23 July 2008
Jae-Joon Han
Jae-Joon Han

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

The evolution of the Hangul alphabet in Korea was greatly influenced by political, technological and social shifts. As it evolved, mechanisation and digitization encouraged the development of a horizontal writing system, however this evolution was not without its challenges.

[Continued from part 1]


The alphabet at the time of its creation
In the course of the first two or three years after it was created, the appearance of the newly designed alphabet evolved in relation to the various ways of application, from printing plates through wooden types all the way to brass, movable type, and attempts to create small, thin variety of the script appeared (The Life of Buddha Shakyamuni, 29th year of Sejong's rule). These attempts were all part of a trial period in which the flaws and imperfections of the new script were to be removed, before it was spread massively throughout the country. A little later, during the rule of king Tanjong, the movable type-printed letters in the Hongmu Chon-gun rhyme book show an influence of hand-written lettering, which may be considered a natural result of the implementation of the script into practical use.

Above: Movable types from Seoul Weekly, around 1880.

Evolution and stabilisation of the alphabet in the vertical writing system
Already the movable type letters from the books Reflecting Moon and The Life of Buddha from the period of King Sejo's rule (around the 5th year of his rule) show the influence of hand-written type, where the original shapes of letters are retained, yet with an added "taste" of the brush. Hangul has evolved under the influence of handwritten forms and throughout the centuries, it was also shaped by a variety of political and other circumstances. In 1490s, it was banned by the King Yeonsangun, later, in 1590s, during the Imjin Wars, nevertheless, at the end of the 18th century, it was established in a beautiful, well-balanced form. Although at the very beginning, Hangul was created in the royal palace and it was primarily used there, it soon spread among commoners and it became widely used. Further development of wooden printing plate types was a little different that that of courtly movable type style, displaying features originating in popular lettering, materials and tools.

Above: Sample of movable types from the translation of the Bible, around 1890.

The dark period of movable type evolution
New movable types for the printing of Hangul appeared in 1880 (17th year of King Kojong's rule), made for the Korean-French dictionary composed by French bishop Ridel and his team. At that time, small-sized types were made thanks to the introduction of lead-casting technique. Their forms do not differ much from their predecessors, and maybe they miss a little of the traditional harmony of forms. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, the traditional aesthetics was retained in the Korean-French dictionary or the translation of the Bible (both in the Choi Sejin style), or in the Seoul Weekly (Seoul style). However, in 1920s and 1930s, the era of the serifed Myeongjo and sans-serifed Gothic styles came, both thanks to the strong influence of Japanese. Variations of these styles are widely used up to this day. This development was a direct result of the political situation in Korea after the peninsula was taken over by Japan, and of Japanese colonial politics. The movable type shapes of Hangul reached their best forms in the Pak-Kyong-So style from the 1930s. Its forms may be considered to represent the best of movable type for vertical setting of Hangul, where the vertical baseline is very stable and strong. Most other types did not develop much when compared to the sets made in the second half of the 19th century (Seoul or Choi Sejin styles), on the contrary—the type is less refined and its forms are more primitive. The period of Japanese rule which lasted from the beginning of the 20th century up until the liberation in 1945 had negative impact on the evolution of Hangul types.

Above: Newspaper movable types by I Won-mo, around 1930.

Hangul forms for horizontal writing, and new problems
The first attempts to switch from the vertical writing direction towards horizontal one took place at the end of 19th century, and the most likely cause for this was the need for mixed texts combining Hangul and Latin scripts. (Korean-French dictionary, 1880). After the end of the war in 1945, the practical aspects of horizontal writing were mostly accepted (Korean for Elementary Schools, 1946, and Korean for Elementary Schools 3-2, 1949), and it spread thanks to advancing mechanisation. The changing shapes of letterforms are thus attributable to this more complex change of the writing system. The horizontal writing system introduced mandatorily in textbooks for elementary schools in 1947 led to a broad gap between the generations which still used the traditional, vertical writing, and the vertical writing style in itself slowed in its evolution.

