Design and Use of the Hangul Alphabet

Project Team

Brian Bernstein, Harper Kamp, Janghan Kim, Seungeun Seol



Exactly why was there a need to develop a second, perhaps even an inferior alphabet in Korea when the Chinese Hanja had dominated the writing system for so long?
In exploring this topic we found ourselves asking, “why was there oppression for a new language that was only used by common folk” and in turn it led us to “why are the common folk the ones using Hangul regularly instead of the Chinese Hanja”?  As a result, the research found and used focused primarily on the class-based politics behind the emerging Korean alphabet known as “Hangul”.

To fully understand the topic, we based our research off of Korea’s history during the 15th and 19th century which allowed us to focus on a small time frame where Hangul was frowned upon to an ending point where Hangul had received full acceptance.  The results we extracted explained the advantages the Korean elite had over the common folk who did not read or write in Chinese Hanja and thus giving them an advantage over the information present.  Additionally we learned the conception of Hangul by King Sejong was in part motivated on the system’s ability to disseminate information among the uneducated.

Understanding the advantage of having a one writing system nation, control would be restricted to the top levels and only the elite could fully participate and take advantage of the culture.  With this in mind we formed an argument which states: The Hangul alphabet received criticism and negative reception early in Korea because the dominant influence of the Chinese culture in Korea.  The difficulties and costs involved in learning Chinese Hanja restricted it to those who could afford it, giving those select few power and control.  As iterated earlier this focuses on the class-based politics involved with Hangul because mass acceptance of a simpler writing system would change the way information was portrayed.
To support this argument we checked references in Korean and English which helped to erase and prevent any bias that may come up in the information.  Furthermore, to offer a strong position we chose to form our argument over the controlling nature of the elite Korean society.  Ranging from displeased kings that acted in ways to prevent the spread of Hangul and the scholarly elite that proclaimed Chinese Hanja the only true system of writing, this information helped to exemplify the oppression received by Hangul and the empowerment it can give if everyone was on the same playing field, so to speak.
Approaching the end of our topic there emerged several cases in which Hangul helped influence other people as well.  Although outside the realm of our research, this would lead into new directions such as how Hangul had an effect on third world tribes by allowing them use of an established phonetic alphabet which would lead us to questions such as, “who are these people” and “how did they hear or learn about Hangul” and lastly, “the effect Hangul has had once introduced into their culture”.


Gökmen, Ertan. THE AESTHETIC FEATURES. Web. 23 July 2009. <>.
The significance of this source is implied in its creative title.  Its contents offer the background as to why there was a need for another writing system in Korea and what purpose this would serve.  It summarizes the simplicity and effectiveness Hangul would have in educating the illiterate and help disseminate information to all levels of people by use of another written system.  Furthermore, it also reiterates the idea that Hangul, in comparison to Chinese Hanja, is a simple writing system and one that could be learned at no cost the common folk.  This is explained by arguing that Chinese Hanja is a very costly language to learn with its full amount of characters and the studying behind it whereas Hangul in comparison is rather limited, but sufficient.  This work played importance in our presentation when speaking about the times before Hangul and the initial purpose Hangul was designed to have on the people and the country.

Ji-Won, Kim. “The Korean Tradition of Translation: From the Primeval Period to the Modern Era.” Sejong University. Sejong University, 2007. Web. 1 Aug. 2009.
This e-book allows for the explanation of many shifts in Korea from a submissive time to the sovereign Korea in the present.  Within its pages the author helps to explain exactly what did Hangul do and what exactly came about because of Hangul.  In explaining this, the author also helps to clarify why Hangul faced oppression and why it was not used widely at the time of its creation.  Most importantly the author explains and demonstrates why Hangul had a major impact in a sovereign Korea by allowing for a feeling of nationalism and a country’s own tongue.  This work played a significant role in complementing our argument behind class-based politics and it helped provide examples of early Hangul works translated from Chinese, which showed the direct use of the Hangul alphabet.

