Tag Archives: Hangul


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.)



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

Today, Korea is having its twentieth legislative elections. At polling booths across the country, Korean voters will vote for their candidate or party with a stamp marked with the Chinese character 卜(복). The reason why the stamp has this character are three-fold: historical, practical, and symbolic.

The first elections in South Korea were held in 1948 under the auspices of the US Army Military Government.  Voters at polling booths used a circular stamp or sign (“○”) with no circumscribed shaped inside to mark down their candidates of choice. Resources were so inadequate that people resorted to using the round edges of pen caps to indicate their votes. The Korean War from 1950 to 1953 devastated the country even further. In the elections immediately after war, voters used bamboo branches and even bullet casings to mark their votes. While Korea’s economy vastly improved in the following decades, the plain circular mark continued to be used.

The plain circular mark, however, had a few practical problems. When they are cast, the ballots on which the mark is recorded are folded. In many instances, this caused in the dye being transposed onto the contacting side, thereby resulting in invalid votes. In 1992, the Chinese character 人(인) for “person” was added and circumscribed into the circular voting stamp to remedy this problem. The addition of this character shape, however, did not completely resolve the issue with invalid votes, since the character 人 is somewhat symmetric. The dye transposed onto the folded side of the ballot was still indistinguishable from from the side where the mark was originally stamp.

During the presidential elections of 1994, another issue arose. The character 人 was seen as too similar to the si-ot ㅅ in candidate Kim Young-sam’s (金泳三, 김영삼, 1927-2015) name and ultimately viewed as favoring him. (Kim Young-sam would indeed later go onto win the presidential election, becoming the first civilian to hold the Korean presidential office in three decades.) To address this problem, the character 人  was changed to 卜(복). This alteration also finally resolved the issue of invalid votes resulting from the dye being transposed onto the other side of the ballot. Since the character 卜 is asymmetric, election talliers would be able to distinguish the transposed mark from the original mark.

The character 卜 also carries multiple meanings, highly pertinent to the rite of voting. It can mean “to foretell” (점치다), “to consider in detail” (상고하다), or “to count” (헤아리다). And this is why the voting stamps in Korean elections have the character 卜.

Sources (All in Korean):

Hangul Mock Funeral

Anti-Hanja education protesters in Korea frequently resort to over-the-top nationalist rhetoric. Here, they are seen holding a mock funeral for the supposed impending death of Hangul. (Source)

Claim: King Sejong created Hangul to replace Chinese characters. Those who seek to expand Hanja education are a mar to his legacy and ought “to apologize King Sejong” (actual title of an article from a major liberal Korean newspaper).

Rebuttal: The very first works commissioned by King Sejong using Hangul were Chinese character dictionaries (plural) and the King himself explicitly stated that the new script was needed to “rectify” Korean pronunciations of Chinese characters. It is extremely unlikely that King Sejong intended to supplant Hanja with Hangul.


With the rise in popularity of Hanja education and the recent calls to expand it, some quarters of Korean society have vehemently protested. They often employ over-the-top nationalistic histrionics, asserting that expansion of Hanja education is an affront to King Sejong’s legacy, Korea’s most venerated king. They have gone as far as holding mock funeral rites in front of the statue of King Sejong in downtown Seoul and offering oblations to Korean language textbooks.

But is it actually an affront? The creation of Hangul is no doubt a proud moment in Korean history. Many today presume that King Sejong created Hangul to supplant Chinese characters. Some can cite, by memory, the preface of the document that first introduced Hangul, the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음) as the sole proof of their belief:

The sounds of our country are different from that of China and its characters do not mutually conform to them. Therefore, whenever the ignorant have something that they wish to communicate, many of them in the end cannot express their thoughts. Because of this, I am ashamed, and have newly created twenty-eight letters, and intend that each and every person be able to easily learn them and conveniently use them daily.

However, the passage above does not explicitly state that King Sejong intended to replace Chinese characters. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise — including King Sejong’s own words.

