Monday, November 29, 2010

For the love of Hangul

(Much of the information in this post can be found on the Hangul wikipedia article, but I've taken what I consider the most interesting points for this blog and expanded them)

I've mentioned briefly in previous posts here about Hangul, the Korea alphabet, but haven't gone into exactly why it's such an incredibly beautiful system. I thought I'd do that now, before leaving Seoul on Thursday and thus never getting it done.

You can learn to read Hangul in an hour or two, mostly due to its amazingly logical structure, something which I've not seen in any other alphabet. In general alphabets evolve slowly whereas Hangul is relatively new and its original structure was so perfect that it hasn't had to change much.

Prior to the invention of Hangul, some 550 years ago, the writing system in Korea used the Chinese characters (this can still be seen in a huge number of words which are very very similar to Chinese - today's new one for me was on the screen of the printer in my office - 준비- junbi cf. the Chinese 准备 - zhǔnbèi - ready).

The reason for the invention of Hangul was, quite sensibly, because although the Chinese writing system has many artistically sensible reasons for its existence, efficiency in learning it is not one of them. On average it takes a couple of years longer for a student to get up to the same standard of reading using characters as it does when studying a non-character based alphabet. Half a millennium ago when the majority of Korea was illiterate, King Sejong, commissioned the writing system and this was clearly a visionary step. I do wonder how China would have developed differently had it also had such a huge literate population.

Anyway, the history of the writing system is interesting, but it's the structure which is so beautiful. For a start, if you ask a Korean to write down the alphabet, they will not write it down in a single list. They will in general write it down with the consonants and vowels separately, plus the diphthongal vowels, the doubled consonants and the iotized vowels (ya instead of a, etc.)

I'll get onto these in a moment, but first the actual structure of writing the words. Every Korean word is built out of a number of syllables and each syllable has either 2 or 3 letters in it. However, unlike most alphabets you may be used to (save for Hebrew and Arabic), the letters may go above and below each other. A two letter syllable is either places with the two letters next to each other, or one above the other, while a three letter syllable has two, at the top, next to each other followed by one at the bottom, or all three in a column. You read left to right then top to bottom withing a syllable.

For instance, in my opinion the most important word in the Korean language: 김치 kimchi (actually pronounced with more of a 'g' than a 'k'), is made of of the two syllables 김 gim, and 치 chi. The first syllable is read clockwise from the top left and the second is read from left to right.

But this also isn't why it's so beautiful. The reason that Hangul is such a beautiful language is because the consonants are based on the sound of the letter and the shape of your mouth when you say it (known as articulatory phonetics). As a good example. The 'n' sound is written as ㄴ, which is the shape of your tongue when saying the letter 'n'. In my opinion we could have written the Pioneer plaque in Hangul ;-)

How about if we have a sound similar to 'n' but with the tip of the tongue making more contact with the roof of the mouth. This is 'd' written as ㄷ where the new line at the top represents this contact. And if we aspirate this sound with a burst of air to make it 't', this is written as ㅌand has the shape of the tongue (the bottom line with the vertical), the stronger contact (the middle line) plus the aspiration (the top line). The 'r' (or sometimes 'l') is another variation of 'n' but this time it takes the form of a flap consonant. 'r' is represented therefore as ㄹ.

'g' and 'k' are ㄱ andㅋ which are the shape of the back of the tongue on saying these consonants, the second line in 'k' again marks an aspirated sound.

The consonant group 'm', 'b' and 'p' are written as ㅁ, ㅂ and ㅍ and are the basic shape of the mouth on forming these letters where the 'b' is explosive and the 'p' is aspirated.

, ㅈ, ㅊ, 's', 'j' and 'ch' is the least obvious set but given the first, the second and third follow as being the same forms with contact with the roof of the mouth and an additional aspirated sound for 'ch'.

The two glottal sounds 'ng' and 'h', ㅇ and ㅎ have the shape of the throat opening in glottal consonants. The 'ng' can also be a silent letter which is used at the beginning of a syllable when it starts with a vowel sound - no syllable in Korean can be written with a vowel to start. As far as I know this is to do with the aesthetics of the written form.

So, those are the basic consonants. I'd wager that if you've read this far you could probably recognise most of the Korean vowels without trying to remember them. Some of these letters can be doubled up to get glottalized sounds and a few combinations make up consonant clusters (ls, lt, bs etc.).
Now onto the vowels. The basic forms of the vowels can be recognised within seconds, so I'll just list them here:

ㅏ,ㅓ, ㅗ, ㅜ, ㅡ andㅣ which are a, eo, o, u, eu and i. Want to add a y to the front? Add another short line: ㅑ,ㅕ, ㅛ and ㅠ - ya, yeo, yo and yu. Note that there's no yi or yu as these are included in the diphthongs

and then there are the diphthongs, which are simply combinations of these vowels:
ㅐ, ㅒ , ㅔ ,ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ , ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟand ㅢ - ae, yae, e, ye, wa, wae, oe, weo, we, wi, yi Note that these can in general be worked out from the simple vowels. ie. ㅒ is ㅑ'ya' withㅣ'i' and thus yae.

So, there you have it, that's hangul, more or less. There are some subtleties related to the sounds depending on where the letters sit in a word, for instance ㄱ can appear to sound like a g or a k depending on whether it's at the beginning or middle of a word. Similarly the difference between 'd' and 't' can be subtle to a non-native speaker.

For English speakers perhaps the hardest thing I've noticed is that the non-dipthongal vowels are very pure in Korean. What we would normally count as a pure vowel in English would often be seen as a combination of two in Korean. I'm staying in an area called Sinchon but there's another area the other side of the city called Sincheon and I still have a really hard time telling the difference between the last vowels.

Anyway, that's a basic flavour of the alphabet. I've slowly been adding to my vocabulary this time, mostly with words related to foods but I'll try and pick up a few more useful phrases for next time I come.

If you're a native speaker and have any comments on this, please do tell me. For now 안녕히 계세요!

(With many thanks to Yumi for the consultation and for answering my constant stream of questions)


Demian said...

Dear Jonathan,

I am a native speaker and I can tell you that you know more about Hangul than me. Thanks for the posting.

Demian Cho

P.S. Did you know that there is an indigenous tribe in Indonesian island who adapted Hangul as their alphabet?

Unknown said...

Hi Demian, thanks for the encouragement. I didn't know about the Indonesian uptake of this, that's very interesting!