A Brief History of Korean Spelling Rules Part I – First Four Centuries of Hangul

Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country

A Chinese character dictionary arranged by tone and rime, the Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country (東國正韻, 동국정운) was one of the very first books published in the Korean alphabet. The still-in-use ㅉ and now-obsolete ㆆ (glottal stop) were originally intended for transcribing Korean and Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters. (Source)


On October of 1446, King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) promulgated the widely celebrated Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음), explaining the reasoning behind the creation of the new Korean alphabet. The preface begins with the following lines:

國之語音, 異乎中國, 與文字不相流通,
국지어음, 이호중국, 여문자불상류통,

The sounds of our country are different from that of China and its characters do not mutually conform to them.

故愚民, 有所欲言, 而終不得伸其情者多矣.
고우민, 유소욕언, 이종부득신기정자다의.

Therefore, whenever the ignorant have something that they wish to communicate, there are many that in the end cannot express their thoughts.

予爲此憫然, 新制二十八字, 欲使人人易習便於日用耳.
여위차민연, 신제이십팔자, 욕사인인역습편어일용이.

Because of this, I am ashamed, and have newly created twenty-eight letters. I intend that each and every person be able to easily learn and conveniently use them daily.

Almost every Korean schoolchild can recite the first sentence of the preface from memory. (They are actually reciting the vernacular version (諺解本, 언해본), which would actually not be published until 1459, well after King Sejong’s death, and only translates a small fraction of the original Classical Chinese edition.) Not every Korean schoolchild, however, knows or was probably ever taught that the King actually created twenty-eight letters, more than twenty-four currently in use, much less developments in Korean orthography since the famed King’s times. So, what happened to these four letters and what other orthographic developments occurred since then?

Spelling Rules of the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People

The Korean alphabet originally had twenty-eight letters, with seventeen consonants and thirteen vowels. This is three more consonants and one more vowel than the one currently in use. When first introduced, the alphabet was presented in a different order from today:

  • Consonants (17): ㄱ (g), ㅋ (k), ㆁ (ng), ㄷ (d), ㅌ (t), ㄴ (n), ㅂ (b), ㅍ (p), ㅁ (m), ㅈ (j), ㅊ (ch), ㅅ (s), ㆆ (ʔ – glottal stop), ㅎ (h), ㅇ (null), ㄹ (r/l), andㅿ (z). (Note the difference between ㆁ and ㅇ.)
  • Vowels (11): ㆍ (aw), ㅡ (eu), ㅣ(i), ㅗ (o), ㅏ (a), ㅜ (u), ㅓ (eo), ㅛ (yo), ㅑ (ya), ㅠ (yu), and ㅕ (yeo)

After explaining how these letters are to be pronounced, the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People laid out a few rudimentary spelling rules for assembling them into syllable blocks:

  1. For Initial Sounds, Seventeen Letters (初聲十七字, 초성십칠자) – All seventeen consonants can be as the initial sound of a syllable.
  2. For Medial Sounds, Eleven Letters (中聲十一字, 중성십일자) – All eleven vowels can be used as the medial sound of a syllable.
  3. For Terminal Sounds, Eight Letters (八終聲可足用, 팔종성가족용) – The general rule was that all consonants can be used as terminal sound of a syllable (終聲復用初聲, 초성복용초성). The Proper Sounds further specified that eight of the seventeen consonants are “sufficient” (可足, 가족) for use as terminals. These are: ㄱ, ㆁ, ㄷ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㄹ. They were thought to be sufficient, because these eight could take the place of other consonants when pronounced at the end of a syllable (e.g., ㅅ for ㅿ, ㅈ, and ㅊ). The Proper Sounds also categorized all the consonants (except ㄹ) between those that can be used as plain, rising, and departing tones (平上去聲, 평상거성) versus those that can be used as entering tones (入聲, 입성).
  4. Pronounce by Combining Initial, Medial, and Terminal Sounds (初中終合成之字, 초중종합성지자) – Letters are to be combined to form syllabic blocks and pronounced accordingly.
    • Double Consonants (各自並書, 각자병서) – Six of the seventeen consonants can be doubled to form: ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, ㅆ, and ㆅ. (Along withㆆ, these were originally intended for transcribing Korean and Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters, as such sounds rarely occurred in native Korean words. While ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, and ㅆ are in use today, they did not originally denote the same consonants.)
    • Clustered Sounds (書, 합용병서) – Consonants can be combined to form consonant clusters (e.g., ㅄ). Unlike today, consonant clusters can be in the initial sound and the terminal sound position. Vowels can be combined to form diphthongs (e.g., ㅞ). 
    • Chained Consonants (連書, 연서) – To form light labial sounds (脣輕音, 순경음), the Proper Sounds specified the addition of the letterㅇ beneath the consonant (e.g.,ᄛ(l), ㅱ(w), and ㅸ(v)). Only the letter ㅸ was ever in use. The use of the letter ㅱ was limited to Chinese character dictionaries.
    • Diacritical Marks (傍點, 방점) – One dot (·) to the left indicated that the syllable was a departing tone (去聲, 거성). Two dots (:) indicated that the syllable was a rising tone (上聲, 상성). (This applied to both native Korean words as well as Sino-Korean ones.)

