The Korean alphabet, also known as Hangul, or Chosongul (officially transcribed Han-geul in South Korea and Chosŏn'gŭl in North Korea), is the native alphabet of the Korean language. It was created during the Joseon Dynasty in 1443, and is now the official script of both South Korea and North Korea, and co-official in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of China's Jilin Province. In South Korea, Hangul is sometimes augmented by Chinese characters, called hanja, whereas in North Korea, hanja are virtually nonexistent.
Hangul is a featural alphabet of 24 consonant and vowel letters. However, instead of being written sequentially like the letters of the Latin alphabet, Hangul letters are grouped into blocks, such as 한 han, each of which transcribes a syllable. That is, although the syllable 한 han may look like a single character, it is actually composed of three letters: ㅎ h, ㅏ a, and ㄴ n. Each syllabic block consists of two to five letters, including at least one consonant and one vowel. These blocks are then arranged horizontally from left to right or vertically from top to bottom. The number of mathematically possible blocks is 11,172, though there are far fewer possible syllables allowed by Korean phonotactics, and not all phonotactically possible syllables occur in actual Korean words. For a phonological description, see Korean phonology.
Hangul was promulgated by Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty. The Hall of Worthies (Jiphyeonjeon, 집현전) is often credited for the work. The origin of hangul has been traced in part to the alphabets of Central Asia.
The project was completed in late December 1443 or January 1444, and described in 1446 in a document titled Hunmin Jeongeum ("The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People"), after which the alphabet itself was named. The publication date of the Hunmin Jeong-eum, October 9, became Hangul Day in South Korea. Its North Korean equivalent, Chosongul Day, is on January 15.
Various speculations about the creation process were put to rest by the discovery in 1940 of the 1446 Hunmin Jeong-eum Haerye ("Hunmin Jeong-eum Explanation and Examples"). This document explains the design of the consonant letters according to articulatory phonetics and the vowel letters according to the principles of yin and yang and vowel harmony.
In explaining the need for the new script, King Sejong explained that the Korean language was fundamentally different from Chinese; using Chinese characters (known as hanja) to write was so difficult for the common people that only privileged aristocrats (yangban, 양반), usually male, could read and write fluently. The majority of Koreans were effectively illiterate before the invention of Hangul.
Hangul was designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and write; the Haerye says "A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days."
Hangul faced opposition by the literary elite, such as Choe Manri and other Korean Confucian scholars in the 1440s, who believed hanja to be the only legitimate writing system, and perhaps saw hangul as a threat to their status. However, it entered popular culture as Sejong had intended, being used especially by women and writers of popular fiction. It was effective enough at disseminating information among the uneducated that Yeonsangun, the paranoid tenth king, forbade the study or use of Hangul and banned Hangul documents in 1504, and King Jungjong abolished the Ministry of Eonmun (언문청 諺文廳, governmental institution related to Hangul research) in 1506.
The late 16th century, however, saw a revival of Hangul, with gasa literature and later sijo flourishing. In the 17th century, Hangul novels became a major genre. By this point spelling had become quite irregular.
The first book using hangul in the West was brought to Europe by Isaac Titsingh in 1796. His small library included Sangoku Tsūran Zusetsu (三国通覧図説 An Illustrated Description of Three Countries?) by Hayashi Shihei. This book, which was published in Japan in 1785, described the Joseon Kingdom and hangul. In 1832, the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland supported the posthumous abridged publication of Titsingh's French translation.
Because of growing Korean nationalism in the 19th century, the Gabo Reformists' push, and the promotion of Hangul in schools and literature by Western missionaries, Hangul was adopted in official documents for the first time in 1894. Elementary school texts began using Hangul in 1895, and the Dongnip Sinmun, established in 1896, was the first newspaper printed in both Hangul and English. Still, the literary elites continued to use Chinese characters, and the majority of Koreans remained illiterate at this period.
During Japanese colonial rule in 1910, Japanese became the official language. However, Hangul was taught in the Korean-established schools of colonial Korea built after the annexation, and Korean was written in a mixed hanja-Hangul script, where most lexical roots were written in hanja and grammatical forms in Hangul. Japan had banned earlier Korean literature, and public schooling became mandatory for children. For the majority of Koreans in those times, this was their first time learning Hangul. The orthography was partially standardized in 1912, with 'ㆍ(arae a)' , which is one of the vowels in early hangul and is not used in modern hangul, restricted to Sino-Korean, the emphatic consonants written ㅺ sg, ㅼ sd, ㅽ sb, ㅆ ss, ㅾ sj, and final consonants restricted to ㄱ g, ㄴ n, ㄹ l, ㅁ m, ㅂ b, ㅅ s, ㅇ ng, ㄺ lg, ㄻ lm, ㄼ lb (no ㄷ d, as it was replaced by s). Long vowels were marked by a diacritic dot to the left of the syllable, but this was dropped in 1921.
A second colonial reform occurred in 1930. Arae a was abolished; the emphatic consonants were changed to ㄲ gg, ㄸ dd, ㅃ bb, ㅆ ss, ㅉ jj; more final consonants (ㄷㅈㅌㅊㅍㄲㄳㄵㄾㄿㅄ) were allowed, making the orthography more morphophonemic; ㅆ ss was written alone (without a vowel) when it occurred between nouns; and the nominative particle 가 ga was introduced after vowels, replacing ㅣ i. (ㅣ i had been written without an ㅇ iung. The nominative particle had been unvarying i in Sejong's day, and perhaps up to the eighteenth or nineteenth century.)
Ju Sigyeong, who had coined the term hangul "great script" to replace eonmun "vulgar script" in 1912, established the Korean Language Research Society (朝鮮語研究會; later renamed Hangul Society, 한글學會) which further reformed orthography with Standardized System of Hangul (한글 맞춤법 통일안) in 1933. The principal change was to make Hangul as morphophonemic as practical given the existing letters. A system for transliterating foreign orthographies was published in 1940.
However, the Korean language was banned from schools in 1938 as part of a policy of cultural assimilation, and all Korean-language publications were outlawed in 1941.
The definitive modern orthography was published in 1946, just after independence from colonial rule. In 1948 North Korea attempted to make the script perfectly morphophonemic through the addition of new letters, and in 1953 Syngman Rhee in South Korea attempted to simplify the orthography by returning to the colonial orthography of 1921, but both reforms were abandoned after only a few years.
Both Koreas have used Hangul or mixed Hangul as their sole official writing system, with ever-decreasing use of hanja. Since the 1950s, it has become uncommon to find hanja in commercial or unofficial writing in the South, with some South Korean newspapers only using hanja as abbreviations or disambiguation of homonyms. There has been widespread debate as to the future of hanja in South Korea. North Korea instated Hangul as its exclusive writing system in 1949, and banned the use of hanja completely.