Erin and I have started taking the free Korean class offered in town. It seems like it will be helpful, but the textbook and handouts are printed completely in the Korean alphabet, Hangul. This is forcing us to actually learn the alphabet, something we’ve both been putting off. I don’t have to teach today (standardized test day), so I’m studying. It’s actually a very simple alphabet, with an interesting history.
Hangul was invented in the mid-1400s by King Sejong, who seems to be pretty darn famous here (considering that he’d dead). Prior to it’s invention, Koreans used Chinese characters (hanja), and only the elites knew how to read and write.
Sejong sat down and planned out a written language that the commoner could use. One of the ancient texts says: “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.” I must be stupid, because it’s taking me more than one morning. Still pretty darn easy, though. Hangul is fairly unique in that it was invented at a specific time, by one party. It didn’t evolve over time. Because of this, it’s very logical. Unlike Chinese, it’s very easy to type on a keyboard or cellphone. My students certainly have no problems text-messaging under their desks in class.
There are 14 basic consonants, 5 double consonants, 10 vowels (or semi-vowels) and 11 diphthongs (combined vowels). These letters, or jamo, are combined into syllable blocks. Each block contains two or three jamo. It seems pretty strange at first, but it’s really quite logical.
Here is a sample word. (I’ve made the text larger so the letters are easier to see. Note: Some users may have trouble seeing this. You might need a language pack of some sort. I don’t know for sure.)
컴퓨터 = Computer
The Korean pronounciation is slightly different, sort of like “come pew taw”
1. The first character block consists of three jamo.
The first is ㅋ (hard “K” sound) — in the upper-left.
The second is ㅓ (sounds halfway between the “O” in “come” and “aw”) — in the upper right.
The third is ㅁ (“M” sound) — on the bottom.
2. The second block consists of 2 jamo.
ㅍ (“P”) — on top.
ㅠ (a semi-vowel, “yew”) — on the bottom.
3. The third block has 2 jamo.
ㅌ (“T”) — on the left.
ㅓ (sounds halfway between the “O” in “come” and “aw”) — on the right.
It’s really not as complicated as it seems, and once you know it, the rules are constant. Not like English, with hundreds of difficult exceptions.
(Note: I pulled the quote and some of the information from the wikipedia page on Hangul.)