Tag Archives: Korean Language


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


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.



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):


AlphaGo vs. Lee Sedol, Fifth and Last Match (Source)

One of my fond memories from my childhood in Korea was attending a Baduk academy, or Giwon (棋院, 기원) in Korean. Out all the Hagwons I attended, the Giwon was the only one I looked forward to. Through studying the game, I only reached intermediate strength: at my prime, I played at about a 5-6k (級, 급) ranking. This is enough to appreciate a substantial, but not all, of tactics and strategy in the game. During my studies in engineering, I was interested in artificial intelligence (AI), and did read a few research papers on Go AI. So, when I heard that Google had developed AlphaGo, an AI that could finally play at a professional level, I was somewhat skeptical  knowing what I did, but nonetheless excited. I intently watched  professional commentaries for each game and read a few technical articles on the algorithms powering AlphaGo.

Go is also one of many reasons I became interested in Chinese characters and Classical Chinese. Many of the terms in Baduk are Sino-Korean (e.g., 逐(축) for ladder). Some proverbs used in Korean Baduk books are whole Classical Chinese phrases (e.g., 我生然後殺他(아생연후살타), meaning “After I gain life, kill the opponent”). Knowledge of Chinese characters added an extra flavor to appreciating the game that I would not otherwise have had. These words also highlighted the board game’s antiquity, which has been repeatedly emphasized in the current media coverage.

It was thus very disappointing to see Hangul Supremacy, a belief held by many Korean nationalists, rearing its ugly head after the conclusion of the matches. The Korean Baduk Association (韓國棋院, 한국기원) planned to bestow its first ever honorary professional rank certificate to AlphaGo. It had previously only given honorary amateur ranks to people that had helped the development of Go. The Association initially was going to follow the customary mixed script orthography (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용) for AlphaGo’s honorary certificate:

AlphaGo Honorary Certificate Mixed Script

“You have devoted yourself in studying the Way of Baduk. Having exerted yourself in character development, your strength in Baduk has reached the hall of the divine (入神, 입신). As such, we bestow the rank of 9-dan.” (Source)

The original honorary certificate included the term, “entering the divine (入神, 입신),”  that dates back to the 6th century during the North-South Period of Chinese history (南北朝時代, 남북조시대, 420-589). Emperor Wu of Liang (梁武帝, 양무제, 464-549, r. 502-549) devised nine rankings for Go (圍棋九品, 위기구품). Today, these names are used as nicknames for professional Go rankings from 1-dan to 9-dan (段, 단). They are from lowest to highest:

  1. 守拙(수졸) – “Defensible, but weak”
  2. 若愚(약우) – “Slightly foolish”
  3. 鬪力(투력) – “Pugnacious strength”
  4. 小巧(소교) – “A little cunning”
  5. 用智(용지) – “Applying wisdom”
  6. 通幽(통유) – “Passing through darkness”
  7. 具體(구체) – “Wholly prepared”
  8. 坐照(좌조) – “Sitting enlightened”
  9. 入神(입신) – “Entering the divine”

Not surprisingly, there was immediate controversy about using mixed script, which is often mischaracterized as a product of Japanese colonial era partly because of its similarity to Japanese orthography. Fearing backlash, the Korean Baduk Association bizarrely commented that “Hanja is too difficult (한자가 너무 어렵고)”, despite the fact that it regularly corresponds with Chinese and Japanese professional Go associations, and decided to pull the mixed script version. It instead gave AlphaGo a version of the certificate in English and Hangul:

AlphaGo Honorary Certificate Hangul + English

On the left, the English side is rather clumsily worded. On the right, stripped of any literary terms, the Korean side is quite bland. (Source)

To top it off, the English portion of the certificate was in rather obtuse English. The second sentence reads “Korea Baduk Association, in recognition of AlphaGo’s outstanding capacity and achievement, is hereby presenting honorary 9 Dan.” This phrase should have included the article “The” at the beginning and the participle should be “hereby presents.” The error is at the very least a small embarrassment to Korea while the world is watching. The Korean side is not any better. Compared to the original mixed script version, it is very dull, boring, devoid of anything suggestive of how dramatic and significant this accomplishment is.

At any rate, the controversy over mixed script particularly in this context is cognitive dissonance par excellence. No one is (or at least should be) under any allusion as to where Go originated. Everyone knows that the game came from China. Why some Koreans after following a week’s worth of matches on a Chinese board game would suddenly balk at the use of Chinese characters boggles the mind — especially to this Korean. Both have equally long, venerable histories in Korea.