Overall, compared to modern Korean’s spelling rules, these were much simpler and nowhere nearly as specific. (Not to mention, at least one of the very first works in the new alphabet did not even follow some of these rules.) This is apparent in the implicit orthographic principle exemplified in all of the very first works in the new script that Korean was to be spelled phonemically. That is, words were to be spelled according how they were pronounced, regardless of any inflections to the root word. Phonemic orthographies are in general simpler than morphophonemic orthographies in use in modern Korean. Under morphophonemic orthography, words are spelled similarly though not entirely exactly to how they are pronounced so as to be reflective of the underlying etymological root. An example in English are the words “sign” and “signify,” which are pronounced very differently but are spelled similarly to reflect their same etymological root.

Incremental Developments from the 16th to the 19th Century


Collection of Characters to Teach the Ignorant (訓蒙字會, 훈몽자회) published in 1527 by Choe Sejin (崔世珍, 최세진, 1468-1542). Note the change in font. (Source)

While not without opposition, the use of the new alphabet spread, then called either Jeongeum (正音, 정음) or Eonmun (諺文, 언문). (The name Hangul (한글) would not be coined until the 20th century.) The royal court received a few petitions in the new script. Confucian scholars translated various Classical Chinese works into Korean, often in mixed script, ranging from Confucian classics to Tang Dynasty poets. Diplomats and interpreters used Korean transliterations to learn foreign languages such as Mandarin, Manchu, Mongol, and Japanese.

Despite all this, partly because of push back from some of the elite, the Korean alphabet only attained a less-than-official status during this period. For example, texts written in the vernacular script (as well as Classical Chinese texts without signatures) were not recognized as proper evidence in court. Koreans who wished to either lend or borrow money had to write the contract in Classical Chinese for their agreements to be effective. Because of its less-than-official status, the government did not view Korean orthography as a priority. Consequently, Korean spelling rules only saw incremental changes, with most of the relatively drastic ones occurring by the early 16th century.

The next important work about the Korean alphabet after the Proper Sounds was the Collection of [Chinese] Characters to Teach the Ignorant (訓蒙字會, 훈몽자회) published in 1527 by Choe Sejin (崔世珍, 최세진, 1468-1542). Born to a modest skilled artisan family (中人, 중인) of interpreters (譯官, 역관), Choe Sejin was a renowned linguistics scholar, proficient in both Mandarin and Korean. He compiled the Collection of Characters to teach the illiterate how to read not only Chinese characters but also the Korean alphabet. The work systematically lists some 3,360 Chinese characters by their Korean pronunciations and meanings. Choe Sejin was not the first to do this. One of the most common uses of the Korean alphabet at this time was to transcribe Korean pronunciations of Chinese characters. In fact, the work notes that many commoners were already calling the new alphabet “Banjeol” (諺文字母俗謂反切, 언문자모속위반절) after the system of transcribing pronunciations of Chinese characters using two other Chinese characters. The explanatory notes of the Collection of Characters laid out the following spelling rules:

