Chinese script didn’t work terribly well for Korean, even with Gugyeol, Hyangchul, or Idu additions. Around 1440 AD, King Sejong the Great asked his board of scholarly advisers to advise him on a better writing system. On October 9, 1446 AD, the king published a new alphabet; the alphabet was so cool that that day is still celebrated today.
The alphabet was truly masterful. Not only did its sounds match Korean of the time very well, it was the first alphabet to encode the mechanics of vocal sound production into its characters. For example, the base shape of consonants were good mnemonics for how teeth and tongue needed to be positioned. For example, there was one visual element for “teeth together”, one for “tongue on the roof of the mouth”, and one for “tongue against the front teeth”.
There are also sometimes specific strokes added to the characters to make a consonant plosive (e.g. b->p), nasal, fricative (“hissiness”), and/or aspirated. (Aspiration is “breathiness”, which is almost unknown in English. My mother aspirates the first consonant in “whale” to distinguish it from “wail”; I believe I do not.)
The glyphs for vowels are based on a simple vertical line and horizontal lines, which makes them visually very distinct from the consonants.
They also used a system for grouping up to three characters into syllables that was much like the Khitan technique: the alphabetic characters (called jamo) for consonants, vowels, and consonant clusters are grouped into little blocks, one block per syllable, with relative spacing between the blocks in much the same proportions as people use with Chinese characters.
Each syllable block could have up to three characters: a leading consonant or consonant cluster (which was a special null symbol if there was no vowel), a medial vowel, and an ending consonant/consonant cluster. (Hangul has many characters for consonant clusters, but that is not completely unusual. Japanese Katakana and Hiragana have a character for “tsu” and even English has a character for “ks” (x).)
Because the glyphs encoded features of the sound production, because the characters matched the language well, and because the glyphs were quite visually distinct, the writing system is very easy to learn. The saying was that a normal person could learn it in a morning and a stupid man in ten days.
One might imagine that men who were accorded high status as a result of spending years learning how to read might not take kindly to an advance that allowed just anybody to read in under two weeks. Indeed, the king’s scholarly advisers shortly advised him that this newfangled alphabet was a bad idea. They had three principal rationalizations errr concerns:
- It’s different, it must be wrong.
- Ditching Chinese characters would look like Korea was dissing their biggest, baddest neighbour, which is not usually a smart move.
- Only barbarians (like the Mongols, Jurchen, Japanese, and Tibetians) use phonetic systems, unlike the civilized Chinese.
King Sejong basically listened politely and told them sorry, the alphabet stays.
Unfortunately, he was not immortal, and one of his later successors was nervous about unwashed masses reading, so banned Hangul in 1504 AD. There was a revival about 100 years later, and a lot of popular literature (especially by and for women) was produced. It wasn’t until 1894 AD, however, that the first government document was written in Hangul.
The Japanese took over Korea in 1910 AD, and although Japanese was the new official language, Hangul was taught in schools (which they also made compulsory for kids) from 1910 to 1938AD.
After Japan was defeated in WW2, Hangul roared back. In the South, Chinese characters were still used (although less and and less all the time); in the North, Chinese characters were abolished. It is possible that the North outlawed Chinese characters in part to separate the Koreans from their historical literature.
In 2009, Hangul was been adopted to write the Cia-Cia language of about 80,000 people on an island in Sulawesi, Indonesia.