Hangeul Proclamation Day (Oct 9; 한글날)




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Very few places in the world have a national holiday to celebrate the birthday of their written language, but Korea is one of them. Hangeul Proclamation Day is celebrated every October 9 in South Korea; North Korea celebrates the invention of Hangeul in January each year.

Invention of Hangeul (the Korean alphabet)

Before the 15th century, educated Koreans wrote using Chinese symbols. This is a very difficult language to master, so only the elite did much writing. According to legend, the Great King Sejong (who reigned from 1418-1450) wanted common Koreans to be able to communicate their concerns to him. Thus, in 1443 he invented a written alphabet of 28 letters (17 consonants and 11 vowels). In 1446, Sejong presented the new alphabet in a document called the Hunminjeongeum (훈민정음), which translates roughly to “The proper sounds for the education of the people.” Members of Sejong’s court were not impressed with this simplistic system and many refused to use it; thus, for a time it was relegated to women and children as an interesting plaything.


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Language experts consider Hangeul to be an ingeniously engineered, even “scientific” language that is surprisingly simple to learn. The letters, originally made up of dots and lines, are based on both human anatomy (e.g., the shape of the tongue when making specific sounds) and Confucian principles (e.g., vowel shapes reflect the heavens, the earth, and people, which are the elements of the universe). The letters are combined into syllables, written as blocks that reflect all the sounds of the Korean language.

Gradually, Hanguel caught on among Koreans as a very learnable system and it became one of the unifying touchstones of the Korean people. During their occupation 1910-1945 occupation of Korea, the Japanese administration decreed greater standardization of the language, and many of the changes of that period remain today (e.g., four letters were dropped).   The writing system has also changed from a vertical, columnar pattern to a horizontal, left-to-right pattern. With the strong American influence in Korea over the last 70 years, the adaptation of English words into a system written for a different set of sounds can result in funny mis-communications. Hangeul does not have symbols for the English letters f, v, or z; l and r are represented by the same letter (sounding like a rolled “r” in Spanish). This writer’s favorite “Kon-glish” is the American snack pronounced in Korean as “pah-root-eh bah-ee deh-poo-teh.”


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Hanguel Day Celebration

In 1926, Korea’s Hangeul Society celebrated the 480th anniversary of Hangeul. In 1945, Hangeul Day became a national holiday that included a day’s release from work; its holiday status was downgraded in 1991 to a commemoration day but was restored in 2013. As a physical reminder of Hangeul’s invention, a 20-foot high bronze statue of Sejong was unveiled at Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Plaza. To promote Hangeul studies and Korean culture among foreigners, a national bill founded the King Sejong Institute Foundation as the primary institution of Hangeul education. Now housed in the national library in Seoul, the Institute offers many Hangeul-related exhibits; on Hangeul Day, visitors can also enjoy calligraphy demonstrations, writing contests, and a re-enactment of the Hangeul story.


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For those interested in learning more, the National Hangeul Museum (opened in 2014 in Yongsan-gu, Seoul) houses over 10,000 pieces related to Korean writing and encourages visitors to try various Hangeul-related activities (admission is free).  Not every country boasts about its written language, but it’s a fascinating aspect of Korean history.

Selected Sources:

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=631659: information about Hangeul-related tourist locations and language training opportunities

http://mentalfloss.com/article/53091/today-holiday-honor-world%E2%80%99s-greatest-alphabet – Overview of the scientific beauty of Hangeul with links to Hangeul games

http://www.hangeul.go.kr/lang/en/ – English website describing the Hangeul museum’s events and exhibitions

https://kuiwon.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/on-hangul-supremacy-exclusivity-promotion-of-hangul-by-the-japanese-colonial-administration/: Essay on the fate of Hangeul under Japanese occupation

http://elaw.klri.re.kr/eng_mobile/viewer.do?hseq=28092&type=part&key=17 – the English text of the “Framework Act on Korean Language” (2005, rev. 2013)

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