10 July 2008
Jae-Joon Han
Jae-Joon Han

This week's Feature is the first of three parts of an article originally published in TYPO, Issue 31, Spring 2008, and has been republished with permission from the author.

The Korean language is the fifteenth most spoken in the world. The development of Hangul, Korea's writing system, has a deep history and can be traced from the 15 century through present day.

Koreans did have their own language, however, for writing, they used signs borrowed from Chinese up until the 15th century. In 1444, their own alphabet was created, better suited to the needs of the local language and culture. Officially, it was published in 1446, and it was designed by Sejong the Great, a wise ruler of the Joseon Dynasty. "He was an idealist and perfectionist, at all times striving for the very best. His credo was that everything needs to work in harmony with the Li principle, permeating the whole universe, the nature and the man." [1] The name of the script, Hunmin Jeongeum (訓民正音), which is same as the name of the document in which it was first published, mean literally "The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People", thus revealing the king's true intentions. Since the 1920s, the script has been called Hangul, meaning "the alphabet of the Han country"(韓), later, the syllable "han" begun to be interpreted as meaning "great" or "unique". [2]


Well-planned script
In the case of Hangul, plenty of materials documenting the motives for its creation and the genesis of the script survived up to this day, and they were found in 1940. Before that, numerous theories explaining its origins existed, and even today, speculations about possible predecessors of the Hangul script keep appearing. These are based on written remarks commenting upon its inspiration sources in the surrounding countries. Even if we do accept that before Hangul was created, similar alphabets already existed, this cannot be taken as a proof that the script was not created under the supervision and direct leading of the king. It was Sejong who defined the meaning of the individual forms, and his original thinking lead to the definition of the relation between sounds and their corresponding forms.

Left: Movable types from the Life of Buddha Shakyamuni, around 1447 (29th year of King Sejong's rule)

Right: Movable types from the normative dictionary of Chinese letter pronunciation Hongmu Chongun, 1455 (3rd year of King Tanjong's rule)

Script with an instruction book of Explanation and Examples
The terms associated with the evolution of the script, the principles of its creation and rules of its use are described in detail in the above mentioned document. The document also clearly outlines the goal and purpose of the script's creation, its principles and character inspired by the nature and the universe. It emanates the spirit of tender respect towards the man and affectionate practicality focused on the final user. The document not only sets design as it is into broader context, it also clearly shows where the designer should stand. The Hunmin Jeongeum may thus be considered a philosophical handbook of design, or even a type design manual. [3]

Movable types from the book Dealings according to the Five Elementary Relations, 1795 (19th year of King Chongjo's rule)

Script with clear approach to design
The following quote from the Hunmin Jeongeum text (section Examples and Principles) shows that Sejong succeeded in creating a script convenient in everyday use, aimed at common people who otherwise had trouble with writing: "Our language differs from Chinese and with Chinese letters, it is impossible to communicate for us. This is why many common people who need to express something are unable to do so in the end. Thinking of them, I created twenty eight new signs which should be easy to learn for anyone and convenient for everyday use." [4]

At the beginning of the chapter entitled Explanation of Letter Creation, it says: "All that happens in the Universe is directed solely through the harmony of the polar forces of Yin and Yang, and of five elements. Between the ‘Chun' (Earth, acceptance) element and the the ‘Fu' (return), lies the T'ai Chi (supreme ultimate), whose movement and calm gives birth to the Yin and Yang. How could living beings born between the sky and the earth exist without the Yin and Yang? This is why human language also contains this duality, people only sometimes fail to recognise it. At the beginning of the right letter creation is not an intellectual effort and laborious search for the right answer; it only springs from the sounds of speech, shedding light on the principle of their creation, this is all. Because the principle is not twofold, it must be shared with the Heavens, the Earth, and with spiritual beings."

From the above quote, it is apparent that Hangul is an alphabet created in harmony with the principles of the Universe. The letter system Sejong strived to create was not to serve for elementary communication; instead, it was to become the means of perfect communication, analysing and following the rules of nature and the character of the organs of speech. The quotes above show that Hangul was to be a natural script. The goal to reproduce all the natural sounds of speech in the alphabet led to the search for their origins and perception and the character of human articulation was also investigated. This process was complemented with symbolisation, visualisation and systematisation according to natural principles.

This way of thinking is considered to be based on the teachings of neo-Confucianism, which was, at that time, the leading force in the Chinese philosophy and culture, backed by the ideas expressed in The Book of Changes (I-Ching).

Shapes of letters from The Dream of Nine Clouds, wood print, 1862 (13th year of King Choljong's rule)

Script with distinct forming principles and system
The script has rather pronounced design and the system of letter composition is exceptionally clear. Consonant shapes correspond to the position of speech organs during articulation. The six core letters ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ and ㅇ correspond to plain vowels, and each vowel group has its aspirated and "tense" alternatives created by added strokes or doubling of the letter. This applies also to the letters ㄹ, ㅿ, ㆁ, which have been slightly modified, but nevertheless respect the rule. To denote vowels, the script uses three elementary shapes representing the "three powers" [5], that is, the heaven, the earth, and the man. These are a round dot, a horizontal line and a vertical one. According to the Yin and Yiang principles, these are developed into a clearly organised system of 21 vowel graphemes, where the "light" vowel is denoted with a dot on the top or the right of the letter, and the "dark" one with a dot on the bottom or left of the letter. Letters created this way are further grouped either vertically or horizontally to permit a variety of combinations. The group always needs to begin with a consonant. Respecting these principles means that the system not only displays a high level of unity and is compact and resistant to changes, the rules are clear enough to permit endless variations and applications while still retaining the meaning.

