The Korean language may be written using a mixture of Chinese ideograms (hancha) and a native Korean alphabet known as hangul, or in hangul alone, much as in a more limited way Indo-European languages sometimes write numbers using Arabic symbols and at other times spell numbers out in their own alphabets or in some combination of the two forms. The script, which in its modern form contains forty symbols, is considered by linguists to be one of the most scientific, logical and simple written languages ever devised; it reflects quite consistently the phonemes of the spoken Korean language. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Hangul is largely phonetic and was comprised of 11 vowels and 17 consonants when it was created under King Sejong in the 15th century, and later reduced to 10 simple vowels and 14 consonants. In more recent times five consonants and 11 vowels have been added. Hangul letters are combined into syllables by clustering, in imitation of Chinese characters. Koreans are so proud of hangul there is even a national holiday to celebrate it. It is not that hard to learn on a long plane ride to Korea.

Even though the Japanese occupied Korea for several decades, their language didn’t have much of a lasting effect on written Korean. The South Korean government has launched several "language beautification" drives designed to purge Korean of borrowed words from Japanese and other languages, but more than half of the vocabulary consists of words derived from Chinese.

Because of its greater variety of sounds, Korean does not have the problem of the Japanese written language, which some experts have argued needs to retain a sizable inventory of Chinese characters to distinguish a large number of potentially ambiguous homophones. Since 1948 the continued use of Chinese characters in South Korea has been criticized by linguistic nationalists and some educators and defended by cultural conservatives, who fear that the loss of character literacy could cut younger generations off from a major part of their cultural heritage. *

Since the early 1970s, Seoul's policy governing the teaching and use of Chinese characters has shifted several times, although the trend clearly has been toward writing in hangul alone. By early 1990, all but academic writing used far fewer Chinese characters than was the case in the 1960s. In 1989 the Korean Language and Education Research Association, citing the need for Chinese character literacy "at a time when the nation is entering into keen competition with Japan and China" and noting that Japanese educators were increasing the number of Chinese characters taught in elementary schools, recommended to the Ministry of Education that instruction in Chinese characters be reintroduced at the primary-school level.

History of Written Korean

In spite of the long influence of written Chinese, Korean remains very different in lexicon, phonology, and grammar. Ancient Korean was written in a script called idu, in which Chinese characters were used to represent Korean sounds as well as meanings (similar to the present-day Japanese kanji). Choong Soon Kim wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ “The prolonged political and cultural influence of the Chinese upon Korea had a profound impact upon the written and spoken Korean language, especially from the Confucian classics. Prior to the invention of Hangul in 1446, Korean borrowed Chinese characters, using either the sounds or the meanings of certain Chinese characters. Even today, Koreans use Chinese characters alongside their own written language, as the Japanese do. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993|]

Hangul was invented by scholars at the court of King Sejong (1418-50), not solely to promote literacy among the common people as is sometimes claimed, but also, as Professor Gari K. Ledyard has noted, to assist in studies of Chinese historical phonology. According to a perhaps apocryphal decree of the king, an intelligent man could learn hangul in a morning's time, while even a fool could master it in ten days. As a result, it was scorned by scholars and relegated to women and merchants. The script, which in its modern form contains forty symbols, is considered by linguists to be one of the most scientific ever devised; it reflects quite consistently the phonemes of the spoken Korean language. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Traditionally, the Korean language operated on a dual system: in premodern Korea, oral language was indigenous Korean, but the script was classical Chinese. The syntax of the Chinese and Korean languages are distinct and for those who did not have access to formal education, the world of writing was remote and unknowable. In 1444, under the initiative of King Sejong of Yi dynasty Korea, court scholars invented a Korean script named hunminjongum ("the correct sound to be taught the commoners"). The original set consisted of seventeen consonants and eleven vowels. The script represented the phonetic sounds of Korean; using the script, therefore, one could write the language that people actually spoke. The advantage of using this script instead of the classical Chinese was obvious: the former corresponded to the oral utterance of Korean, helping those in lower strata and women express themselves in writing; the latter, consisting of thousands of ideographs which expressed meaning, was monopolized by the highly–ranked in the social strata. For example, the bureaucrats' qualification examinations and court documentation were all in classical Chinese, while popular stories were written in Korean script. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