One Theory on the Creation of Hangul:
As a Means to Transcribe Hanja and Standardize Its Pronunciation

Why King Sejong created Hangul is a topic of discussion in two recently published books about the script: The Invention of Hangul (한글의 발명) by Jeong Gwang and Hangul Wars (한글전쟁) by Kim Heungsik. They both take the position that King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) created Hangul as a means to transcribe Hanja (發音記號, 발음기호) and to standardize its pronunciation. The former book drives this as one of its central points. The latter book explores other hypotheses, but only examines this one at length. Their theses was scoffed at many internet commenters on book review articles. Upon closer examination, however, they are actually well supported. Some of the points made in the Hangul Wars are summarized in this post along with some additional material.

The Korean pronunciations of Chinese characters are based on those used in the Tang dynasty (唐, 당, 618-907) capital of Chang’an (長安, 장안). As time passed by, these pronunciations changed and by the 15th century had significantly diverged from vernacular Chinese pronunciations, which in turn had also diverged from those during the Tang dynasty. These developments were problematic for a number of reasons. For one, the pronunciation of each Chinese character is not indicated from the character itself. Even characters with the same phonetic component radical (部首, 부수) are not always pronounced the same.

Furthermore, the system of transcribing Chinese characters recursively using other characters, known as Fanqie (反切, 반절) or Banjeol in Korean, was somewhat difficult to use. For example, the Banjeol for the character 東(동) is “德紅反(덕홍반, deok-hong-ban)” specifying that the character is to be pronounced using the first consonant of the first character /d/ and the rime of the second character /-ong/ resulting in /dong/ (동). Not knowing the pronunciations of 德 or 紅 would render this dictation useless. Moreover, because it is internally recursive, Banjeol was not too useful for Koreans who needed to learn vernacular Chinese (i.e., Mandarin), which was an important language for commerce and diplomacy.

There was a native script before Hangul called Idu (吏讀, 이두). This script used Chinese characters to transcribe Korean grammatical particles inserted between Classical Chinese clauses. But Idu was not used to transcribe pronunciations of characters and hence was perceived as lacking — although it should be noted that its use lasted well into the late 19th century.

Hunminjeongeum Eonhae

A Vernacular Explanation on the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音 諺解本, 훈민정음 언해본) (Source)

Against this backdrop, King Sejong first introduced the court to Hangul on December of 1443. For sometime, however, there was no other activity at the court regarding the new script. Then suddenly on February of 1444, the King ordered scholars at the Hall of Worthies (集賢殿, 집현전) to translate the Collection of Rimes Ancient and Recent (古今韻會擧要, 고금운회거요), a Chinese rime dictionary compiled during the Yuan Dynasty (元, 원, 1271-1368). A rime dictionary is a Chinese character dictionary arranged by tone (聲, 성) and rime (韻, 운), two features particular to Chinese phonology not Korean. This was no easy task, given the number of Chinese characters there are. And more importantly, this to be the very first work in Hangul. In response, just four days later, a Hall of Worthies scholar named Choe Manri (崔萬理, 최만리, ?-1445) submitted his now-infamous petition in protest of the new script, which he condemned as “a base, vulgar, and useless script (鄙諺無益之字, 비언무익지자).” In his remonstrance, Choe Manri raised six points of contention:

  1. The creation of the vernacular script is contrary to the ways of Chinese civilization.
  2. The creation of a vernacular script is a barbaric act and will make Korea grow distant from China.
  3. The current Idu script is sufficient; the vernacular script will disrupt Neo-Confucianism.
  4. The vernacular script will exacerbate the inequity of administrating punishments, thereby potentially afflicting those who are innocent.
  5. Important affairs should not be carried out in such a rush. (In this section, Choe Manri criticizes the King for not having consulted ministers prior to the order to compile the riming dictionary.)
  6. Princes should focus their attention on Neo-Confucian studies and the vernacular script will add to the burden of their studies.