Movable types from the book Reflecting moon and Life of Buddha, around 1459 (5th year of King Sejo's rule)

Minimalist script
Graphemes corresponding to the elementary speech sound units are organised into a hierarchic system changing gradually from the simplest forms towards the more complicated ones. These evolve through a series of rules applied to them, that is, the addition of a stroke, doubling, rotation, symmetry, etc. Thus created minimum letters are further combined according to a few additional principles, thus permitting nearly endless number of syllables. The desired goal is brevity and simplicity, while an appropriate amount of variability and harmony needs to be retained. This corresponds to the requirement of suitability, and to the notion of simplicity, variability and stability from The Book of Changes. From artist's point of view, it does resonate with certain modernist ideas, as well as with the principles of functionalism and constructivism. On the other hand, it does correspond to the minimalist program theory of Avram Noam Chomsky (1995) [6], or to the technical rationalisation which strives for maximum efficiency in all areas of human activity. These examples show the rationality of the Hangul script.

Universal script
Consonant letter forms were designed following a detailed analysis of the organs of speech, trying to imitate the place and mode of articulation. On the other hand, vowels representing letters were inspired by the notion of the sky, the earth and the man, and all together, they form an organised system. Although Hangul was created with respect to local traditions and regional specifics, it is by no means a letter system whose use would be limited to the Korean peninsula. The opposite is true—it is universal and may be adopted by anyone. The main advantage is that its basis is phonetic, analysing and organising the sounds of speech. Especially the correspondence between a single sound and a single letter may permit us to say that Hangul is one of the best developed instances of a phonetic alphabet, improving its chance to become the script to be used for recording the languages of minorities which do not possess their own writing systems. Its letters could also be used as symbols of the international phonetic alphabet (IPA).

Semi-hand written style of lettering from the translation of Chinese Taoist document Taishang Ganying Pian, wood print, 1880

The tip of the script evolution pyramid
Generally, alphabet systems have evolved from pictures through simplified hieroglyphs and ideographic systems all the way to alphabets based on the phonetic principle. From this viewpoint, Hangul may be considered to have reached yet further, since it largely works with attributes. [7] It permits to divide sounds to the smallest possible units and to express these in the sign; the letters follow a system based on these attributes. The system is highly symbolic, meanings relate to sounds, and it works with references expressed in formal elements of the letters. Hangul could thus be considered "the alphabet of dreams". [8]

Original script
Local traditions differ from place to place, and it works the same with the sounds of speech. This could lead to an idea that differences in sound automatically imply that script systems will differ, too. All the more surprising is thus the idea to look for principles of letter form composition in the shapes of the human organs of speech. The clarity of principle and of the whole system or the application of the minimalist approach is a creative result of the application and development of the principles of the neo-Confucianistic philosophy in itself, namely the theory of Yin and Yang and the five elements, but the idea to employ the position and shape of speech organs in the analytic visual organisation of the alphabet is completely original, unseen in any other writing system around the world. I Ki-mun (1997) stressed this originality in saying: "... it does not imitate nor adjust the lettering system of the surrounding countries, it is an original, unique work. The creation of the Hangul script may be considered a revolution in the history of writing systems around the world." [9]

Integrated script
Hangul was not designed merely to serve for recording, printing, compiling, organising or exchange of written information. It expresses a certain relationship between the sound system and the written system of language, respecting certain natural principles. Its regularity and arrangement clearly shows the establishing principle. Although Hangul is a phonemic alphabet, it is easily organised into syllables which permit to identify their roots, and at the same time, the script is variable enough to make full use of the benefits of a phonemic alphabet.

Apart from the above mentioned attributes and unique characteristics, Hangul is also universal, sustainable, economic and nature-friendly, which are all features valued in present-day design. It may be said that even Hangul's elementary premise to concentrate on the final user springs from a viewpoint rooted in respect of nature and universal order of things. This background makes Hangul valuable as a script for academic purposes due to its symbolic character and strong referencing capabilities, and it is equally suited for use in cognitive sciences and practical fields such as digital and information technologies.

[Continued in part 2]


[1] I Ki-mun (1997): Keystone of National Culture Hiding the Harmony Principle; in: Culture and I, Sept–Oct, vol. 5 (36), Samsung Foundation of Culture, page 13
[2] I Ki-mun, ibid
[3] Han Jae-joon (2004): Changing Forms of Hangul Typeface: Past, present and Future. Visual Humanities. Osaka University the 21st Century Coe Program. Group 6. Interface Humanities Research Activities 2002–2003, page 163p.
[4] Hangul hakhö (1998): Hunmin Jeongeum, Commented translation, Hangul hakhö, page 1
[5] In classical Chinese philosophy "three powers" or "three extremes" represent the three elements of the Universe—Heaven(天), Earth (地), and Man (人).
[6] According to Noam Chomsky, language needs to be described with as little terms as possible, striving to express the maximum possible meaning with a minimum of theories. Chomsky, N. (1995). The Minimalist Program, MIT Press
[7] Geoffrey Sampson (1983) uses the term: "featural system" in his book Writing systems.
[8] In his Alpha Beta book (2000), John Man says that the Korean alphabet shows how far can a writing system evolve and where are its boundaries, and this is why it should be closely observed closely.
[9] I Ki-mun (1997), ibid, page 12