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Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage: Korea’s writing system makes reading easy

As we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage during May, we take a look at the unique and extremely innovative Korean writing system called Hangul.

WASHINGTON — As we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month throughout May, we take a look at the unique and extremely innovative Korean writing system.

Called Hangul, King Seojong introduced it in the 1440s to enable all his people to read and write.

Using logic and science to create characters that represent sounds of spoken words, developers symbolized the shape of the mouth and the position of the tongue.

The written consonants reflect the shape of the speech organs used to pronounce them.

Vowel characters indicate where the tongue is placed to make a sound.

Korean Hangul writing consists of two to four-character blocks.

An open syllable word uses two characters, a consonant and a vowel, such as 미 (Mee).

And a closed syllable word uses three characters, a consonant and a vowel then a final consonant in a readable block such as 삼 (Sahm).

There are also some very rare four character blocks, made up of consonant, vowel and two consonants, such as this one 값 (Gaab).

Here is a Korean sentence:  감사합니다. (Kam Sa Hamnida) meaning I thank you.

Earliest writing systems use stylized pictures to represent words and ideas.

Chinese still does this today.

Man looks like this: 人 and Mountain is written this way:  山

To simplify pronouncing words, the Phoenicians used stylized pictures that represented sounds of the word the picture represents.

𐤀 alef means ox and represents an Ah sound.

𐤁 Beth means house and represented the Ba sound.

Today, alef looks like this א and Beth ב like this in modern Hebrew.

From this came the Greek Alpha α and Beta β and further evolved into the Latin alphabet A and B which we use today in English.

Because the Korean Hangul writing system illustrates how the sound is made, learning to read and write is easier and intuitive.

When King Seojong introduced Hangul, many scholars opposed the writing system. The competing system was Chinese, using thousands of unique characters, difficult to learn and gave elites a monopoly on knowledge.

Eventually, Hangul was accepted, and today, Korean literacy is in the upper ninetieth percentile, one of the highest in the world, because of its ease of use.

Oct. 9 is celebrated each year as Hangul Proclamation Day, celebrating King Seojong published instructions in 1446 explaining the writing system.