The petition greatly angered King Sejong, who not only rebuked Choe Manri but also had him and others who supported him sent to jail for a day. Here are the King’s words, as recorded:

汝等云: “用音合字, 盡反於古.”
여등운: “용음합자, 진반어고.”

You all said, “They use sounds based on combined letters, thereby overturning old [customs].”

薛聰吏讀, 亦非異音乎? 且吏讀制作之本意, 無乃爲其便民乎?
설총이두, 역비이음호? 차이두제작지본의, 무내위기편민호?

Is not the Idu script created by Seol Chong (薛聰, 설총, 7th c.) also of different sounds? And again, was not the original intent of creating the Idu script for the convenience of the common people?

如其便民也, 則今之諺文, 亦不爲便民乎?
여기편민야, 즉금지언문, 역불위편민호?

If that [script] was [created] for the convenience of the common people, then should not the current vernacular script (諺文, 언문) also be considered for the convenience of the common people?

汝等以薛聰爲是, 而非其君上之事, 何哉?
여등이설총위시, 이비기군상지사, 하재?

All of you deem [the Idu script created by] Seol Chong as proper, but consider your King’s work to be improper! Why?

且汝知韻書乎? 四聲七音, 字母有幾乎? 若非予正其韻書, 則伊誰正之乎?
차여지운서호? 사성칠음, 자모유기호? 약비여정기운서, 즉이수정지호?

Again, do any of you know about rime dictionaries (韻書, 운서)? For the four tones and seven consonants, how many letters are there? If it is not I who rectifies these rime dictionaries, then who among you will rectify them? 

In the passage above, King Sejong himself not only states that the script is for the convenience of the people (便民, 편민), but also explicitly puts forth his intent to compile a rime dictionary. The King viewed compiling a rime dictionary and rectifying Korean pronunciations of Chinese characters as furthering the welfare of the people, not in conflict with it. That is, unlike the fancies of anti-Hanja education protesters dressed in full mourning gear, who often invoke the King’s name in their protests, King Sejong himself did not view Chinese characters as diametrically opposed to the new script. 

While the records state that a Korean translation of the Collection of Rimes Ancient and Recent was completed, there are no surviving copies. But there were other rime dictionaries made around this period. In fact, one of the very first five works in Hangul is another rime dictionarythe Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country (東國正韻, 동국정운). Based on the Ming dynasty rime dictionary Proper Rimes of Hongwu (洪韻, 홍무정운), this dictionary listed Chinese characters by their reconstructed or “proper” Korean pronunciations. That is, these Korean pronunciations were not those that were in actual use, but those that the Hall of Worthies scholar thought should be based on their reconstruction of older pronunciations. For example, entering tone characters (入聲, 입성) were originally pronounced with /-p/, /-t/, and /-k/ consonant endings, but in Korean the /-t/ ending for whatever reason had morphed to /-l/ (ㄹ). (There are several theories as to why this occurred.) In the Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country, these are listed with /-lʔ/ (ㅭ) as a compromise between the contemporary and historical pronunciations. Although very few Hangul works adopted these pronunciations, the rime dictionary represented King Sejong’s attempts to standardize the Korean pronunciation of Chinese characters.

The Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country was not the only work in Hangul concerning Chinese characters. King Sejong ordered the compilations of the Proper Rimes of Hongwu itself and an abridged version of the work, both with Mandarin pronunciations of characters transcribed in Hangul. The abridged version titled An Extensive Study of the Four Tones (四聲通攷, 사성통고) was completed sometime during King Sejong’s reign, but there is no existent copy of this work. The Transliteration and Glossary of the Proper Rimes of Hongwu (洪武正韻譯訓, 홍무정운역훈) was completed within a decade of the creation of the new script in 1455. (Not surprisingly, one pre-modern name for Hangul was “Banjeol because of its frequent use in transcribing pronunciations of Chinese characters.)

