October 9th is Hangul Day in South Korea. Hangul Day is celebrated on January 15th north of the DMZ. Hangul Day is a day set aside to celebrate the Korean alphabet, known as Hangul. The day is known as 한글날 (Hangulnal) in Korean, and is also known as ‘Hangul Proclamation Day’.
At first, it might seem a bit strange that people get a day off work to celebrate the alphabet (but of course any reason for a day off work is a good reason!). However, once you learn the history of Hangul, you will see why it is so important to Korea and Korean culture!
History of Hangul
Most alphabets around the world have mysterious, unknown origins. They slowly evolved from pictures into symbols that represent sounds. The Korean alphabet (Hangul) is different, and is unique among widely used alphabets, in that rather than evolving, it was deliberately created.
During the fifteenth century, Koreans used Chinese characters to write. These characters are known as ‘Hanja’, and are still occasionally seen in Korea, particularly on calendars. As Korean is grammatically very different from Chinese, writing Korean using Hanja was an almost impossible task. As a result, only the elite in Korea were literate.
In 1443, King Sejong decided that it would be best for Korea if the Korean language had its own alphabet. He then set out to make this happen, and by 1444, the new alphabet was completed.
Is Hangul Difficult to Learn?
Unlike Chinese characters, Hangul is incredibly easy to learn. It is said that ‘A wise man can learn it in a morning, and a stupid man can learn it in the space of ten days’. In fact, it can be learned in under two hours if you use the best techniques possible, try our 90 minute challenge to see how. Compare those two hours to the amount of time needed to learn how to read Chinese and you can imagine how revolutionary Hangul must have seemed at the time of its invention!
What is Hangul Like?
Like most other alphabets, Hangul is phonetic. But it also has several adaptations that make it well suited for Korean. For example, rather than being written in a straight line, the letters that make up Hangul are organized in a square shape which matches up with the Chinese characters that they replaced. This makes it easy to identify the meaning of any words that are based on Chinese characters.
Another, rather incredible adaptation that the language has, is that the consonants are based on the shape made by the mouth when saying them. This foresight is only possible due to the fact that the language was planned, and it makes Hangul easy to learn.
The vowel letters are based on a combination of three elements: a dot, representing the sun; a vertical line, representing man; and a horizontal line, representing the earth. Unlike English, each vowel sound in Korean has its own letter, which makes a huge difference when learning how to pronounce new words.
Although Hangul was a created language, it has evolved slightly over time, with some letters becoming obsolete. The double ㅎsound, for example, is no-longer used. The original script also had marks to show the pitch of words, but these marks are no longer used. Also, the dots that were used in the vowel sounds are almost exclusively drawn as short lines these days.
Introduction of Hangul
Despite all of Hangul’s benefits, it nearly went out of existence during the Choseon dynasty. The elite of the time wanted to preserve their status, and as a result saw Chinese characters as the only true way to write Korean. In the early 16th century, Hangul was effectively banned by the king, and education centers that taught Hangul were closed down.
However, Hangul had resurgence in the 19th century, and gradually grew more and more common, especially due to its role in Korean nationalism during the era of Japanese occupation. Even after Korea gained its independence, Chinese characters were still frequently used, and if you read newspapers from the 1950’s and 1960’s, you will see a mixture of Chinese characters and Hangul. It was only in the 1970’s that the use of Chinese characters declined, but these days, almost all Korean is written in Hangul.
The date of Hangul Day in Korea varied a lot since the day’s inception in 1926, but its current date of October 9th has been used since 1945. These days, workers in Korea will be pleased to notice that October 9th is marked in red on their calendars, meaning that the day is a national holiday. But it hasn’t always been that way; between 1991 and 2012, Hangul Day lost its position as a national holiday and workers didn’t get the day off. Luckily, its status as a national holiday was restored in 2012 so this year you can enjoy the great weather that Korea usually experiences in early October instead of being stuck behind a desk.
How to Celebrate Hangul Day
Why not commemorate Hangul Day by visiting the museum of King Sejong. The museum is easy to find; it is located directly underneath the large golden statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square, in front of Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul. The entrance to the museum is at the back of the statue.
Inside the museum, there are several exhibits explaining the creation of Hangul along with the other technological advances of King Sejong’s reign. The period of King Sejong’s rule is often seen as a golden period of Korean history, where enlightenment and knowledge, rather than war and invasion, were the defining events of the time. It is no surprise that a picture of King Sejong appears on the ten thousand won bill!
Another way to celebrate Hangul Day in Korea is to learn Hangul. As mentioned already, the Korean alphabet only takes two hours to learn, and allows you to read Korean signs as well as improve you pronunciation and ability to learn new words. What better way to celebrate the day than learn the language.
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