With more reforms over many centuries, the Korean of the late nineteenth century had developed more vowels and consonants. The Japanese attempted to stifle the Korean tongue completely toward the end of their colonial rule (1910-1945), but they failed to leave more than a minimum trace of their language on Korean. Hangul was banned during the last decade of the Japanese occupation

North Korea used a modern form of hangul with 19 consonants and 21 vowels. The abolition of the use of Chinese characters from all public printing and writing helped achieved nationwide literacy at a remarkable speed. By 1979, the United States government estimated that North Korea had a 90 percent literacy rate. At the end of the twentieth century, it was estimated that 99 percent of North Korea's population could read and write Korean sufficiently.


Korean and English and Romanized Spelling

The English spelling of Korean words can be very confusing. The name Lee is often also spelled Li, Ri, Yi and even Ee. Chung can be spelled Ching. Cheong, Chyung, Jung or Jong. The system used to transliterate Korean into English was devised in the in the 1940s. Confusion arises because there are no English equivalents for some Korean sounds. There have been efforts to standardize the transliteration better.

The McCune-Reischauer System of romanization for Korean has been used widely since its development in 1939. MR was used for Korean from 1940-2000 and even now outside Korea. In 2000 the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in an effort to make the language more compatible with computer and Internet usage, promulgated the Revised Romanization System of Korean, which is used widely in South Korea today. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Basic Principles of Romanization: 1) Romanization is based on standard Korean pronunciation. 2) Symbols other than Roman letters are avoided to the greatest extent possible. 3) Vowels are transcribed as follows as simple vowels or diphthongs. Long vowels are not reflected in Romanization. 4) Consonants are transcribed as plosives(stops), affricates, fricatives, nasals and liquids. The sounds transcribed respectively as g, d, and b are written as such when they appear with a vowel; they are transcribed as k, t, and p when followed by another consonant or form the final sound of a word. R is transcribed as r when followed by a vowel, and as l when followed by a consonant and ll when appearing at the end of a word. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

Why Pusan’s Name Was Changed to Busan

Yun Chung wrote in the Korea Times: “In the year 2000, Korea changed Pusan to Busan because Pusan sounds awful to Korean ears. Also, Inchon became Incheon . When Pusan became Busan, I said to myself, “Finally, somebody has the sense to make it sound right. These changes occurred because the Korean government changed the rules regarding the writing Korean words using the English alphabet, called Romanization. [Source: Yun Chung, Korea Times, August 13, 2012]

“These changes pretty much sum up the differences between the two main Korean Romanization systems: MR (McCune-Reischauer) in 1939 and RR (Revised Romanization) in 2000. The spellings Pusan and Inchon conform to the current MR system which disregards breves and apostrophes (or diacritics, collectively) that the original MR required (e.g., Inch’on). Busan and Incheon conform to RR, which uses only the English alphabet without diacritics, so as to use the QWERTY keyboard, which is the standard for English computers in Korea and throughout the world.

“MR became unacceptable because the Romanized words using MR not only deviated from proper Korean sounds but also changed Korean words to either different words or just plain gibberish. For example, Sogang University is near the north end of the Seogang Bridge across the Han River in Seoul. Sogang in original MR with a breve over the letter would mean a “Western River, which was the name of the region west of Mapo alongside the Han River from ancient times. Nobody likes to use the breve, and few even know that this used to be requirement. So, Sogang became Sogang which would now mean a “Small River.” A “Western River University” became a “Small River University." This is no small matter. (Seogang in RR is equivalent to Sogang in MR.)

“The differences in Korean sounds between words are very important to Koreans. Apparently, however, they are not cause for concern for non-Koreans, particularly those outside Korea. They do not seem to care or know if MR distorts Korean sounds or renders them meaningless when the diacritics are dropped because this is done by most English speakers who use the standard QWERTY keyboard. This is the main reason why the Korean government had to modify MR and presented RR in July 2000.