Turning to the question of “convenience for the common people,” rime dictionaries are not exactly something that a 15th century Korean commoner would use on a daily basis, even if literate: they are mainly intended for composing poetry. So, when was the first work in Hangul for the direct benefit of the common people published (that us moderns would recognize)? King Sejong certainly did order the compilation of such works before Hangul and no doubt thought of this issue when creating the script. But their translations do not appear among the very first books in Hangul. Songs of Dragons Flying to Heaven (龍飛御天歌, 용비어천가) were poems in praise of ancestors of the royal family; Detailed Episodes on the Record of Sakyamuni (釋譜詳節, 석보상절) and Tunes of the Moonlight Imprinted on a Thousand Rivers (月印千江之曲, 월인천강지곡) were Buddhism-inspired texts compiled in honor of the deceased Queen Soheon (昭憲王后, 소헌왕후, 1395-1446). It would not be until 1481, almost forty years after the creation of Hangul and thirty years after King Sejong’s passing away, that a work arguably identifiable as directly for the common people was published: the Illustrations of Applications of the Three Bonds (三綱行實圖, 삼강행실도). Originally compiled in Classical Chinese and with drawings, this was intended as a series of lessons on exemplary Confucian virtues.

The sequence of these events insinuates that the ability to transcribe Chinese characters and standardize their pronunciations using Hangul was of a higher priority to the royal court.


Banjeol Table (反切表, 반절표), arranged by 15th century Korean scholar Choe Sejin (崔世珍, 최세진, 1468-1542). (Source)


Hangul today is regularly portrayed as in contrast or conflict with Hanja. Especially in the current Hanja education debate in Korea, those who advocate for expansion of Hanja education are often vilified as somehow less patriotic and as an embarrassment to King Sejong’s legacy. Such a narrative, however, not only does injury to the rich patrimony of Hangul but is also contrary to one of the many explicit reasons for the creation of Hangul given by King Sejong himself, namely the transcription Chinese characters and standardization of their Korean pronunciations. Given these set of historical facts, the more-patriotic-than-thou grandstanding and invocations of the King’s name by these Hangul exclusivists are thoroughly misplaced.

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.

Hanja Private Education Deliria

A May 6, 2015 op-ed warns readers of greedy private Hanja educators, highlighting one particular Hagwon that charges 10,000 won (less than $10 USD) for one year of lessons. The author of the op-ed is not being sarcastic, and his arguments are sadly quite typical of other anti-Hanja proponents. (Source)

One of the primary arguments against Hanja education asserted by Hangul supremacists is that it will increase onus of studying upon students and will further exacerbate private education commonly known as Hagwons (學院, 학원). As someone who attended many Hagwons while growing up in Korea, I do find this argument worthy of consideration. Upon closer examination, however, there are many signs that such arguments are less than sincere. Take for example an op-ed from the Korean news site OhmyNews from May 6 titled, “The Largest Pro-Hanja Education Association Holds Hands with Private Education” (‘한자병기 주도 최대 조직, 사교육업체와 손잡아), which is emblematic of this type of argument.

Its author warns readers of the supposed danger that money-grubbing (“돈벌이” and “장삿속”) Hanja Hagwons poses upon Korean students. The article begins with an advertisement from one of the largest publishers of Hanja books promoting Hanja lessons for elementary school students. (For the sake of full disclosure, I do have a few books of theirs intended for older audiences on my bookshelf.) The author describes that the lessons cover Chinese classics such as Elementary Learning in Four Characters (四字小學, 사자소학) and Analects of Confucius (論語, 논어) as well as elementary school level Chinese characters. The cost for all of this? The author will lead you to believe that this is a whopping 150,000 won (about $130 USD) for one year. But staring readers right in their face is the article’s introductory image showing the price as 10,000 won. That is less than $10 USD. 

