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Invention of Hangeul

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Individual Letters of hangeul and Its Principles

‘Hunminjeongeum’ the original of Hangeul, was created by the following principles and those two principles clearly show the superiority of Hangeul.

1. The inventor reproduce the shapes of letters from the shapes of pronunciation organs and three materials: sky, earth, and human.

2. The rest of letters were made based on the several basic letters to enhance its systematic feature.

Consonants

Basic Consonants Letters : ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ, ㅇ

First, take a look at letters for consonants. Basic letters for consonants were designed by looking after the shape of the speech organ which plays a central role in pronouncing the consonant.

Basic Consonants Letters
Basic Consonant Letters Shape of speech organ 5 sounds(五音)
The shape of back of tongue touching the velum(soft roof of the mouth) velar sound(牙音) View Pictures
The shape of the tip of tongue touching the alveoli lingual sound(舌音) View Pictures
The shape that the lips firmly closing labial sound(唇音)
The shape of a tooth dental sound(齒音)
The shape of the throat guttural sound(喉音)

Strong sound consonants were made by adding
one stroke to the five basic consonants letters

Other consonant letters were made on the base of these 5 basic letters. For example, consonants /ㄷ/and /ㄴ/ are pronounced using the same speech organ at the same location in the mouth, while /ㄷ/ is stronger than /ㄴ/. Reflecting this fact, the letter for /ㄷ/ was made by adding one more stroke to the letter for /ㄴ/. This principle is also applied to the relationship between /ㅁ/ and /ㅂ/, /ㅅ/ and /ㅈ/, or /ㅇ/ and /ㅎ/.

The principle of adding a stroke

The rest letters were made by adding one more stroke to each basic letter. The process is like followings.

The principle of adding a stroke

Consonants can be classified into plain sounds,
aspirated sounds and tensed sounds.

In Korean, some consonants are classified into the tertiary scheme of plain sounds, aspirated sounds and glottalized sounds. /ㄱ/, /ㄷ/, /ㅂ/, /ㅅ/ and /ㅈ/ are plain sounds, and /ㅋ/, /ㅌ/, /ㅍ/ and /ㅊ/ are aspirated sounds, while /ㄲ/, /ㄸ/, /ㅃ/, /ㅆ/ and /ㅉ/ belong to tensed sounds.

As can be seen from these, consonants pronounced by the same speech organ at the same location have similar shapes, and the relationship between sounds is parallel to that between letters for these sounds. Adding one stroke to the letter for a plain sound makes it the letter for the corresponding aspirated sound, and putting two identical letters for a plain sound together side by side leads to the letter for a tensed sound.

Plain sounds
Plain sounds Aspirated sounds Tensed sounds

Summarizing principles of forming letters for consonants, the basic letters were made in imitation of the shape of speech organs, and the others were made by adding a stroke to the basic letters while considering the similarity between sounds and their strength. There is no doubt that the scholars in the King Sejong era were great linguists who exactly analyzed and understood the Korean language of that period. They knew what sounds were there, and understood how the sounds were distinguished.

They decided letter shapes carefully to let the relationship between letters reflect the relationship between sounds. And they had an knowledge on which speech organ played a central role in pronouncing each consonant and what each speech organ looked like. It is a wonder how these were possible in that time, where there was no high-technology method such as X-ray.

The National Institute of the Korean Language