Tag Archives: 한자


The Korean Constitutional Court ruled 6-3 that the limits on Chinese characters permitted in personal names (人名用漢字, 인명용 한자) are constitutional. These restrictions were first introduced in 1990, as family records maintained by the government were being digitized. The original list only included 2,731 characters. Over the years, the Court has gradually increased the number of permissible characters to 8,142 characters as of last year. Korean Family Law specifies that only Hangul and “commonly used” Chinese characters are permitted in personal names and that the Constitutional Court is to define which characters are allowable.

The restrictions on Chinese characters allowed in personal names was very controversial when first introduced and has been challenged a number of times ever since. In the most recent case, the challenger attempted to use the character 嫪(로) (“to long for”) to name their child. Since the character was outside the list of permitted characters, they were only allowed to record the name in Hangul. The family sued and argued that the restrictions on characters are unconstitutional, because they are a restraint on the freedom to name one’s child and their right to pursuit of happiness.

The majority of the Court, however, disagreed and concluded that the restrictions are constitutional. They noted that the number of people who do not know Chinese characters has increased, and that using rare characters will lead to errors in keeping digital records and recognizing people’s names, causing inconvenience for people with complicated names. The majority added that restrictions on Chinese characters permitted in personal names are “unavoidable” due to technological constraints. The minority countered, pointing out that any such constraints in digitizing records that might have been true in 1990 are no longer existent.

Currently, if any part of a name is not one of the Chinese characters on the list, then it is considered a “pure Hangul” name. Korean identification cards in such instances will only give the Hangul transcriptions, not Hanja and Hangul mixed. As such, although the percentage of Koreans with “pure Hangul” names has been reportedly increasing, this figure might be inflated. A subset of such names are intended to be combinations of “pure Korean” and Chinese characters. Earlier this year, a couple tried registering their daughter’s name as “贇별(윤별).” Even though 贇 is on the list of permissible characters, the couple was forced to register only in Hangul, because it was a mix of Hangul and Hanja. Another subset are cases like the one above, in which at least one character in the name is not on the list of permitted characters. The vast majority of Korean names are still entirely in Hanja.

(On a related note, I would like to also point out that “pure Korean” names in use now, while sometimes haughtily presented as “traditional,” are not anything like actual, historically used “pure Korean” names.)



New Tales of the Golden Terrapin (金鰲新話, 금오신화) (Source)

Kim Shiseup (金時習, 김시습, 1435-1493) was a Chosun dynasty Confucian and Buddhist scholar. He was of the Gangreung Kim Clan (江陵金氏, 강릉김씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Yeolgyeong (悅卿, 열경); his pen name (號, 호) was Maeweoldang (梅月堂, 매월당) among many others; his dharma name (法名, 법명) was Seoljam (雪岑, 설잠); his posthumous name (諡, 시) was Cheonggan (淸簡, 청간). Born to a military family in Seoul, Kim Shiseup was immediately recognized as a child prodigy. He learned how to read at eight-months old and composed his first Classical Chinese poem at the age of three. (I suspect Kim Shiseup may have been a high-functioning autistic savant, as he suffered from stuttering all his life and was not very sociable.) News of his genius soon traveled around Seoul and reached the court. When Kim Shiseup was just five years old, King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) invited him to the Royal Secretariat (承政院, 승정원) to write poetry. While the King did not personally meet him, he gave Kim Shiseup silk cloth as a gift. Because of this monumental event, he received the nickname “the five year old (五歲, 오세).” Others poking fun of him would later twist his nickname to “arrogant toward the world (傲世, 오세)” as a pun. In 1452, after the three-year mourning period for his mother, Kim Shiseup married a woman from another gentry family, but still feeling downcast decided to enter a Buddhist monastery to study Buddhism. While at the monastery, he heard news that Prince Suyang (首陽大君, 수양대군) had usurped the throne from his nephew King Danjong (端宗, 단종, 1441-1457, r. 1452-1455) to become King Sejo (世祖, 세조, 1417-1468, r. 1455-1468). He lamented the situation, and burned all his writings and books. Kim Shiseup then received tonsure and became a Buddhist monk. Since he survived King Sejo’s purges, he would later become known as one of the “Six Surviving Ministers (生六臣, 생육신).” For some number of years, Kim Shiseup traveled vagabond around the countryside, but eventually became a hermit on Mount Geumo (山, 금오산) near Gyeongju (慶州, 경주). In 1471, after King Sejo and his successor passed away, he decided to move to a mountain near the capital. Ten years later in 1481, Kim Shiseup gave up being a Buddhist monk (還俗, 환속) and married again. Soon after, however, when Lady Yoon (淑儀尹氏, 숙의 윤씨, 1455-1482) was dethroned for scratching the face of the monarch, Kim Shiseup again fled from the capital to wander around the countryside. He passed away in 1493 from illness with no children. 