If Hangul supremacists were actually genuinely worried about avaricious Hagwons, they would be up in arms over English private education. It is well documented that English private education is a multi-billion dollar industry in Korea. Some of its owners and teachers are millionaires. The average cost of an English Hagwon is over 1,000,000 Won (almost $1,000 USD) per month, 100 times more than that of the advertised Hanja Hagwon highlighted by this op-ed charges per year. There are even ones that go for many more that target even younger ages. Not to mention, for the price, the quality of its teachers do not seem to be that great.

Yet there is only silence over English Hagwons from these Hangul supremacists. In fact, one earlier op-ed from OhmyNews states that it is not worried over English education while attacking Hanja education. In doing so, they seek to vilify old, retired grandpas and grandmas who make up a great proportion of Hanja teachers and many of whom who teach for free — or almost free in the case of the highlighted Hagwon.

Hagwons and the education system in general pose serious challenges for Korea. To exploit them as a bludgeon so lightheartedly against Hanja education as Hangul supremacists do is not only absurd and reckless, but also shows their lack of actual concern over this issue and further underlines their intellectual bankruptcy.


Songs of Dragons Flying to Heaven (龍飛御天歌, 용비어천가), the very first work published using Hangul. Note that the very first verse is in mixed script. (Source)


With the announcement that Hanja will return to elementary school textbooks by 2018, there has been a flurry of denouncements around Korean print media. One of the frequent arguments that Hangul supremacists and exclusivists use against Hangul-Hanja mixed script (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용) is that it is a legacy of Japanese colonialism (日帝强占期, 일제강점기 1905-1945), and therefore Hanja education also ought to wholly eliminated. An argument along these lines can be found in an op-ed in the Hankyoreh from March 3, 2015:

한자혼용이나 한자병기는 일본 식민지 교육으로 길든 일본식 말글살이다. 일본은 1910년 강제로 이 나라를 빼앗기 전부터 일본식 한자혼용 말글살이를 퍼트렸고 식민지로 만든 뒤에는 일본 한자말을 한자로 적고 일본 글자를 함께 쓰는 교과서로 교육을 했다.

Hanja mixed script or Hanja mixed writing is Japanese-style writing introduced by Japanese colonial education. Hanja-mixed script started becoming widespread before 1910 when Japan forcibly stole our country, and when Korea was made a colony the Japanese colonial administration educated Koreans using textbooks with Japanese-style Hanja words and Japanese letters.

The misconception that mixed script is a Japanese creation is unfortunately widespread. What is worse is that Hangul exclusivists and supremacists frequently employ arguments connecting Hanja with the Japanese colonial period. For example, they have characterized the statistic that 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is Sino-Korean (漢字語, 한자어) as a “Japanese lie” — even though it is well supported by various sources.

Hangul-Hanja Mixed Script Predates the Japanese Colonial Period


Vernacular Translation of the Analects (論語諺解, 논어언해), published in 1590. Many of the early works using Hangul were Korean translations of Confucian classics. Note the mixed script. (Source).

Hanja-Hangul mixed script is often portrayed as being a Japanese legacy because of its similarity to Japanese orthography. Though its use did increase during the early 20th century century and its increase then partly may have been because of the Japanese, Hangul-Hanja mixed script has had a long, continuous history in Korea. Indeed, the very first work using Hangul, Songs of Dragons Flying to Heaven (龍飛御天歌, 용비어천가), commissioned by King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450), was in mixed script. Other well known figures in Korean history that wrote some of their work in mixed script include King Sejo (世祖, 세조, 1417-1468, r. 1455-1468), Neo-Confucian scholars Toegye Yi Hwang (退溪 李滉, 퇴계 이황, 1502-1571) and Yulgok Yi I (栗谷 李耳, 율곡 이이, 1537-1584), and the bamboo-hatted vagabond poet Kim Satgat (金笠, 김삿갓, 1807-1863). 

Pre-modern Korean translations of Confucian works even employed a form of Hangul-Hanja mixed script that is seldom seen today in which most of the substantive words were written in Hanja but the grammatical words in vernacular Hangul. This form is more similar Japanese orthography than the typical form; however, even this has historical precedent. Yulgok Yi, whose face graces 5,000 Won currency notes today, translated the Analects (論語, 논어) in this manner:

有朋自遠方來, 不亦樂乎?

