According to the Foreign Service Institute, Korean is rated as a Category IV language. This means it would take roughly 88 weeks, or 2,200 class hours, for a native English speaker to become proficient in the language. Compared to to Category I language like Spanish or Italian, both of which take 24 weeks to become proficient in, this can seem like a massive hurdle to overcome. And it’s true – unlike Spanish or Italian, Korean is a vastly different language from our English. Even the basic sentence structure is different; verbs come at the end of a sentence, and the subject and object of a sentence can be placed wherever, so long as they come before the verb.
One of the graces of the Korean language, however, is their alphabet, which is known as hangeul. It may look rather different compared to the English alphabet, and thus maybe a bit intimidating, but it’s actually remarkably easy. This is all thanks to one king.
King Sejong (or, as shown in the picture, King 세정) was the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty. He cared a lot for his people, and noticed that the commoners struggled with illiteracy. At the time, the Korean language was represented by Chinese characters, which were not easy to learn unless you were well-off and could afford tutors and the time to study. This lead to a lot of issues for commoners, so much so that getting into legal trouble was common, as the commoners couldn’t even read signs that declared rules or laws for them to follow. Determined to fix the illiteracy issue plaguing his people, King Sejong set out to develop an alphabet that anyone could learn with ease.
The consonants of the alphabet are based on the movements of the mouth, tongue, and throat. For instance, the consonant ㄴ, which sounds like the English N, is designed to resemble the position one’s tongue makes when making the sound of the letter. The tongue presses against the front of the roof of the mouth, behind the teeth.
The vowels, on the other hand, are made to resemble the universe, man, and the ground man walks upon. The vowel ㅣ, which makes a sound similar to ‘ee’, is one of the building blocks of other vowels. It stands upright like humans do.
While I could go over every single consonant and vowel in the Korean language, I actually encourage you to try it out yourself. King Sejong himself said a commoner could learn the alphabet in 10 days. Hangeul, or 한글, is a very interesting alphabet to learn and could be a fun way to spend some time while we’re all inside due to COVID-19.