Throughout his life, he was renowned for his poetry and writing. During his vagabond years on Mount Geumo from 1465 to 1471, Kim Shiseup wrote several works on Confucianism and Buddhism in an attempt to resolve the two, when the latter was deemed by many of his contemporary intellectuals as heterodox. It was also during this time period that he authored what is considered to be the first ever Korean novel, the New Tales of the Golden Terrapin (金鰲新話, 금오신화) . Written in Classical Chinese, this work is a collection of six stories, containing a mix of prose and poetry. Two of the poems in this novel are Lyric Poetry or Ci (詞, 사), one of which is from the first story in the novel, Playing Jeopo at the Temple of Ten-Thousand Fortunes (萬福寺摴蒲記, 만복사저포기). In this story, an old man named Yang (梁生, 양생), who lost his parents at an early age, laments his bachelor status. At a nearby Buddhist temple, Yang bets with Buddha to grant him a wife, throwing betting sticks used in the board-game Jeopo (摴蒲, 저포), and wins. The next day, a young woman shows up to the temple to supplicate for her parents that were killed in a raid by Japanese pirates (倭寇, 왜구). They both converse and welcome each other, and become husband and wife.

生雖疑怪, 談笑淸婉, 儀貌舒遲, 意必貴家處子, 踰墻而出, 亦不之疑也.
생수의괴, 담소청완, 의모서지, 의필귀가처자, 유장이출, 역불지의야.

Although Master [Yang] doubted and thought it was strange — [the young handmaiden’s] laughter was clear and elegant; her appearance as leisurely and composed –, he thought to himself that she must have come from a rich household, and stepped over a wall to escape. He then stopped doubting.

觴進, 命侍兒, 歌以侑之, 謂生曰: “兒定仍舊曲, 請自製一章以侑, 如何?”
상진, 명시아, 가이유지, 위생왈: “아정잉구곡, 청자제일장이유, 여하?”

With a chalice of wine put forward, he directed the handmaiden to sing to enliven [the aura]. Calling Master [Yang], she said, “This young one can only fit to old tunes. Please write one verse to suggest for enlivening [the aura]. Would you?”

生欣然應之曰: “諾.” 乃製滿江紅一闋, 命侍兒歌之, 曰:
생흔연응지왈: “락.” 내제만강홍일결, 명시아가지, 왈:

Master Yang was enthralled and responded, “Certainly!” He then wrote one verse of the tune Filling the River Red (滿江紅, 만강홍) and directed the young handmaiden to sing it:


To the Tune of Filling the River Red:
Sorrowful and Doleful, Chilly Spring

惻惻春寒 측측춘한 仄仄平平
羅衫薄 라삼박 平平仄
幾回腸斷 기회창단 仄平平仄(韻)
金鴨冷 금압랭 平仄仄
晩山凝黛 만산응대 仄平平仄
暮雲張繖 모운장산 仄平平仄(韻)
錦帳鴛衾無與伴 금장원금무여반 平仄平平平仄仄(韻)
寶釵半倒吹龍管 보채반도취룡관 仄平仄仄平平仄(韻)
可惜許 가석허 仄仄仄
光陰易跳丸 광음이도환 平平仄仄平
中情懣 중정만 平平仄(韻)

Sorrowful and doleful, the spring is chilly;
My silk jacket is thin.
How many times have I had my liver cut?
My golden duck-shaped burner grows cold;
Eventide mountains congeal as if eyebrow paint;
Dusk clouds open up as though an umbrella.
Upon silken curtains and feathered quilts, I have no companions to be together with:
The precious hairpin half-turned calls for the dragon-shaped pipe.
Oh, how pitiful this is!
Light and darkness easily bolt away as if a pellet.
My inner emotions remain dejected.

  • 腸斷(창단) – Literally, “to cut a liver.” Refers to heartbreak.
  • 金鴨(금압) – Literally, “metal duck” or “golden duck.” Refers to an incense burner in the shape of a duck.
  • 光陰(광음) – Literally “light and shadow.” Refers to time.