朋(붕)이 遠方(원방)으로브터 오리이시면 樂(낙)흡디 아니랴?

If a friend comes from afar, is it not delightful?

Note that all the terms written in Chinese characters could have been translated into “pure” Korean, and other early Korean translations did. (Further note that Yulgok Yi I lived more than three centuries prior to the colonial period.)

  Today’s Korean Spelling Rules,
A Forgotten Legacy of the Japanese Colonial Period

Japanese Era Korean Textbook

The Korean Language Reader (朝鮮語讀本, 조선어독본), a colonial era Korean language textbook, published by the Japanese colonial administration (Source)

If Hangul supremacists and exclusivists wish to continue playing the “Japanese card,” then they ought to take a hard look at their own history — because two can play at this game. They conveniently forget that the very spelling they use in their arguments only dates back to the Japanese colonial period. While the Japanese colonial administration (朝鮮總督府, 조선총독부) did discourage the use of Korean especially after 1938, it also saw Hangul as a useful means to disseminate propaganda and sought to regulate its use.

Prior to the Japanese colonial period, there were no attempts at standardizing Korean spelling. The first were by the colonial administration, which issued two standards: the 1912 Primary School Use Korean Orthographic Rules (普通學校用諺文綴字法, 보통학교용언문철자법) and the 1930 Korean Orthographic Rules (諺文綴字法, 언문철자법). Notable changes in the 1912 rules include the abolition of the Arae a (ㆍ) and elimination of /j/-initial diphthongs in palatalized syllables (e.g., 댜 → 자, 쟈 → 자, 샤 → 사, 탸 → 차). The 1930 rules standardized the names of Korean consonants recited by Korean schoolchildren still to this day (i.e., 기역, 니은, 디귿), changed spellings of tense consonants (된소리) (e.g., ㅽ → ㅃ), and formalized final consonant spellings (받침) (e.g., ㅄ in 값).

These two standards heavily influenced the 1933 Orthographic Rules (한글 맞춤법 통일안), the basis for modern day Korean spelling in both North and South Korea. One well-documented reason why the 1933 rules are so similar to the 1912 and 1930 rules is that the organization that created them, the Chosun Language Society (朝鮮語學會, 조선어학회), collaborated with the Japanese colonial administration in coming up with the 1930 rules. That is, the very same people that sat on the colonial administration-led committee that promulgated the 1930 rules also formulated the 1933 rules.

Moreover, the society’s activities were not limited to just drafting benign spelling rules. Some of its members were pro-Japanese collaborators (親日派, 친일파). For instance, Jeong Inseop (鄭寅燮, 정인섭, j. 東原寅燮, 1905-1983), a leading member of the society who actively helped write the 1930 and 1933 rules, is formally recognized as a collaborator by a Korean government commission because of his pro-colonial propagandist activities. Other members of the society, while not on the government’s formal list, have been accused by Korean historians as being pro-Japanese collaborators. Not to mention, the term “Hangul” (한글) was coined by the independence activist turned collaborationist Choe Namseon (崔南善, 최남선, 1890-1957). (Against this backdrop, today’s successor to the Chosun Language Society, the Hangul Society (–學會, 한글학회) ironically peddles itself as the purveyor of Hangul.)


With Hanja education becoming popular once again, some Koreans are reacting with unease viewing it as a threat upon cultural identity. In their knee-jerk response, many Hangul supremacists and exclusivists argue that Hanja education ought to be eliminated because in their eyes Hangul-Hanja mixed script is legacy of the Japanese colonial period. Not only is this assertion false, its gratuitous invocation of the “pro-Japanese” label too common in general Korean discourse today needlessly detracts from actual, real grievances from the painful memories of that time period. Japan committed many atrocities on the Korean peninsula during the colonial period, but imposing mixed script and Hanja education was not one of them.