나는 한국말을 해요 (I speak Korean)

Ok, maybe that’s a little white lie. I don’t really speak Korean – you can thank good old Google Translate for the post title – but I’m on my way! My interest was piqued back in first year when my phonology lecturer mentioned the language, since it has a unique alphabet in which the shapes of the written letters actually represent the shape your mouth makes when you sound them out! Isn’t that amazing?!

Thanks to wright-house.com for a great article on why Korean looks the way it does.

Well, call me a language freak, but I just had to learn more. It took me a while (read: two years) to take the plunge, but when my friend Kim posted this on my Timeline yesterday (girl, you know me so well…), I decided. I have so much time on my hands and it’s driving me nuts, so today I finally started making use of the university’s language centre: I trammed it in to the centre, grabbed a bagel and a lemonade for good measure, then showed up at the library and got Korein’!

It. Was. Awesome. I used a book called Experiencing Korean (Beginners’ Book 1, of course), which I’d tried to tackle once before but it confused me too much. I hadn’t taken the time to get my bearings, but after having read the cartoon from Kim it all clicked into place and I got moving. Two hours later, I came out with four pages of probably terribly calligraphed Korean characters, and a slightly fuller brain. I was so excited about my new knowledge, I came home and researched the Hangul alphabet and its origins. So, dear readers, it’s your lucky day!

Turns out, Sejong the Great had two things in mind when he put this alphabet together back in the 15th Century. Korean started out as a purely oral language, like most others; but when the Chinese next door created a set of characters for transcribing sounds, the Korean language started using Chinese characters to write down the closest approximation to each sound in their own language. Given how complicated the Chinese alphabet is, the result was that only the upper classes of Korean people could read or write. So Sejong wanted to create a simpler alphabet which would allow anyone who spoke Korean to be able to write Korean too. But he also felt that relying on the Chinese writing system was getting in the way of the national pride and expression of his nation: imagine that every piece of literature that comes out of Korea is written with Chinese characters, but the Chinese can’t read them because the symbols conform to Korean grammar and lexicon; most of Korea can’t understand them because they can’t read Chinese characters; and you can forget about the rest of the world, most of which understands neither language. So, the Koreans can’t really compete with the literature of the other countries surrounding them, and Sejong wants to create an alphabet that not only facilitates literacy (a subject dear to our hearts here at Raxa Collective), but also means something symbolic to the people of Korea. So he uses symbols that not only represent the pronunciation of the letters, but also refer to some very important elements of Korean culture: the yin-yang balance and the place of Man in the universe, too. That’s pretty impressive for a 28-letter alphabet, if you ask me. Please check out this page for an explanation of how on earth he managed to pull this off.

Again from wright-house.com, a great explanation of the second meaning of Hangul characters.

It’s pretty confusing, working out how to fit all the sounds within a character together to form a syllable; but it’s logical, which means that once I get my head around it I’m hoping it’ll come somewhat naturally. Like knitting! Then there’s the small matter of learning some actual words and what they mean, navigating Hangul’s grammatical structure and getting the pronunciation right. Or maybe I’ll just learn some holiday Korean, so I can have some phrases with which to ‘와’ the odd Korean I meet in Europe (That’s right, I do know how to say ‘wow’ in Korean). Or for when I actually go on holiday in Korea. Which you bet I am going to do.

Honestly though, the main reason I wanted to look further into the language was because I wanted to understand the anatomical phonology behind the characters; and while I’m totally hooked and eager to learn more, I’m also really happy to have accomplished my original goal of cracking the clever code. I love really smart inventions, and I think Sejong the Great’s strong focus on what he wanted to achieve, and his thoughtful way of making sure he achieved it, is what made the Hanjun alphabet smart enough to make it onto my list of current favourite inventions (along with knitting, the eraser and stairs). I’m sure he would be honoured.

What constitutes a breakthrough invention? Which things that we take for granted, such as the alphabet we use to read and write every day, deserve more credit as brilliant strokes of genius?

If you want to read more of Megan’s thoughts, musings and commentary on life, she also keeps a personal blog at meganmadill.wordpress.com.

6 thoughts on “나는 한국말을 해요 (I speak Korean)

  1. This is a great post. I’ve told people that the alphabet is based on shapes of the throat and mouth but I’ve never seen a visual representation of that before.

    It’s also funny when I explain that the Korean alphabet is easier than the English ones to English speaking friends. King Sejong really nailed it.

    • Exactly! The whole thing just bowled me over. I read somewhere that once the alphabet was introduced, literacy spread like wildfire simply because it became so easy to visualise the sounds people were already so used to making. It’s not hard to see why they called him Sejong the Great, is it? 🙂

  2. Great post! 🙂 I really appreciate how you went into details of the science behind Korean language. Did you know that there was a recent Korean drama that was on tv last year to early this year about King Sejong and some fictional story behind how he came up with Korean language? It’s quite interesting to see how he went about collecting the “sounds of his people” to survey and organize what kinds of sounds should be put into the new language he was trying to invent. I personally liked the fact that his purpose of inventing a language was to provide an “easy-to-learn” language that fits his people. Also, I read an article years ago saying how a tribe in Indonesia chose Korean as an official language to use since they didn’t have a writable language system and Korean was easy to learn due to its origination from sounds.

    So, I notice that the google translator didn’t do you good here. Instead of 나는 한국말 (which means I’m Korean language – but the last letter 알(instead of 말) is egg, so this is a mistake I think), I suggest changing the title to any of these depending on what you want to say: 나는 한국말을 해요(I speak Korean), 나는 한국말을 할 줄 알아요 (I can speak Korean).

    • Oh thank you so much for correcting me! I was kind of fretting about whether or not I should have trusted Google Translate. I’ll correct that right this second.

      No, I hadn’t seen the Sejong show but I think I read about it while I was researching for this. What country was that in?

      • You are welcome! The show was from Korea 🙂 If you are interested in watching the TV show, it’s on HULU and it’s called “The Moon Embracing the Sun”.

  3. Pingback: Episode Sixty Four – A Wee Update | A Trail of Breadcrumbs

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