“So, actually, RR is a son of MR, having naturally evolved from the same “DNA” as the times changed. Though having a lot of similarities, RR is as distinct from MR as a son would be from his parent. This difference is in the use of five Korean consonants and two vowels, and using no diacritical marks. In some sense, RR is simpler than MR. That’s all. The rest of MR remained the same as RR, including the euphonic sound changes. Since both MR and RR are based on standard Korean pronunciations rather than on orthographic Hangeul spellings and the Korean language is notorious in euphonic and other sound changes when written words are spoken; MR is just as difficult as RR in Romanizing Korean words.

“The consonant changes from k, t, p, s or sh, ch in MR to g, d, b, s, j in RR and o and u in MR to eo and eu in RR are very simple to master or learn to read them in five minutes. But, several sound change rules must follow the current standard pronunciation of Korean whether MR or RR is used. When Korean words that are two or more syllables are spoken, they may sound differently from the sounds of individual syllables one at a time. For example, hallyu comes from han-ryu in Hangeul spelling, silla from sin-ra, Mt. Halla in Jejudo from han-ra, japyeo from jap-hyeo (be caught), etc. These changes are very common and sometimes confusing even to native Koreans like me (a graduate of Seoul National University). Both MR and RR must follow the same sound change rules.

So, it is a fallacy to think that going back from RR to MR or to any MR-like systems (unified or whatever) would suddenly make Korean Romanization simpler and “friendlier” to English speakers. The degree of difficulty of one system over another is very subjective. For me and probably for other Koreans as well as non-Koreans well versed in Korean, RR is easier than MR because RR renders Romanized Korean words that make sense when read aloud.

China experienced the same problems in Romanizing their consonants and vowels using the Wade-Giles system, which was introduced in the late 19th century and replaced by Pinyin after World War II. China had to adopt Pinyin because the Chinese words when Romanized according to the Wade-Giles rules just did not sound like Chinese to the Chinese people. It is interesting to see that the most noticeable changes from Wade-Giles to Pinyin involved some of the same initial consonants as those involved when Korea changed from MR to RR. China dropped Wade-Giles not because it was “invented and owned?" by the British as a national brand but because it just did not work for the Chinese people. The same is true with MR vs. RR in Korea. RR can work as well as any other MR-like Romanization systems for the Korean language ? for both Koreans and non-Koreans alike. Korea needs to stay the course with RR, refine it, promote it by teaching it, and enforce its use. Now is not the time for Korea to experiment more with yet another new system as advocated by Professor Fouser of Seoul National University in his article, “Unified System of Romanization" in The Korea Times on July 16, 2012.

How About Changing Korea to Corea

In the early 2000s, Korean scholars and politicians began a drive to change the official English-language name of Korea to Corea. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The seemingly arcane campaign is based on an increasingly prevalent belief that the original spelling with the letter C was switched to Korea by the Japanese at the start of their 1910-45 occupation of the peninsula, so that their colonial subjects would not precede them in the English alphabetical hierarchy. The controversy used to be fodder only for linguists and historians, but lately the debate has become political.” In August 2003, “22 South Korean legislators introduced a resolution in the National Assembly calling for the government to adopt the Corea spelling, the first time an official proposal has been made in South Korea. "Scholars who have studied this more deeply than I believe it was part of the legacy of Japanese imperialists to eradicate our culture," said Kim Sung Ho, a South Korean legislator who was one of the sponsors of the new resolution. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2003]

“Most evidence supporting the claim is circumstantial. English books and maps published through the 19th century generally spelled the country's name as Corea, as did the British government in laying the cornerstone of its embassy in Seoul in 1890. But some time in the early 20th century, the spelling Korea began to be seen more frequently than Corea, a change that coincided with Japan's consolidation of its control of the peninsula.

“Chung Yong Wook, a historian at Seoul National University, says that the Japanese, who controlled the peninsula four years before officially colonizing it in 1910, changed the name by the time of the 1908 Olympics in London, so that Japan would come ahead in the ordering of athletes. But the closest thing he has found to a smoking gun is a 1912 memoir by a Japanese colonial official that complained of the Koreans' tendency "to maintain they are an independent country by insisting on using a C to write their country's name." "I am sure, though, if the Japanese archives were opened, you would find much more evidence to support the claim that the name was changed," Chung said.