燈無焰 등무염 平平仄
銀屛短 은병단 平平仄(韻)
徒收淚 도수루 平平仄
誰從款 수종관 平平仄(韻)
喜今宵鄒律 희금소추률 仄平平平仄
一吹回暖 일취회난 仄平平仄(韻)
破我佳城千古恨 파아가성천고한 仄仄平平平仄仄(韻)
細歌金縷傾銀椀 세가금루경은완 仄平平仄平平仄(韻)
悔昔時 회석시 仄仄平
抱恨蹙眉兒 포한축미아 仄仄仄平平
眠孤館 면고관 平平仄(韻)

The lamp has no flame;
The silver folding-screen is short.
My lonely collected tears,
Who will follow and like?
Jovial, tonight’s Chu’s tunes (鄒律, 추률),
Once played, bring back the warmth,
And smash the resentments of the thousands of ancients in our beautiful town.
The delicate song, the Golden Silk-thread (金縷曲, 금루곡), overturns my silver bowl.
Regretting the times of the past,
I embrace resentment, with a worried frown.
And I slumber in my lonely room.


  • The poem follows the a variant of tune, Filling the River Red (Manjianghong). The variant is Spring Waters Connects with the Heavens (春水連天, 춘수연천). Its rubric has two verses of ninety three characters in total (雙調九十三字). The former verse has eight lines with five oblique tone rimes (前段八句五仄韻). The latter verse has ten lines with six oblique tone rimes (後段十句六仄韻). The oblique tone rime used throughout the poem is 旱(한). As described in the Imperial Compilation of Lyric Poetry Rubrics (欽定詞譜, 흠정사보):

雙調九十三字, 前段八句五仄韻, 後段十句六仄韻

平仄平平, 平平仄, 仄平平仄(韻), 平仄仄, 仄平平仄, 仄平平仄(韻), 仄仄平平平仄仄(韻), 仄平仄仄平平仄(韻), 仄仄平, 平仄仄平平, 平平仄(韻)

平平仄, 平平仄(韻), 平仄仄, 平平仄(韻), 仄平平平仄, 仄平平仄(韻), 平仄平平平仄仄(韻), 仄平平仄平平仄(韻), 仄仄平, 仄仄仄平平, 平平仄(韻)



Mount Chiak (雉岳山, 치악산) in Gangweon Province (江原道, 강원도) (Source)

Won Cheonseok (元天錫, 원천석, 1330-?) was a Neo-Confucian scholar that lived during late Goryeo dynasty (高麗, 고려, 918-1392) and early Chosun dynasty (朝鮮, 조선, 1392-1897) periods. He was of the Weonju Won Clan (原州元氏, 원주원씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Jajeong (子正, 자정); and his pen name (號, 호) was Ungok (谷, 운곡). Recognized for his abilities from a young age, Won Cheonseok passed the Goryeo dynasty civil service examination. He, however, did not take any positions in government, realizing that the 400 year-old Goryeo dynasty was waning. When Yi Seonggye (李成桂, 이성계, 1335-1408) took power from the royal court, Won Cheonseok left the capital of Gaeseong (開城, 개성) and rusticated to Mount Chiak (雉岳山, 치악산) in present day Gangweon Province (江原道, 강원도). There, he built a farm that he worked himself, supported his parents, and wrote several works lamenting the downfall of the Goryeo dynasty. Sometime before his departure, Won Cheonseok was the tutor of Yi Bangwon (李芳遠, 이방원, 1367-1422), who would later become King Taejong of Chosun (太宗, 태종, r. 1400-1418), the third monarch of the Chosun dynasty. Because of this, after King Taejong ascended to the throne in 1400, the King requested Won Cheonseok to join his court several times, but each time he refused. When the King tried to personally visit him, Weon Cheonseok fled deep into the woods of the mountain. Unable to meet him, King Taejong instead went up to his house, and bestowed his grandmother a present and granted the position of county magistrate (현감, 縣監) to his son.

He continued writing histories and poems grieving over the fall of the Goryeo dynasty. While Won Cheonseok was renowned for his literary talents, because his writings often conflicted with the official histories, many were intentionally burned in later generations. Among Won Cheonseok’s surviving writings, however, are a few Lyric Poetry or Ci (詞, 사). The poem below was most likely written during his self-imposed exile on Mount Chiak. In it, Won Cheonseok reminiscences about his past close to the former royal court and despairs over his own current seclusion by likening his thoughts and feelings to that of a lonely traveler longing for his home village and in search for a place of belonging.