I am fairly sure that these Korean nationalists, who would have given little thought over Go were it not for the match with AlphaGo, would have an aneurysm if they found out that modern style of Go is heavily influenced by how the game was played in 17th century Japan and that Korean professional players typically sign their names in Chinese characters at international matches, as Lee Sedol (李世乭) did at the end of this one:

Lee Sedol Autograph

Lee Sedol presents his autograph in Hanja to Demis Hassabis. Lee’s name is quite peculiar, because it uses a character 乭(돌) that is only used in Korea. In Chinese and Japanese media, his name is often written as 石. (Source)

Getting back to the match, it was quite entertaining to watch the games between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol. I have not followed professional Go scene in quite some time. Rather than discouragement at Lee Sedol’s losses, it has made me want to brush up on the ancient, but ever new, game.

Blog Pic 2-29-2016

Confectioneries and fruits laid out at a traditional Korean wedding ceremony (Source)

Naver’s Encyclopedia (네이버 백과사전) is an incredibly useful resource especially on all things Korean (in Korean), such as Korean literature, history, culture, customs, and so forth. A few days ago, I came across an entry about a rather humorous regional folktale originating from Yangju (楊州, 양주) in Gyeonggi Province (京畿道, 경기도), a city just north of Seoul, titled An Illiterate Bridegroom’s Classical Chinese Poem (無識한 新郞의 漢詩, 무식한 신랑의 한시). The tale is said to have passed on by word of mouth among the residents of this area, and was first recorded sometime during the colonial period. It uses word play requiring an understanding of not only Classical Chinese — as the title suggests — but also native Korean. This might seem complex, but such jokes can be actually found in other Korean stories and poems from the pre-modern era, and even in memes today. Below is my quick translation:

An Illiterate Bridegroom’s Classical Chinese Poem

Long ago, a young man was to be married to the daughter of an erudite man’s household. The bride’s family wanted to see their soon-to-be son-in-law’s literary talents on the day of the wedding. However, the bridegroom’s father knew that his son barely knew how to write. Because of this, he was afraid that his son would be humiliated by the bride’s family members. The father thus went to a well-educated, literate man and asked him to be his son’s attendant as a guest of honor at the wedding, so that his son would not be humiliated.

After the wedding ceremony, surely enough the bride’s family gathered around the bridegroom with a table and brush, and asked him to write a poem. Flustered and not knowing what to write, the bridegroom gazed all around the room. He saw a spider web on the ceiling, and shouted, “Cheon-jang-e geo-mi-jip (천장에 거미집)” (“There’s a spider web on the ceiling”). The attendant immediately wrote:

天長去無執 천장거미집 Cheon-jang-geo-mi-jip

The heavens are so expansive that there is nowhere to go to grab a hold of.

The bridegroom then looked toward the yard, and saw the smoke of husks of grain being burnt (겻불내) rising. He then interjected, “Hwa-ro-e gyeo-bb’ul-lae (화로에 겨뿔내)” (“In the stove, the smell of grain husks burning”). The attendant quickly scribbled:

花老蝶不來 화로접불래 Hwa-ro-jeop-bul-lae

As the flower has grown old, butterflies do not come.

Next, he turned his attention to the table and the food laid thereupon. The bridegroom first saw one bowl of noodles and called out, “Guk-su han sa-bal (국수 한 사발)” (“One bowl of noodles”). The attendant hastenly scribed:

菊秀寒士發 국수한사발 Guk-sa-han-sa-bal

The chrysanthemums are elegant, blossoming like a poor scholar.

Lastly, the bridegroom turned to the sweets and fruits on the table, and exclaimed, “Gang-jeong, bin-sa-gwadae-chu, bok-sung-a! (강정, 빈사과, 대추, 복숭아!)” (“Glutinous rice crackers, molasses-coated sweets, dates, and peaches!”). The attendant briskly penned:

江亭貧士過 강정빈사과 Gang-jeong-bin-sa-gwa
大醉伏松下 대취복송하 Dae-chwi-bok-song-ha

The poor scholar passes by the river’s pavilion;
Greatly inebriated, he lays flat down beneath the pine tree.

The bride’s family praised the bridegroom for his writing, and was pleased to see that their new son-in-law was literate.

This folktale reveals that Korean common folk had accepted or were at least exposed to Classical Chinese to some degree. This is seen not only from the bride’s family putting value in literacy in Chinese characters but also from the whole story itself treating Classical Chinese poetry with great levity. (As further evidence of this, there was even an entire genre of native Korean poetry called Eonmun-pungweol (諺文風月, 언문풍월) that was popular into the early 20th century that mimicked Classical Chinese poetry.) This is contradictory to some Korean nationalists’ baseless assertions, whose opinions are too common online, that Sinitic elements of Korean culture were limited to just the very elite.


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