Today is Hangul Day (한글날): on this day in 1446, King Sejong the Great promulgated the Korean alphabet, hangul. Read all about it in Bill Poser’s Language Log post; I hadn’t realized the purpose of the alphabet was explicitly to bring literacy to the mass of Koreans: “I have been distressed by [the fact that most people can’t express their feelings in writing] and have designed twenty-eight new letters, which I wish to have everyone practice at their ease and make convenient for their daily use.” But “15th century Korea was a highly stratified society rigidly controlled by a small elite in which those who were not elite and not male had few rights.”

Indeed, there was strong opposition to the introduction of Hangul on the part of King Sejong’s court, so strong that they presented a memorial in opposition and debated with him verbally. The reasons they gave were in part that it was wrong to deviate from the Chinese way of doing things, and in part that such a simple writing system would lead to the loss of aristocratic privilege. Their motives may have been wrong, but they understood the effects of mass literacy all too well. After King Sejong’s death, Hangul was very nearly suppressed. It took much longer to come into wide use than he had intended due to the opposition of the aristocracy.

Sounds like something worth celebrating to me.


  1. The equivalent on our side of the world would have been the Reformation and the vernacular bibles, I suppose?

  2. Unfortunately it isn’t even really celebrated here anymore. It’s no longer a national holiday, though it is still on the calendar.

  3. I read in Bill Poser’s post that in North Korea it is celebrated in January. Is that because of the anniversary of the Workers Party, which was also celebrated yesterday? Or was this party on purpose founded on this special day? See here for a BBC-piece on the Workers Party anniversary.

  4. aldiboronti says

    Another Eastern monarch who drove forward language reform was Mongkut (Rama VI) of Siam. His Linguistic Proclamations make for fascinating reading.

  5. Hangul keyboard layouts are also meant to be rational and efficient. The ordinary one has consonants on the left and vowels on the right; an alternate has three regions: distinguishing initial and final consonants and putting the vowels in the middle. Color-coded diagrams

  6. I’ve added an explanation of the different dates at the end of my LanguageLog post.

  7. I recently went through an Internet tutorial on Hangul at http://langintro.com/kintro/toc.htm
    The alphabet is a brilliant piece of work in my opinion.

  8. This is some explosive stuff: all warmed up by Bill Poser’s post and his scan of the beginning of the Hun Min Jong Um 訓民正音, I google for a full version of the text with Chinese explanations, and then I happen upon the scariest anti-Han website ever (Taiwanese separatism, just so you know; if you do go there, you’re in for some mixed Han-Roman Taiyu reading).

  9. To clarify, I linked directly to the page about the text. The offensive stuff (at least for me) is elsewhere on the same site.

Speak Your Mind