蝶戀花 접련화
處 처

To the Tune of the Butterfly Endearing the Flowers:
A Place

客裏應難爰得所 객리응난원득소 仄仄平平平仄仄(韻)
鄕思悽然 향사처연 平仄平平
夢繞秋蓮渚 몽요추련저 仄平平平仄(韻)
日暮長安愁幾許 일모장안수기허 仄仄平平平仄仄(韻)
羨他孤鳥高飛去 선타고조고비거 仄平平仄平平仄(韻)

To a sojourner, it is surely difficult to obtain a location.
Longing for the home village is wistful:
Dreams of walking around the autumn’s lotus by the riverbank
And of the sun setting upon the Jang’an (長安, 장안), how many times has he pondered?
He envies that lonely bird flying high in the air and away.

Traveler • within • should • to be difficult • henceforth • to obtain • place
Village • longing • despair • grammatical particle
To dream • to walk about • autumn • lotus flowers • riverbank
Sun • to set • long • peace • to worry over • how many • grammatical particle
To envy • that • lonely • bird • highly • to fly • to leave

  • 長安(장안) – Refers to Chang’an, which is present day Xi’an (西安, 서안) and served as the capital of many Chinese dynasties. Korean poets often used this term to refer to the capital.

我亦凉凉無伴侶 아역량량무반려 仄仄平平平仄仄(韻)
閒寂幽居 한적유거 平仄仄平
只有山禽語 지유산금어 仄仄平平仄(韻)
忽憶前遊多意緖 홀억전유다의서 仄仄平平平仄仄(韻)
悠悠往事尋無處 유유왕사심무처 平平仄仄平平仄(韻)

I too am alone and lonesome, with neither friends nor companions.
From my free and silent, remote abode,
All there is are the birds on the mountain chattering.
Suddenly, I reminisce about my prior journeys with many wound-up aims:
Far and distant, past events cannot be found in any place.

I • also • alone • alone • to not have • friends • companions
Leisure •  silence • seclusion • residence
Only • to have • mountain • birds • talking
Suddenly • to remember • previous • journeys • many • intentions • threaded
Far • far • to leave • affairs • to find • to not have • place

  • 意緖(의서) – Refers to complicated, multifaceted thoughts.
  • 悠悠(유유) – While the meaning of this word in modern Korean is largely limited to “to be at leisure,” here it refers to something that is very far away.


  • This poem follows the tune the Butterfly Endearing the Flowers (Dielianhua). Its rubric has two verses of sixty characters in total (雙調六十字). The former and latter verses each have five lines with four oblique tones (前後段各五句, 四仄韻). The oblique tone rime used throughout the poem is 語(어). As described in the Imperial Compilation of Lyric Poetry Rubrics (欽定詞譜, 흠정사보):

雙調六十字, 前後段各五句, 四仄韻
O仄O平平仄仄(韻) O仄平平 O仄平平仄(韻) O仄O平平仄仄(韻) O平O仄平平仄(韻)
O仄O平平仄仄(韻) O仄平平 O仄平平仄(韻) O仄O平平仄仄(韻) O平O仄平平仄(韻)



Hangul nationalists protesting at the Korean Constitutional Court, which held a public hearing on the Korean government’s “Hangul-Only” Policy dating back to the military dictatorship period. (Source)


One rhetoric that is often employed by Korean Hangul supremacists against Hanja is that Chinese characters are somehow a Japanese legacy. Just to give to examples, the statistic that Sino-Korean words account for 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is routinely denounced as a Japanese fabrication implanted by the Japanese colonial administration and Hanja-Hangul mixed script is often condemned as a Japanese creation imposed upon the Korean populace — presumably because of its similarity to modern Japanese orthography. While both are demonstrably false, this type of rhetoric is so common that one could easily come away with the impression that Hanja is a Japanese creation from reading their materials.

