Hangeul, an alphabet for more inclusion
Author: Rafael Galupa
In September 2022, UNESCO announced that Native Scientists was one of the awardees of the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes [1,2]. In particular, Native Scientists received the King Sejong prize, which recognizes organisations promoting literacy development based on mother tongue. But, who was King Sejong and why was he chosen to represent the prize? He was a Korean king that lived in the 15th century (Gregorian calendar) and we had the opportunity to find out more about him when all awardees were invited to visit Seoul by the Federation of Korean Language and Cultural Centres .
The history behind the prize
Prior to the 15th century, written language in Korea (then called Joseon) was restricted to the elite classes and mostly consisted of borrowing Chinese characters to write the Korean spoken language (this ‘hybrid’ script is called Hanja). This script remained difficult to learn, and was somewhat inconvenient, likened to “wearing clothes that did not fit” . This meant that most of the population faced limitations in their participation in policy decisions that influenced their everyday lives. For instance, they could not read official announcements nor file complaints at public institutions. In 1443, King Sejong aimed to combat illiteracy by creating an alphabet that was meant to be easy to write and learn. It remains unclear whether the king came up with the alphabet himself or ordered a committee of scholars to do so . Either way, at a time when literacy was power (and still is), an alphabet for “everyone” meant more equality and inclusion in Korean society (see note at the end).
Three years later, to help introduce and teach the alphabet, the king and scholars published a book, Hunminjeong'eum (written in Classical Chinese, later supplemented with a longer document in Hangeul and Hanja) , which explained the new alphabet, stating not only its purpose, but also the principle of making the letters. Interestingly, the shapes of the letters were meant to represent how the tongue, palate, teeth, and throat articulate when producing the respective sounds. The alphabet was initially named after the book, meaning “correct sounds for the instruction of the people”. The name Hangeul (which means both ‘great script’ and ‘Korean script’ ) was coined in 1912 by a Korean linguist , and is the official name of the alphabet today. The book’s formal publication date, 9th October 1446, is celebrated in South Korea as a national holiday, Hangeul Day.
Hangeul’s impact on population literacy
The time of our invitation to Seoul (October 5-10) was thus not random – it coincided with the celebrations of the 576th Hangeul Day!  Our cultural trip included visits to palaces, temples, and museums. Our visit to the National Museum of Hangeul , an entire museum dedicated to the alphabet, was particularly memorable, because it highlighted the importance of the alphabet to Korean people and their identity. So much so that each letter of the alphabet was celebrated with its own song in a ceremony taking place at the museum as part of the national celebrations.
Although nowadays Hangeul is embraced as a national symbol, this was not always the case. Despite King Sejong’s good intentions, the alphabet was initially ridiculed and opposed by the Korean literary elite, and official documents continued to be written using Chinese characters for four more centuries after the creation of the Hangeul alphabet. In fact, Hangeul only became the official script of Korea as recently as 1894. It was even temporarily banned during the 16th century when a document was published in Hangeul criticising the then-king’s governance . Initially, to spread the alphabet and prove its effectiveness, King Sejong ordered the production and translation of praying texts, novels, essays, and other documents. He himself wrote 125 poems in Hangeul . The spread of this language was set in motion, and Hangeul was progressively adopted by the masses; nowadays it is spoken by about 80 million people. The National Museum of Hangeul contains, for instance, records from people across centuries using Hangeul in everyday life – from love letters and money transactions to official complaints about neighbours and gravesite disputes. Its ease of use ultimately determined its success, even overcoming the oppression from the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century.
Knowing the story behind the Hangeul alphabet, which was created to promote literacy and increase accessibility, makes winning this literacy prize even more special for all of us at Native Scientists. UNESCO’s recognition of the value of our mission to eradicate social inequalities based on language encourages us to continue to bridge the gap between science and society.
Native Scientists would like to thank the Federation of Korean Language and Cultural Centres for the invitation to Seoul, and the accompanying committee on site.
Note: Though intended to be more inclusive, not everyone in Korean society could/can learn Hangeul, e.g., people who have visual impairments. Interestingly, the Korean braille reflects patterns found in Hangeul, and it is thus not related to other braille scripts .