  1. Twenty-Seven Banjeol Letters (反切二十七字, 반절이십칠자) – The letter ㆆ was intended to only transcribe pronunciations of Chinese characters and had disappeared from spoken and written use by the 16th century. The work also notes that many did not distinguish between ㅇ and ㆁ (ㆁㅇ相混無別, 상혼무별), effectively reducing the number of letters to twenty-six.
  2. Eight Letters That Can Be Used as Initial and Terminal Sounds (初聲終聲通用八字, 초성종성통용팔자) – ㄱ(其役, 기역), ㄴ(尼隱, 니은),ㄷ(池末, 디귿), ㄹ(利乙, 리을), ㅁ(眉音, 미음), ㅂ(非邑, 비읍), ㅅ(時衣, 시옷), and ㆁ(異凝, 이응). (Note that some of the Chinese characters are pronounced by their native (訓讀, 훈독) or Idu (吏讀, 이두) pronunciations.)
  3. Eight Letters That Can Only Be Used as Initial Sounds (初聲獨用八字, 초성독용팔자) – ㅋ(箕, 키), ㅌ(治, 티), ㅍ(皮, 피), ㅈ(之, 지), ㅊ(齒, 치), ㅿ(而, ㅿㅣ), ㅇ(伊, 이), and ㅎ(屎, 히).
  4. Eleven Letters That Can Only Be Used as Medial Sounds (中聲獨用十一字, 종성독용십일자) – ㅏ(阿, 아), ㅑ(也, 야), ㅓ(於, 어), ㅕ(余, 여), ㅗ(吾, 오), ㅛ(要, 요), ㅜ(牛, 우), ㅠ(由, 유), ㅡ(應, 응),ㅣ(伊, 이), and · (思, ㅅ·).
    • ㅡ (不用終聲, 불용종성) – The vowel ㅡ is not to be used as a terminal sound.
    • ㅣ (只用中聲, 지용중성) – The vowel ㅣ is only to be used as a medial sound.
    • · (不用初聲, 불용초성) – The vowel · is not to be used as an initial sound.
  5. Combine Two Sounds, the Initial and Medial, to Form a Letter (初中聲合用作字, 초중성합용작자) – Initial and medial sounds can be combined to form syllabic blocks. The examples given were 가, 갸, 거, 겨, 고, 교, 구, 규, 그, 기, and ㄱ·.
  6. Combine Three Sounds, the Initial, Medial, and Terminal, to Form a Letter (初中終三聲合用作字, 초중종삼성합용작자) – Initial, medial, and terminal sounds can be combined to form syllabic blocks. The examples given were 간(肝), 갇(笠), 갈(刀), 감(枾), 갑(甲), 갓(皮), and 강(江).

As can be seen, even though the Proper Sounds was published less than a century before, there are already a number of differencesFor example, the number of letters had decreased from twenty-eight to twenty-seven. Choe Sejin does not even mention the provisions for light labial consonants (e.g.,ㅸ(v)), double consonants, or the diacritical marks for tones as specified in the Proper Sounds, because they were never in actual use or had become practically obsolete by his time. The Collection of Characters also introduced names for the letters of the Korean alphabet, similar though not exactly the same as those today. (It should be noted that the Proper Sounds did not explicitly give any names for the letters.) In addition, the work also listed the letters in an order more similar to those of today than that of the original.

There are, however, also many similarities to the Proper Sounds. The Collection of Characters maintained the spelling rules concerning the combination of letters into syllable blocks and the eight consonant rule for terminal sounds. In addition, Choe Sejin continued the unstated assumption in Korean orthography that words were to be spelled phonemically.

Korean spelling after the early 16th century to the late 19th century more or less followed the spelling rules laid out in the Collection of Characters. Phonemic spelling and the eight terminal consonants rule were maintained. Some small changes, however, did occur, largely following phonological changes in Korean:

  • By the late 16th century, the distinction between ㆁ and ㅇ was no more. Choe Sejin had already noted that many Koreans did not distinguish between the two in the early 16th century.
  • By the 17th century, the letter ㅿ became obsolete, due to changes in how Korean was spoken.
  • Beginning the 17th century, tense consonants (硬音, 경음 or 된소리) came into being in Korean and were commonly represented by ㅺ, ㅼ, ㅽ, ㅾ, and ㅄ. The double consonants (i.e., ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, ㅆ, and ㆅ) presented in the Proper Sounds were not intended to denote tense consonants, as tense consonants probably did not exist in 15th century Korean. The orthographic change would not occur until much, much later.
  • Among different works, there were variations in diphthongs (i.e., combination of vowels such as ㅘ and ㅝ).

It should be noted that while some letters became obsolete, their memory did not completely vanish. For example, one mid 18th century Chinese character rime dictionary titled the General Explanations of Proper Sounds (正音通釋, 정음통석) even proposed the creation of a new letter ◇ to denote glides and to take place of the ㅱ, which was never in actual use. While this proposal was debated, the letter was never adopted. The letter ㅿ also was used in a few Chinese character dictionaries until the 19th century.

Preview to the Orthography Debates of the Late 19th Century

For most of its history, there were no efforts at standardizing Korean orthography. (Contrast this to Chinese characters, which had gone through several rounds of standardization beginning with the Qin dynasty in 2nd century BC!) The lack of standardization resulted in multiple spellings for the same word, making Korean text difficult to read. It would not be until the late 19th century with the modernization movement that Korean reformist scholars began to take up this issue. They would challenge almost every aspect of Korean spelling, ranging from which letters should be thrown out or be revived to whether letters should be assembled to form syllabic blocks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: