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Skip to 0 minutes and 17 seconds Korean Alphabet, Hangeul: A Ground-Breaking Writing System The Korean alphabet, Hangeul, is a ground-breaking writing system. Unlike most writing systems, which are the result of organizing phonological elements formed over time, Hangeul was newly invented on the foundations of phonological and phonetic knowledge. Let’s delve deeper into how this came to be. Even before Hangeul was invented in the mid-15th century, Koreans did have some writing systems, such as Hyangchal, Gugyeol and Idu, which borrowed Chinese characters to express Korean pronunciations, like the Japanese Kana (仮名) does. However, the fundamental differences between the Chinese and Korean spoken languages made it difficult to express all the Korean pronunciations with the borrowed characters.

Skip to 1 minute and 31 seconds Koreans solved this problem by making a new alphabet instead of adapting and improving the transliteration system. And this new invention is a remarkable example of a “disruptive innovation” in Korean culture, which shook up the value system of Korean culture by democratizing information and creating new methods of communication in the literature market. Intellectuals at the time devalued the novel Hangeul in favour of the well-established Hanmun, but today, we see Hangeul dominate. Why is this so? Let’s explore what elements of Hangeul allowed it to become so successful.

Skip to 2 minutes and 27 seconds The Korean Alphabet, Hangeul: an Achievement from Cultural Boundary When I say that Hangeul is unprecedentedly innovative, you may think that Hangeul is a purely Korean product, with no outer influence at all. However, behind the principles of Hangeul is an excellent interpretation of the shared intellectual heritage in East Asia. In other words, Hangeul’s originality is in fact also an achievement developed from cultural boundaries. Hangeul contains the principles of the East Asian trinity, the dynamics of Yin and Yang, and the Five Elements. The three primary vowels are the symbols representing “heaven (• [ʌ])”, “earth(― [ə])”, and “human ( [i]),” which comprise the “East Asian trinity.”

Skip to 3 minutes and 40 seconds These three primary vowels were then combined to generate 11 default vowels, and then the number of vowels is increased to 22, when you include default and composite vowels. The Hangeul vowels are also designed to express dual characteristics in yin and yang, such as bright/dark, big/small, and solemn/light, while the Hangeul consonants are categorized according to five articulation positions in the mouth, matching the five elements. In short, the system of Hangeul is very concise and efficient in reconstructing real sounds, and at the same time, is able to write countless syllables thanks to its combinatory principle. This is what makes it such a successful medium for the Korean language.

Skip to 4 minutes and 52 seconds The Korean Alphabet, Hangeul: A Systematic Implementation All over the world, people utter countless syllables, comprised of consonants and vowels. Considering that different writing systems are employed in different regions of the world, each system is usually confined to the specific systems historically used in a particular region. However, Koreans rejected a writing system that could only record syllables that Koreans use. Instead, they created a way to disassemble sounds, figure out the fundamental elements underneath them, and reassemble sounds through traditional categories. Traditional categories such as “Heaven, Earth, and Human,” “Yin and Yang,” and the “Five Elements” permeate Hangeul.

Skip to 5 minutes and 58 seconds Hangeul being composed of these elements enables Koreans to express various sounds in the Korean language that were impossible through Hanmun, as well as write down colorful expressions, and foreign sounds that would be introduced in the future. As you can see, Hangeul is the result of a thorough systematic implementation of the Korean way of thinking. It has become a common heritage that has grown and evolved, and is also an example of how pre-modern Koreans clearly recognized and organized the uniqueness of their own language and culture. Therefore, Hangeul is an important source for exploring the path of Korean philosophy.

Hangeul, the Korean Alphabet

Many of you may know there is a unique alphabet system in Korea, called “Hangeul”.

Hangeul is unprecedentedly innovative, but Hangeul’s originality is in fact also an achievement developed from across cultural boundaries. In this video, we will explore this vital disruptive innovation in Korean philosophy.

Did you know about these aspects of Hangeul before? What did you learn most interesting in this video?

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Introduction to Korean Philosophy

Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU)

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