More distressingly, these baseless assertions can be found from people of relatively respectable positions in Korean society. One notable example is the head of the Hangul Society (한글학회), one of the most influential and well-established Korean language associations, who shares similar sentiments:

한자병기는 일제가 심어 놓은 민족의식 말살 교육정책의 찌꺼기. 지금 일본이 큰소리치는 것은 한국을 너무 잘 알기 때문이다. 일본이 가르친 대로의 친일의 뿌리가 득세하고 있기 때문이다. 한글 관련 사업을 좀 해보려고 하면 친일세력들이 들어와서 판을 흐트려 놓는다…

Hanja-Hangul mixed script is a leftover of the educational policy planted by the Japanese to obliterate our racial identity. Right now, the Japanese shout so loudly because they know Korea very well. It is because the pro-Japanese collaborators who have done as the Japanese have taught them have gained power. If you intend to work on Hangul-related manners, these powerful pro-Japanese collaborators will shake you down…

Remember, this is not some random troll in a dark corner of the Internet. This is the head of a major Korean language association spewing conspiratorial rantings. And he is not an isolated case. Hangul supremacists can be found at protests screaming at the top of their longs accusing those who want to expand Hanja education as being pro-Japanese collaborators. Professors from top universities give interviews on television shows stating the same, minus the hyperventilation.

Ironically, Hangul supremacists will not condemn actual collaborators that they perceive contributed to the advancement of Hangul. No, they brazenly genuflect in front of them. For instance, they praise Yi Gwangsu (李光洙, 이광수, 1892-1950) for being the “Father of Modern Korean Literature” and one of the earliest proponents of the “pure Korean script.” Hangul supremacists happily overlook the fact that he was a zealous supporter of Japanese policies for assimilating Koreans. Even hyper-nationalist North Korea does not mind his collaborations with the Japanese colonial government, and has enshrined him at a cemetery in Pyongyang with other Korean independence activists.

This dissonance partly has to do with their view that Hangul is an embodiment of “pure” Korean-ness, under which the fact that the Japanese would have had any hand in the script is unfathomable. Any efforts to aid Hangul is deified and any attempts at expanding Hanja is unforgivable perfidy.

A Brief History of the Development of Korean Spelling Rules

But Hangul too has been heavily influenced by Japanese colonial rule. To get of sense of the degree of influence, today’s Korean spelling rules are almost identical from the ones promulgated by the Japanese colonial General Government. (While this fact might be lost on many Hangul supremacists, most Korean sources on this subject do not deny this.) A look at how Korean spelling developed from its inception through the early modern period will make this point evident.

Dongguk Jeongun

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 works 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)

Korean Spelling from King Sejong to the Late 19th Century

In 1446, King Sejong introduced Hangul with the publication of Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음). This work laid out twenty-eight letters. In order, they were:

  • 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), and ㅿ (z).
  • 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)

The work also explicated how each letter is to be pronounced and how the letters are to be combined to form syllable blocks. It even specified provisions for sounds that did not exist in native Korean, but Sino-Korean and vernacular Chinese (e.g., ㅱ for “w”). The Proper Sounds, however, did not give any detailed spelling rules. Its examples assumed that Korean would be spelled phonemically using the new alphabet (i.e., how they sounded). The only concrete spelling rule it proscribed was the Eight Terminal Consonants Rule (八終聲可足用, 팔종성가족용). Under this rule, only ㄱ, ㆁ, ㄷ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㄹ were to be used in the terminal position of a syllable (받침).

After the Proper Sounds, the next seminal work on Korean spelling 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). The Collection of Characters systematically listed some 3,360 Chinese characters by their Korean pronunciations and meanings. Although published eighty-one years later, the work laid out different spelling rules than those of the Proper Sounds. For example, the letter ㆆ had dropped out, the distinction between ㅇ and ㆁ was lost, and some of the specific provisions for Sino-Korean and vernacular Chinese sounds were absent. It also added new rules and provisions to Korean, such as listing the alphabet in a different order with names:

  • Voiceless Consonants: 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)
  • Voiced Consonants: 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)
  • Vowels:  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·)

The Collection of Characters, however, maintained some of the rules as laid out in the Proper Sounds. It kept the Eight Terminal Consonants Rule and still assumed that Korean was to be spelled phonemically.

In the subsequent three centuries, Korean spelling rules only saw incremental changes, largely aligning with changes in how Korean was spoken. Some of the changes included:

  • Disuse of the letter ㅿ and ㆁ
  • Adding of ㅺ, ㅼ, ㅽ, ㅾ, and ㅄ for tense sounds (된소리), which probably did not exist in 15th century Korean (while ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ did exist, they did not originally denote those sounds)
  • Disuse of  ㄷ as a terminal sound (solely using ㅅ) by a substantial number of Korean writers

One characteristic that did not change was that Korean throughout this period was still spelled phonemically, although there were discrepancies between the spelling and pronunciation.