“The North Koreans have embraced the movement to restore the spelling Corea with much more enthusiasm than their counterparts in the South. The North Korean news agency KCNA referred to the current spelling as "a never-to-be-condoned, state-sponsored crime." The South Korean government is unlikely to opt for a spelling change simply because of the burden of changing so many official documents. "A preliminary survey indicated that it would be extremely expensive," said Lee, who helped campaign to get the South Korean government to officially recognize the Sea of Japan as the East Sea.

“In South Korea, support for the spelling change has come mostly from the young. During last year's World Cup soccer tournament, held in Japan and South Korea, the South Korean fan club known as the Red Devils waved banners reading "COREA," as well as "Allez Coree!" and "Forza Corea!" using French and Italian, respectively, because those languages also spell the name with a C. Like many a campaign in this heavily wired nation, this one is being waged over the Internet. An online poll on one popular portal found that 69.4 percent of respondents favored a spelling change and that 27.4 percent were opposed. Those opposed have suggested sarcastically that Korea pick a new name that begins with the letter A and thus advance in the alphabetical ranks. Or, conversely, they suggest that a rival country change its name to "Zapan." "Has it ever occurred to Koreans that they've been duped by an urban legend?" wrote one critic on an English-language site. "That Japan would change the spelling so that it comes after in English is laughable. This seems like an invented story by some who have too much time on their hands."

Cia-Cia Butonese Adopt Korean Hangul to Preserve Their Language

The King Sejong Institute is operating some 90 Korean language schools around the world, South Korea is sponsoring Korean language classes in places where ethnic Koreans live and paying for children of Korean descent to come to South Korea for summer camp.

The Butonese are a group that live in two regions on the southeastern part of Sulawesi and on the islands of Buton (Butuni or Butung), Muna, Kabaen and the Tukangbese Islands in Indonesia. The Cia-Cia, a Butonese group that lives in Bau-Bau, the main city on Buton Island, have officially adopted Hangul, the Korean written alphabet, to transcribe their spoken language of Cia-Cia. It is the first time that foreigners have adopted Hangul as their official writing system. According to the Hunminjeongeum Research Institute, the city began distributing textbooks written in Hangul in 2009 to 400 elementary students in the Sorawolio district where many Cia-Cia people live. [Source: hankorey, August 7, 2009]

The 60,000 member Cia-Cia tribe has been on the verge of a crisis regarding the disappearance of their language. They do not have a writing system to complement their spoken language. Members of the Hunminjeongeum Research Institute persuaded them to adopt Hangul, and established a memorandum of understanding with city officials to use Hangul on July 2008. The Hunminjeongeum Research Institute invited two persons from the Cia-Cia tribe to Seoul to create a textbook written in Hangul. The textbook includes traditional Cia-Cia and Korean stories. The Hunminjeongeum Research Institute and Bau-Bau City will build a Hangul Culture Center and plan to train teachers in Hangul. Kim Ju-won, the president of the Hunminjeongeum Research Institute, says “It is significant that Hangul can be used to prevent a minority language from disappearing.” [Ibid]

In 2013, the Korean Times reported: “The King Sejong Institute, which operates Korean-learning programs overseas, established a language school in Bau-Bau City on Indonesia's Buton Island in early 2012 to teach Hangeul but it was temporarily closed eight months later due to a budget shortage. The school, located inside Muhammadiyah Buton University, resumed operations in 2013 said Song Hyang-geun, chairman of the King Sejong Institute. "We've reopened language courses for the Cia Cia after resolving the financial problem," Song said. "A 27-year-old Indonesian teacher, who completed Korean teaching programs in Korea last year, will give lessons twice a week, using textbooks tailored for the minority tribe." Song also said another Korean language school will be established in Makassar City on Sulawesi Island in March. There is also a similar school in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Song said the Cia Cia people have shown a growing interest in learning Korean since the tribe adopted the Korean alphabet to transcribe its native language in 2009. [Source: Na Jeong-ju, Korean Times, January 3, 2013]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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