In 1970s, Choi Chong-Ho (1916–1988) began developing types for phototypesetting machines and these spread throughout a variety of printed media. From 1980s onwards, horizontal writing was introduced to newspapers and since then, it became established as the default writing system. The new generation using the Hangul script is now accustomed to the horizontal writing and the continuing industrialisation and development of information technologies brings along the massive boom of individual fonts. However, the traditional vertical setting does retain a specific role in today's culture. [10] For example, it is attractive thanks to its traditional feel, and its flexible use of white space. On the other hand, the forms for horizontal typesetting still retain certain features developed specifically for vertical flowing of text and this brings a scope of specific problems in the arrangement of space, unstable text line etc. Extensive research is being carried out to eliminate these problems.

One broadly discussed topic is the question of shapes of combined script structure, which appeared in 1950s in connection with the evolution of monospaced types and types for the computer keyboard. Especially from the beginning of 1980s when personal computers begun spreading rapidly, unexpected problems surfaced such as those of the unification of the code serving to transfer information from one computer to another, or the variable order of displaying letters on the computer screen.

Above: Pak-Kyong-So's movable type, 1930s.

Digital environment against traditions — clash between traditional aesthetics and utility
Up until these days, the shapes of Hangul letters were passively influenced by the changes of typesetting systems and changes of tools and means of letter production. However, the increasing speed of media development brings new forms and uses of letter shapes, and induces chaos in communication. Problems appear in all stages of the information pathway. Just a few examples: the system of handwriting, keyboard writing and appearance on computer display are all different. On the internet, letters often display incorrectly, one set of characters contains multiple versions of one character such asㄱ[k], the vowelㅏ[a] is written in a different way depending on its length, characters with various number of root elements such as 그[ku], 를[rul], 니[ni], 빼 [ppe] are fitted into the same space, etc. All these examples are caused by the fact that the characteristic features of the script were not taken into account when its first digital forms were being created. Type is no longer reproduced on paper only, it spreads in electronic form. Ink has been complemented with electronic signal or light. Unfortunately, the types for use in print and in digital media have not been thoroughly organised, so now, it is necessary to introduce a standardised type designated specifically for digital use.

Above left: Movable types from newspaper advertisement, around 1930, used both in vertical and horizontal setting.

Above right: Movable types from the textbook of Korean for elementary schools, around 1946.


Hangul types today
The report of the Center of the Development of Korean Fonts states that by 2007, over 20 institutions where fonts were developed existed, and the total number of released fonts surpassed three thousand and five hundred. Of these, around three hundred fonts are in actual use, and about ten companies focus mainly on font design. Although the question of font copyright has been broadly discussed, no specific law has come through yet, so fonts are only protected in the framework of the software and design copyright rules. First fonts specific for a certain type of use appeared from the beginning of 1990s in connection with the fast evolution of digital technologies. With time, the categories of corporate, local and city fonts were established. Especially since 2005, fonts for internet use begun spreading quickly, becoming a profitable business. When taking a look at the fonts developed and used in 2007, we may divide them into the following categories:


Vertical types used for horizontal writing
Basic direction of type adjustment aimed at balancing the baseline of text set with letters originally made for vertical setting. Vertical strokes are reduced and the height and width of letters is relative to the number of root lines. On the other hand, the values of vertical typesetting begin to be recognised, which leads to attempts at developing fonts designated solely for vertical typesetting. It will be interesting to further follow this development.

Above: The order of letters displaying on computer screen when writing the top phrase (beautiful landscape). As the letters appear, their shapes change, the image on the screen is distorted and difficult to read.

Applied, creative approach respecting the characteristic construction principles of Hangul
This approach strives to use the specific features and construction principles of Hangul to the maximum, making the most of its systematic structure. Most notable here is the so-called three-layer style which connects letters into the smallest possible groups. When it first appeared, it was perceived as radical and experimental and it was thought that it won't be possible to use it for continuous texts. However, digital media broaden the scope of its possible application.

Above: The character of each letter is not taken into account, especially the varying number of root elements, and the letters are organised into the square frame, the overall composition is irregular.

Approach respecting the traditions and customs associated with the script, partly reflecting the original construction principles and characteristics
It may be said that these forms stand somewhere between the first and the second approach mentioned above. Generally, they may be called "the non-square Hangul types", and they are quickly becoming established among other types. This approach is mostly seen in media focusing on young, teenage audience, namely in websites and mobile phone fonts.

[Continued in part 3]



[10] In certain media, such as vertical street signs, vertical writing is still maintained; lately, attempts appear at developing new fonts specifically designated for vertical writing.