune and Edwin Reischauer, and is widely used
in Western publications. For more details of this system see:
Download a Korean alphabet chart in Word
or PDF format (letters arranged in South
Korean order but without the double consonants).
Sample text in Korean (hangeul only)
Sample text in Korean (hangeul and hanja)
Modeun Ingan-eun Tae-eonal ttaebuteo Jayuroumyeo Geu Jon-eomgwa Gwonrie
Iss-eo Dongdeunghada. Ingan-eun Cheonbujeog-euro Iseong-gwa Yangsim-eul
Bu-yeobad-ass-eumyeo Seoro Hyungje-ae-ui Jeongsin-euro Haengdongha-yeo-yahanda.
A recording of this text
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Information about Korean |
Korean phrases |
Korean numbers |
Korean colours |
Tower of Babel in Korean |
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Information about the Korean language
Online Korean lessons
More Korean links
Learn to speak Korean confidently and naturally with Rocket Korean
Learn Korean with Glossika Mass Sentences
Languages written with the Hangeul alphabet
Borama / Gadabuursi,
Carpathian Basin Rovas,
Old Church Slavonic,
Oirat Clear Script,
Székely-Hungarian Rovás (Hungarian Runes),