Published in 1908, the Book for Teaching Children (兒學編, 아학편) listed definitions of Chinese characters in Korean, Japanese, and English and also pronunciations of the Japanese, Mandarin, and English words in Hangul. Note the use of “ᅋ” (f) to spell “father,” “female,” and “wife.” Koreans today often make fun of themselves not being able to spell (or pronounce) English “f” and “v” sounds. Many might be shocked to find out that their great-grandparents’ Hangul allowed for spelling such sounds. (Source)

1894, Hangul Finally Becomes the National Script of Korea

Phonemic spelling of Korean, however, did not eliminate ambiguity. The same word could be spelled many different ways. There are actually accounts that Hangul-only texts were more difficult to read than mixed script texts. For example, the word 덮으면 (“if one covers”) in modern spelling could be spelled at least three ways under the conventional spelling of this time: 더프면, 덥흐면, 덥프면. How a Korean word was spelled was up to the whims of the individual printer  for that particular day or hour.

With Hangul becoming the “National Script” (國字, 국자) of Korea in 1894, the necessity of a clear, set spelling rules became soon apparent. This need was compounded by the fact that there were several, different attempts at formulating such rules by private individuals. One notable individual was a doctor named Ji Seokyeong (池錫永, 지석영, 1855-1935) who submitted his own rules to the court. His proposals (新訂國文, 신정국문) included:

  • Spelling of tense consonants with ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ
  • Adding ᅄ and ᅋ to denote “v” and “f” sounds
  • Replacing arae a (·) (아래 아) with =

The controversy grew. Some wanted Korean to be spelled morphophonemically (somewhat phonetic spelling reflective of the underlying etymological root). Others wanted Korean to be spelled like the European languages in a string. The only notable development that was widely adopted and stuck around was word spacing.

In 1907, the Korean government (now a protectorate of Japan) responded by establishing the National Script Research Committee (國文硏究所, 국문연구소) to examine this problem. Its members, some of whom were pro-Japanese collaborators, met several times to discuss standardization of Korean spelling. In 1909, they laid out their plans in the National Script Research Committee’s Proposals (國文硏究議定案, 국문연구의정안). At the time, these were considered radical:

  • Maintenance of the formation of letters into syllable blocks
  • Not restoring the use of obsolete consonants (ㆁ, ㆆ,  ㅿ,  ◇ , ㅱ, ㅸ, ㆄ, and ㅹ )
  • Adoption of spelling of tense consonant as ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ , ㅆ,  and ㅉ
  • Maintenance of the letter ㆍ
  • Adding a dot to the side of a syllable to indicate vowel length
  • Allowing the use of ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅎ as terminal consonants
  • Adoption of the names for the consonant letters as 이응, 기윽, 니은, 디읃, 리을,  미음, 비읍, 시읏,  지읒, 히읗, 키읔, 티읕, 피읖, 치읓
  • Adoption of the order of consonants as ㆁ, ㄱ,  ㄴ,  ㄷ,  ㄹ,  ㅁ , ㅂ,  ㅅ,  ㅈ,  ㅎ,  ㅋ,  ㅌ,  ㅍ,  ㅊ
  • Adoption of the order of vowels as ㅏ,  ㅑ,  ㅓ,  ㅕ , ㅗ , ㅛ , ㅜ,  ㅠ,  ㅡ , ㅣ,  ㆍ

These spelling rules never officially adopted. Within months of the release of the 1909 Proposals, Korea was annexed by Japan. The debate over Korean orthography would, however, continue. Read More


That is the question that a group of pro-Hanja advocates has asked the Korean Constitutional Court. The group known as the Korean Language Policy Normalization Promotion Association (語文政策正常化推進會, 어문정책정상화추진회) sued the Korean government over its decades-long Hangul-Only Policy (–專用, 한글전용). The association argues that the Hangul-Only Policy is unconstitutional, and claims that it has lead to a real decline of Korean language competence among the Korean populace. The Korean government’s position is that Hanja is not “Korean” regardless of its long history in Korea. The Korean Constitutional Court has set a public hearing date of May 12.

As a brief recap of history, Koreans originally did not have their own indigenous script and instead used Chinese characters (Hanja) for written communications as early as the Spring-Autumn Period (春秋時代, 춘추시대, 770-403BC). It would not be until 1443, when King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) promulgated the Korean alphabet, Hangul, that Koreans had a script of their own. The King and his scholars created the script to transcribe not only native Korean sounds, but also pronunciations of Chinese characters. (The script originally included letters and specialized provisions just for the latter.)  While some of the elite recoiled at the new alphabet, others  found plenty of value. One of the first uses of Hangul were Chinese character dictionaries and translations of Confucian classics often in mixed script.