Joseon Dynasty, The Joseonwangjo Sillok (The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), Sejong vol.113, Seoul, 1444.
This source is the official record of the Joseon Dynasty kept between 1413 and 1865.  From this we are able to gather and confirm many pieces of information during the initial conception of the Hangul alphabet.  Furthermore it helps give background details on the initial usage of the Hangul alphabet and its purpose.  This source played great significance because it allowed us to get an official record of Korean history and perspective of a changing nation from the small time frame in which our argument focused on.  This was very useful because it narrowed our work down to a particular era, rather than sifting through multiple records and timelines of different kings and accomplishments.

Pratt, Keith. Korea: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary. N.p.: RoutledgeCurzon, 1999.
This book played a wide range of available option to the development and use of the Korean alphabet.  To narrow it to our realm of research, we focused on its passages that mainly reinforced the idea that Hangul was entering popular culture at long last through the use of popular fiction and especially women.  This source played a role because it provided back-up evidence of what other works stated as well, and even gave examples of the type of literature (gasa and sijo).  Additionally, this source was helpful in the predicament of future topics as it also focuses on the evolution and reformation of the Hangul alphabet over time.

Kim-Renaud, Young-Key. The Korean Alphabet. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.
This book is a collection of interesting papers on the history and construction of Hangul.  The source goes in depth on current and past debates about the origins of Hangul, and the history of its usage up to the present day.  It offers explanations from the classical Chinese writing system to the design of the Hangul alphabet.  It even goes as far to explain the spelling differences found in North and South Korea.  This source was a great aid because it assisted in explaining and aiding all four of our objectives within one place.  It helped to give us the details we needed on what many scholars believe to be one of the greatest achievements in the writing system since Korean is a polysyllabic language and Chinese is monosyllabic.

Kim, Seul Ong. A Study on the Literal Life Shown in the Records About
Hangeul from the <Joseonwangjosillok>. Seoul, Korean Cultural Co., Seoul, 2005.
This source really helped to situate ourselves with the primeval period in Korea.  It offered insightful accounts as to everyday life and the prominence Chinese Hanja had as a writing system over the Korean language.  Additionally, it also offered details in the complexity in having a writing system in a different tongue and how it was not fully capable of working in Korea because Chinese Hanja was not sufficient in expressing Korean thought.  This source was useful because it helped to lay the framework of where our argument should go and offered insights as to why a second writing system would be a benefit and not a negative feature for the Korean people.

“Korean History.” College of Humanities. Ohio State University, 2008. Web. 3 Aug. 2009. <>.
An extensive review of the entire Korean history.  We focused solely on the time period that pertains to the development of the Hangul alphabet, just in the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty.  The source offers a very insightful perspective on the account of Neo-Confucianism playing a role in the development of Hangul.  The Korean History shows a trend of scholars being commissioned by the government in order to solve the social and technological problems that they faced.  The production of Hangul was a solution to the problem of literacy and communication among the poor and uneducated.  It was meant to be easily learned and remembered.  Of importance, the source gave a feel for the situation of the religious setting driving the changes., Joseon’s Dynasty Official Records
In our write up we mentioned that we sought works in English and Korean which would aid in any discrepancies found in information due to cultural biases.  To accomplish that this website did exactly that.  Similar to “The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty”, this website provided a lot of cultural information which helped for an introduction and background during the beginning of the Hangul alphabet.  Likewise, much of the recorded information the site helps in explaining the creation of the Hangul alphabet and why during the Joseon Dynasty.  By using the site’s source of information in its natural language, nothing is lost because of translation, which was of value in making sure everything we learned was understood properly.

“The Background of the Invention of Hangeul.” The National Academy of the Korean Language. Jan.
2008. 20 July 2009 <>.

“Hangeul Museum”. Digital Hangul Museum. 2007. 17 July 2009.

“Hunmin Jeongeum Haerye”, post face of Jeong Inji, p. 27a, translation from Gari K. Ledyard, The Korean Language Reform of 1446, p. 258

“Neo-Confucianism.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 22 July 2009. Web. 4 Aug. 2009.

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