• Why Does Korean Literature Use an Alphabet?

    By Charles Montgomery

    The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can find links to previous selections at the end of the post.

    Perhaps the most important advancement for Korean literature in the Middle Ages was the development of the Korean alphabet, hangul. Chinese had historically been the language of the literati, but the development of a national literature required a writing system of Korea’s own.

    During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), King Sejong decided to create a Korean alphabet. Officially it was created in 1443, but it actually took a few years beyond that, and then it slowly became the language of literature (very slowly, in fact, as even today some Chinese characters, or hanja, are still used in South Korea). King Sejong had been unhappy with the idea that peasants, uneducated in hanja, were therefore essentially illiterate. In an effort to make it easier for “normal” Koreans to read and write, Sejong imagined a set of letters that were Korean, simple to learn, based on the position of the organs of speech when spoken, and formed by two- and three-letter syllables.

    At the beginning of the hangul project, King Sejong clearly stated his reasons for creating the alphabet:

    Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.

    King Sejong also had a semi-philosophical goal in mind: the (mainly) three-letter syllables were constructed so the initial consonant represented the moving sky, the middle vowel the stationary earth, and the final consonant the human being, both still and in motion. Hangul is phonetic, so non-Koreans who understand the rules can read it and often pronounce it quite accurately. (King Sejong could not have foreseen it, but this also makes his alphabet, particularly among Asian alphabets, uniquely suited to computer keyboards and smartphones!)

    Sejong preferred achievement to traditional position, and under Sejong’s guidance a national agricultural handbook was written, as were two important works on Korean medicine. King Sejong was also responsible for the creating of a fully “Korean” calendar, free of Chinese influence. Still, the creation of hangul remains his best-known accomplishment; October 9th, Hangul Day, is a national holiday.

    Hangul originally used 28 letters, but over time that number has declined to 24, and the pronunciation of some of those letters, distinct in spelling but not in speaking, grows increasingly redundant still today. The alphabet was originally called by the depressingly bureaucratic name hunmin chong-um. King Sejong’s search for simplicity drove him to create a language that stacked consonants and vowels, rather than laying them out in a linear fashion, as in English. The result takes up less space and suits either horizontal or vertical writing. It can also lead to increased legibility, and reading speed. Here, for example, is how the National Hangul Museum renders that idea in both hangul and English:


    In addition, at least in principle, the base consonants of hangul, ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㅇ, were composed according to observations of the movements of the speech organs forming those consonants. Consequently, the shapes of the basic consonants mirror those of the speech organs.

    The alphabet uses an ingenious system in which strokes are added to the base forms of vowels and consonants to create new and similar sounding letters, all following consistent patterns. If you learned the stroke patterns for one vowel or consonant, you would essentially know all of them.


    Hangul’s relative simplicity and small number of letters makes it surprisingly easy to learn (theoretically possible in less than a day) and read. Because of that ease, Korea is a nation with almost no illiteracy, and the clustered-letter syllabic nature of hangul makes the creation of new words near-instantaneously possible. When chicken-and-beer restaurants were first introduced to Korea, college students merely combined the first syllables of chicken (치킨) and beer (맥주) to create the now well-known portmanteau chi-maek (치맥).

    The practical effects of hangul’s creation were at first slow but steady, and then revolutionary. Because the quickly learnable hangul fit naturally to the spoken language of Korea, it could be taught to the poor, and particularly to women. In fact, it was sometimes known as the “language of the inner rooms” (in other words, the domain of women), a dismissive term used partly by the scholar-aristocrat yangban class. It first saw wide use in diaries, while many Confucian scholars and kings refused to advocate it, considering only hanja the proper language of literature. Hangul did continue, however, to provide a written voice for the the country’s women as well as its poor and disenfranchised population.

    According to the National Hangul Museum in Seoul, hangul also revitalized literature as a whole, allowing common people to share in a privilege that had once been the preserve of the upper classes. Traditional works, once transmitted only orally, could now be recorded by anyone who learned this simple new alphabet. This revitalized Korean poetry, particularly the forms of gasa and sijo (which remains popular to this day), and eventually helped Korea develop entirely national prose forms such as Korean-based novels and nationalist essays.

    Thus Hangul came into use to create documents of classical lyrical songs (sijochang), musical storytelling (pansori), mask dance (most famous in Andong, a town famous for its an annual mask dance festival). Most of Joseon’s most famous plays and performances began to be written in hangul. King Sejong, in his time, fought back against early resistance by having the Joseon court translate important Confucian and Buddhist works into hangul and then distribute them. Practical texts, such as those on military strategy or medicine, received similar treatment. These projects, long though they took, were thorough, and eventually they did their part to make hangul the norm.

    Only Japan’s humiliating defeat in World War II finally freed hangul, scotching the occupier’s demented colonial plan to make Japanese the official language of Korea and letting the real Korean alphabet come into common use. This, among other things, opened the gates for a deluge of female writers, beginning with a trickle in colonial times, and ending up at the state of Korean literature today, half of whose writers and poets might well be women.

    Hangul changed everything: Korean literature not only became Korean in its alphabet, words, and sentences, but it also became open to all Koreans. King Sejong began his project with high hopes, and were he to visit Korea today, he would no doubt be amazed that not only at hangul’s success as a literary tool, but also to discover that its creation went on to have a strong hand in altering Korean society in ways that eventually lead to modernization. Only when hangul was in place could modern Korean literature come into being.

    Related Korea Blog posts:

     How Did Korea Get Fiction in the First Place? 

    Where is Korean Translated Literature?

    What Shaped Translated Korean Literature?

    The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea