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.

The composition of Hangeul

Hangeul is a phonemic writing system, and it consists of letters for consonants and vowels. Unlike general phonemic writing systems such as the Roman Alphabet, it was uniquely designed to combine consonant letters and vowel letters into syllabic units. Because of this, we can say that it has something in common with syllabic writing systems.

The current spelling system of Hangeul is based on a draft for unified Hangeul spelling system proposed by Chosun Language Institution in 1933. This was partly revised in 1988 but, the basic features remain almost the same. Hangeul consists of consonant letters and vowels letters. Even though Hangeul is a phonemic writing, its letters are uniquely composed in a syllable unit.

For example, a word, ‘꿀벌(bee)’ is written like '꿀벌' not like 'ㄲ ㅜ ㄹ ㅂㅓㄹ'. The syllable as a letter is divided into three positions: the initial sound, the medial sound, and the final consonant. Any one among 19 consonant letters can be an initial sound. 'ㅇ’ among those 19 letters does not have a sound. For example, in case of '우유(milk)', two 'ㅇ’s are just there filling the space without making any sound in '우’ and ‘유’. Any one among 21 vowel letters can be a medial sound. One out of 16 single consonant letters and 11 double consonant letters can fill the final consonant location.

1. Basic Consonants and Vowels (24 letters)

Basic Consonants and Vowels (24 letters) = Consonants(14 letters) + Vowels(10 letters)

Basic Consonants and Vowels
Consonants Vowels
Letter Pronunciation Letter Pronunciation
giyeok a
nieun ya
digeut eo
rieul yeo
mieum o
bieup yo
siot u
ieung yu
jieut eu
chieut l i

2. Compound Consonants and Vowels (16 letters)

Compound Consonants and Vowels(16 letters)=Consonants(5 letters)+Vowels(11 letters)

Compound Consonants and Vowels
Consonants Vowels
Letter Pronunciation Composition Letter Pronunciation Composition
ssang-giyeok ㄱ+ㄱ ae ㅏ+ㅣ
ssang-digeut ㄱ+ㄱ yae ㅑ+ㅣ
ssang_bieup ㅂ+ㅂ e ㅓ+ㅣ
ssang-siot ㅅ+ㅅ ye ㅕ+ㅣ
ssang_jieut ㅈ+ㅈ wa ㅗ+ㅏ
wae ㅗ+ㅐ
oe ㅗ+ㅣ
wo ㅜ+ㅓ
we ㅜ+ㅓ+ㅣ
wi ㅜ+ㅣ
ui ㅡ+ㅣ

3. Hangeul Spelling System

  • The initial sound letters
    ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅆ ㅉ ( 19 letters )
  • The medial sound letters
    ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ ㅐ ㅒ ㅔ ㅖ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟ ㅢ ( 21 letters )
  • The final consonant letters
    Single final consonant : ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㄲ ㅆ ( 16 letters )
    Double final consonant : ㄳ ㄵ ㄶ ㄺ ㄻ ㄼ ㄽ ㄾ ㄿ ㅀ ㅄ ( 11 letters )

Useful Links

  • Korean learning for correct pronunciation
  • King Sejong Institute Foundation
  • Want to know about Hangeul?
  • National Hangeul Museum
sourceThe National Institute of the Korean Language


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
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 a 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.

sourceThe National Institute of the Korean Language


Vowel letters were made based on
three materials(三才): sky, earth, and human.

Letters for vowels were created from the consideration of not only sounds but also philosophical principles. Vowel letters are also divided into basic letters and ones derived from them. People who created Han-geul saw three vowels. 'ㆍ', ‘ㅡ’ and ‘ㅣ’ as basic. The letter 'ㆍ' symbolizes the round shape of the sky, the letter ‘ㅡ’ means the plate shape of the land, and the letter ‘ㅣ’ indicates the upright shape of the human. These three, sky, land and human, are considered as the fundamental features of all things in Oriental philosophy.

Other vowels were made by properly combining those three letters. If 'ㆍ' is written over the ‘ㅡ’, ‘ㅗ’ is generated. If 'ㆍ' is put under the ‘ㅡ’, it becomes ‘ㅜ’. If 'ㆍ' is written on the right side of ‘ㅣ’, it becomes ‘ㅏ’, while 'ㅓ' is made by putting 'ㆍ' on the left side of 'ㅣ'. Even though today's ‘ㅗ’, ‘ㅜ’, 'ㅏ', and 'ㅓ' look as if horizontal and vertical lines are combined, at the time

The basic letters for the medial sounds

sky, earth, human

that Han-geul was created, it clearly showed that each letter came from the combination of 'ㆍ' and 'ㅡ', or 'ㆍ' and ‘ㅣ’. Each of ‘ㅛ’, ‘ㅠ’, ‘ㅑ’, ‘ㅕ’ has the same structure of each of ‘ㅗ’, ‘ㅜ’, ‘ㅏ’, ‘ㅓ’ except that 'ㆍ' is written twice. ‘ㅛ’, ‘ㅠ’, ‘ㅑ’, ‘ㅕ’ sound similar to ‘ㅗ’, ‘ㅜ’, ‘ㅏ’, ‘ㅓ' respectively, except that they are diphthongs(double vowels) with the glide(semi-vowel) 'ㅣ' attached in front. In this regard, the relationship between simple vowels and double vowels is reflected in the shapes of vowel letters.

