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Korean
Quick Facts
TypeC&V Alphabetic
GenealogySinitic
LocationEast Asia
Time1st Century CE to Present
DirectionTop to Bottom

Due to its proximity to China, it is no surprise that writing in the Korean peninsula started with Classical Chinese. Like Latin in Medieval Europe, Classical Chinese had tremendous prestige and was employed in official and literary context.

The earliest writing in Korean was an adaption of Chinese characters (called hanja) to write Korean in a system called ido. Certain Chinese characters were adapted for their sound values, whereas others for their meanings. However, often times the same character isused both for sound as well as meaning, which leads to an ambiguous system.

This ambiguity was slightly alleviated in the 13th century CE with the simplification of some characters used to represent morphemes to glyphically distinguish them from those representing phonetic values. This system is called kugyol, but at this time Classical Chinese was deeply rooted in Korean literary culture and it would take a lot more to make inroads into it.

Hangul

In the middle of the 15th century CE (approx. 1440), King Sejong employed a group of scholars to create a writing system that is simpler and more suited to Korean than ido. The result was Hangul ("Korean letters"). However, tradition prevailed, and scholars continued to use Classical Chinese as the literary language and it was not until 1945 that Hangul became popular in Korea.

Due to the important of tradition, at firt Hangul was used side by side with hanja characters in South Korea, like the mixture of kanji and hiragana in Japanese. However, gradually Hangul became the dominant script to write Korean, with hanja characters falling almost completely out of use by the 21st century CE. Similarly, North Korea has also completely abandoned all Chinese characters and use exclusively Hangul, albeit in a more abrupt, government-mandated switch.

The consonants in Hangul:

The vowels and dipthongs in Hangul:

The Korean consonants /p/, /t/, /k/, and /ch/ have a three-way phonetic differentiation. (Note /ch/ and /jj/ are in the same series).

Group    Signs    Description
Single consonant    ch     Unaspirated (or only slightly aspirated) and voiceless everywhere except between two vowels where it is voiced.
Consonant followed by an apostrophe    p' t' k' ch'     Aspirated (pronounced with a puff of air)
Double consonant    pp tt kk jj     Glottalized, meaning that you tense up your throat at the same time you're pronouncing the consonant.

The /ng/ sign has two uses. At the end of words it sounds like the

ng in English 'sing'. If it appears at the beginning of a word it is

actually silent where it is used only as a placeholder. In fact, all

vowel-initial words must use the silent /ng/ sign before the vowel.

And here's some notes regarding the vowels:

  • The vowel /æ/ nowadays is indistinguishable from /e/.

  • The vowel /eo/ is like half way between /o/ and /a/, somewhat

    like the vowel in "y'all" as pronounced in southern United States.

  • The vowel /eu/ is a high central vowel, namely [u].

Drawing a Syllable

While the basic Hangul signs are segmental (consonants and vowels), when writing out words the signs are grouped by syllables into squares. For example, the word for pickled cabbage ('kimchee' or more correctly, /kim ch'i/) looks like this: The first square represents /kim/, while the second is /ch'i/.

The layout of signs inside the square depends greatly on the syllable structure as well as which vowels are involved. The best way to describe the layout strategy is to use an illustration. But before we jump into that, we need to talk about the symbols I use.

C denotes a consonant in general, and the subscripts denote the order in which they appear in a syllable (so C1 comes before C2).

Some vowels are "horizontal", such as /o/, /u/, /eu/, meaning that they have a long horizontal line. We'll denote them as Vh. Others are "vertical", with one or more vertical lines, such as /i/, /a/, /e/, etc., and we denote them as Vv.

In general the syllable structure of Korean is pretty simple. The cases we'll consider here are V, CV, VC, and CVC (there are others, but we'll ignore them for now). However, since vowel-initial syllables must have the silent /ng/ sign in front, we can further simply the structure to only two cases, namely CV and CVC.

Each of the two syllabic structures would be drawn differently depending on whether the vowel is horizontal or vertical. Therefore there are a total of four cases below: CVv, CVh, C1VvC2, and C1VhC2. Each one of these is laid out below.

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