In its first four centuries of existence, however, Hangul never gained official status. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese characters continued to used. Hangul was only made the “National Script” (國文, 국문) in 1894. Debates regarding the role of Hangul in Korean orthography soon arose. They would continue even under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). During this time period, the first spelling rules for Korean were issued by the colonial General Government. Though never fully banned, using Korean was discouraged especially after 1938 with war mobilization efforts. This lead to a nationalist backlash fueling the perception that Hangul needed to be actively protected. (It should be noted there were a substantial number of Korean independence activists that wrote in Classical Chinese.)

After the liberation, this sentiment manifested in the institution of the Hangul-Only Policy by the South Korean government under President Syngman Rhee (李承晩, 이승만, 1875-1965) in 1948. The Policy specified official documents should be written only in Hangul and Hanja only when necessary. However, this was more of an aspirational statement since it was never actually implemented: official documents were still in mixed script. Furthermore, Hanja education was mandatory from elementary school. It would not be until military dictator and President Park Chung-hee (朴正熙, 박정희, 1917-1979) when the Hangul-Only Policy kicked into high gear in conjunction with other nationalist propaganda. In 1970, President Park removed Hanja from public documents and banned Hanja education from all grades. Due to public outcry, however, he re-instituted Hanja education as an optional elective at the middle school and high school levels in 1972. Hanja still remained absent from all textbooks besides the Hanja elective course. Successive military regimes continued President Park’s language policies. The ban on Hanja education at the elementary school level was only lifted in 1992. Regardless, the effect was that large segments of the Korean population never formally learned Chinese characters and were in fact taught to disregard them as foreign and inferior, leading to a substantial drop in use.

Today, while swept behind the rug of Hangul, Sino-Korean words (i.e., Korean words based on Hanja) account for 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary, with frequency of use ranging as high as 90% in specialized terminology. More than 97% of Koreans have Hanja names, the choice of which is regulated by the Korean Supreme Court. Certain academic fields such as law and history continue to use mixed script. Added to this, learning Hanja and Mandarin has become popular in the past few years. Yet, despite its continued use for over two millennia, under current Korean law (국어기본법), Hanja is just as “foreign” as other scripts that have no comparable history on the peninsula (“한자 또는 다른 외국 글자”). 

So, what should be the role of Chinese characters in Korean orthography today? Unfortunately, nativism, sinophobia, and even wild accusations of pro-Japanese collaborationism from a very vociferous segment of the Korean population have controlled the debate. The stripping away of Hanja in Korean writing and education has lead to spectacularly detrimental results. One particular consequence has been the significant reduction in the scope of collective learning available to Koreans.

For one, Koreans have been disconnected from the writings of their past. And it is not just the distant past that is affected. Thanks to the Hangul-Only Policy, there is now a trove of information published as recently as two or so decades ago no longer easily accessible. For example, many older Koreans that wrote their college theses as late as the 1980s cannot go back to read their own writings, because they wrote them in mixed script. (As another comical anecdote, I also know of even a few from my generation (“millennial”) that cannot read their own journal entries from elementary school since they were written in mixed script!) Furthermore, Koreans have been also isolated from their neighbors that continue to use Chinese characters. It was not that long ago that Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese used to be able to read one another’s newspapers to figure out the gist of the articles. Now, it is only the Koreans that cannot. What is even more worrisome about this growing illiteracy is that Korea’s largest trading partners include countries with large Sinophone populations, such as China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

In short, the Korean government’s Hangul-Only Policy has been disastrous and should be reversed. While the Korean Constitutional Court might not be most appropriate forum (and some of the group’s arguments might be far fetched), any attempts at undercutting this policy are welcome.



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.

Read More

4-19 Democracy Movement

Students carrying the banner “Defend democracy to the death!” (民主主義死守하자!) in front Seoul City Hall during the April 19th Revolution that culminated in the resignation of President Rhee Syngman.