Basic Consonant Letters, Shape of speech organ, 5 sounds(五音)
The basic vowel letters The 1st generated letters The 2st generated letters
• ㅡ ㅣ ㅗ ㅏ ㅜ ㅓ ㅛ ㅑ ㅠ ㅕ
sky, earth, humansky, earth, human

Today, the letter 'ㆍ' is not used anymore because the sound this letter used to represent disappeared now. Other letters for double vowels were made by combining letters for constituent simple vowels. For example, ‘ㅗ’ and ‘ㅏ’ combine to make ‘ㅘ’ and under the same rule, ‘ㅜ’ and ‘ㅓ’ combine to be ‘ㅝ’. Today, 'ㅐ' and 'ㅔ' are short vowels, but at the time when Han-geul was first made, they were double vowels sounding /aj/ and /ej/.

Therefore, it was very reasonable to make 'ㅐ' by combining 'ㅏ'and 'ㅣ' and 'ㅔ' by combining 'ㅓ' and 'ㅣ'. The same rule is applied to ‘ㅚ’, ‘ㅟ’, ‘ㅒ’, ‘ㅖ’, ‘ㅙ’, ‘ㅞ’. The sounds which these letters represented were diphthongs(double vowels) or triphthongs(triple vowels) just like the way their shapes suggest. But, today they were simplified to simple or double vowels, so that the relationship between letters and sounds is not so clear any more.

Thanks to the systematicity of Han-geul, we can learn Han-geul very easily. Our very low illiteracy, which is internationally recognized, seems to be due to the scientific feature of Han-geul.

The scientific feature of Han-geul also shows its value even in this Digital Era. For example, think about the input system of cellular phone used for sending text messages. Because the number of keys is limited, to each key are assigned more than one letter. In case of Roman Alphabet, the letters that belong to the same key have no common ground because shapes of letters have nothing to do with their sounds.

In contrary, in case of Han-geul, if the shapes of letters are similar, their sounds are also similar. Because of this, it is easy to assign several similar sounds/letters to one key. And so it is also easy to know which letters are on which key, so that users can input text message fast using cellular phones.

sourceThe National Institute of the Korean Language

Naturalized words(Hangeul)

Words can be classified into native tongues and naturalized words. The native tongues are our original words that have had its origin in our nation since the early ages like '하나(one)', '둘 (two)', 사람 (human), 땅(earth) while the naturalized words are the borrowed words from the neighbor countries like'버스(bus), 커피(coffee), 컴퓨터(computer). Our nation has borrowed many vocabularies mainly from China, Mongolia and other nations around.

The examples are '붓(brush)', '송골매(duck hawk)' and others. Most of the naturalized words introduced after 21st century come from English language, There are many examples such as '커피(coffee)', 넥타이(necktie)' and '인터넷(Internet)' and many words still keep coming today.

To prevent the spelling disorder, a spelling system for naturalized words were formulated. The very first draft was a draft for unified naturalized words spelling system proposed by Chosun Language Institution in 1939. The current draft was notified first in 1986. The followings are several important rules in the naturalized words spelling system.

Second, the naturalized words should follow the Korean spelling system because they are also the Korean language. Therefore, only seven consonants of 'ㄱ','ㄴ','ㄹ','ㅁ','ㅂ','ㅅ', and 'ㅇ' can be the final consonants in the naturalized words. And, the double vowels such as 'ㅑ','ㅓ','ㅛ' and 'ㅠ' cannot be used after 'ㅈ' and 'ㅊ'. Therefore, '디스켄(diskette)' and '커피숖(coffee shop)' are wrong and they should be revised into '디스켓', and '커피숍'. Neither '레져(leisure)' nor '쥬스(juice)' is right. '레저’ and '주스‘ are the right words.

Third, glottalized sounds are not used in the naturalized words. Therefore, '까스(gas)', '땜(dam)', '뻐스(bus)', '써비스(service)'are the wrong spellings. '가스', ’댐', '버스', ’서비스'are right.

sourceThe National Institute of the Korean Language