On May 2, not too long after the anniversary of the Sewol sinking, an article in the Korean news website OhmyNews seriously asked, “If we said 인양(引揚) instead of 인양, would we know what that means?” (‘인양’을 ‘인양(引揚)’이라 하면 알까). This was in reference to the government’s plans to recover the sunken Sewol. The article’s main target, however, is about the Education Ministry’s discussions to bring back Hanja mixed textbooks. Predictably, the article is so poorly thought out that it is difficult to consider where to begin the rebuttal. Besides the invocation of the Sewol tragedy (which I will assume for the benefit of the doubt to be misguided and not opportunistic), the editorial makes a number of ridiculous contentions, including misleading statistics regarding support of Hanja education (48.5% support is still a lot) and hypocrisy over English education. This post will focus on the article’s imaginings about the link between Hangul and democracy (“한글민주주의”):

거칠지만 민주주의를 계층이나 연령의 차등과 차별을 최소화한 이념 체계로 정의해 보자. 이를 전제로 할 때 한글은 일부 지배층의 언어인 한자나 한문보다 민주주의의 보편성에 상대적으로 더 잘 부합하는 문자 체계라고 볼 수 있지 않을까…

Let us roughly define democracy as the ideology that most minimizes the discrimination and ranking by socioeconomic class or age. Under this premise, can we not consider that compared to Hanja or Hanmun, the language (언어) of the ruling class, Hangul is not the script (문자) that relatively better conforms to the egalitarianism of democracy? …

The article’s primary basis for equivocating Hangul to democracy is that “Hanja was traditionally the ruling class’ script.” The article seems to be blind to Korea’s linguistic policies in the modern era, and has to lackadaisically stretch all the way back to days of the Chosun dynasty to look for a blanket argument. While it may be true that statistically literacy was largely limited to the ruling classes prior to the modern era in Korea, this was the case all over the world before the industrial revolution — even with Hangul, which first spread among the noblewomen. Due to its infatuation with pre-modern Korea, the article misses the fact that Hangul exclusivity is primarily a legacy of autocratic regimes in both North and South Korea.

October 9, 1969 Edition of the Dong-a Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보).

An article announcing President Park Chunghee’s plans for Hangul exclusivity in the October 9, 1969 Edition of the Dong-a Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보).

Contrary to the article’s imaginings, Hangul exclusivity came at the behest of not-so-democratic strongmen. In North Korea, President Kim Ilsung banned Hanja from official texts beginning in 1948. In South Korea, the military dictatorship of Park Chunghee embarked on a “Five Year Hangul Exclusivity Plan” (한글전용 5개년 계획 안) starting in 1968 and banned Hanja from all public education that year. While both men are remembered for many things (e.g., the latter for vastly improving South Korea’s economy), neither are remembered as being champions of democracy. President Park Chunghee’s original plan was to completely eliminate Hanja by 1972, but because of public backlash had to adjust course. He tweaked his original plans by making Hanja education optional in middle and high schools. Nevertheless, he maintained the ban on use of Hanja outside of Hanja textbooks and the prohibition of Hanja education in elementary school. Moreover, subsequent military dictatorships continued President Park Chunghee’s Hangul exclusivity policy. The result was that large portions of the Korean populace never formally learned Hanja, contributing to its precipitous decline during this time period.

In stark contrast to the underlying presumptions of the article, this anti-Hanja policy changed only after the end of the military dictatorship and transition to democracy. For example, the ban on Hanja education in elementary schools was lifted in 1992 (shortly before I started learning Hanja in an elementary school where it was taught). Not to mention, Nobel Peace Prize winner President Kim Daejung, remembered for his advocacy of democracy, spent some time during his presidency actively attempting to reverse Hangul exclusivity, and introduced incentives for students to study Hanja.

It should be noted that it is not as if other Hangul supremacists are wholly unaware of this dark side of Hangul’s modern history. Indeed, some Hangul supremacists do not even pretend at all that there is such a link between democracy and Hangul. A few years ago, one Hangul exclusivist linguistics professor from Seoul University in fact told his fellow exclusivists, “I very much hated President Park Chunghee because he was a dictator. But I can forgive all of his misdeeds because he imposed Hangul exclusivity,” and urged them to do the same (“나는 박정희 대통령이 독재를 했으므로 아주 싫어했다. 그러나 한글전용을 시행했으므로 그의 모든 것을 용서해 줄 수 있다”). Essentially, they are so fervent about Hangul exclusivity that they would excuse the trampling of democracy and human rights.

Given Hangul exclusivity’s recent history and concession by other Hangul supremacists, the article’s assertion that Hangul is somehow linked to democracy is laughably contemptible. Furthermore, from a democracy aspect, Hangul exclusivity is especially troubling because it is so closely tied to expression. Indeed, Hangul exclusivity has severely limited the degrees of freedom in Korean expression in writing by two orders of magnitude, from 2,000 plus to little over 20. If democracy is seriously to be considered in linguistic policy, this distressing statistic should be taken into account.