The Simple Genius of Hangul: The World’s Most Efficient Alphabet (2022)

The Simple Genius of Hangul: The World’s Most Efficient Alphabet (1)

In the article:

  • Sejong the Great create hangul in 1443, intending it to be as simple as possible so that every Korean could learn how to read and write, even if they couldn’t afford formal education.
  • Centuries later, the Korean script is still considered to be one of the most efficient alphabets in the world.
  • Letters are grouped into syllabic blocks that become easy to recognize instantly while the letters representing consonants are actually designed to represent the lip and tongue position used to pronounce them.
  • By World War II, hangul had become an important symbol of Korean identity and a way to maintain unity in the face of Japanese occupation. Today, the script is one of the few things that transcend the geopolitical divide between North and South Korea.

Most written languages use an alphabet. English uses the Roman alphabet, named after the Romans of Roman Empire fame. Because English is one of the descendants of Latin, it shares its alphabet with other Romance languages like French, Spanish, and Italian. Move a little further east and you get to Russia which uses the Cyrillic alphabet.

It’s when you get to Asian countries that it gets a little more complicated. While Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia all use the Roman alphabet, neighboring East Asian countries don’t.

In fact, it’s almost like they love making things complicated. The great grandaddy of complicated scripts — Chinese — has over 100,000 characters in total with the exact figure still up for debate.

Apparently, one script with thousands of characters wasn’t enough because Japan decided to add two alphabets on top of it called hiragana and katakana.

But Korea had different ideas. In 1443, one Korean king took up the task of creating a writing system that actually made sense. He called it hangul and it made it possible for even the poorest peasants to learn how to read and write.

Just how easy is it to learn the hangul system? Some learners say you can learn to read it in a day and while I never memorized the letters, I managed to learn how it works within three hours.

How Hangul Democratized Literacy in Ancient Korea

The Simple Genius of Hangul: The World’s Most Efficient Alphabet (2)

China has always been a major player on the eastern side of the globe and its influence was felt strongest by its East Asian neighbors. China spread Confucianism to Korea and Japan and shaped the way the people of both countries dress.

Don’t believe it? Look at the Chinese hanfu, the Japanese kimono, and the Korean hanbok side by side. The similarities don’t end there. China’s superior military, political power, and cultural influence also meant Japan and Korea adopted the Chinese writing system.

China’s writing system is complicated, though. It isn’t so much an alphabet as it is a list of characters where one character is one word that can be read in multiple ways.

(Video) Learn Hangul 한글 (Korean Alphabet) in 30 minutes

This made Chinese characters difficult and tedious to learn. Only the wealthy upper class had the time and resources to learn the script. This left poor commoners, who were too busy trying to survive, completely illiterate.

To King Sejong, who ruled Korea during the Choson dynasty, mass illiteracy was a major problem. While other kings before him were fine with their people being illiterate, Sejong was a man of letters.

An academic at heart, he had established an organization dedicated to funding research for scientific advancement. You’d be right to think he was a busy guy with a country to run, but he took time out of his day to write a book about farming methods to help the average farmer make a living.

It’s called hangul now, but Sejong himself named it hunminjeongeum meaning “proper sounds to instruct the people.” His intent was clear: hunminjeongum was designed to make literacy accessible.

He called it the Nongsa jikseol. But there was a problem: his target audience couldn’t read the book because farmers couldn’t read traditional Chinese characters. His plan to create an ancient Korean farmer’s Wikipedia wasn’t looking too good. How was he going to make millions of illiterate peasants learn thousands of characters so they could actually benefit from his book?

The answer? Create an alphabet so simple it could be taught in a day.

King Sejong brought his smartest scholars together and collaborated with them to create what is still recognized today as one of the most efficient alphabets in the world. It’s called hangul now, but Sejong himself named it hunminjeongeum meaning “proper sounds to instruct the people.” His intent was clear: hunminjeongum was designed to make literacy accessible.

The book about hunminjeongeum is divided into two parts. The first one is Sejong’s own personal work and contains a preface explaining why he made the new alphabet in the first place and detailing how the system works.

(Video) World's Easiest Writing System: Origin of Hangul (corrections in the description)

It was a new alphabet focused on getting the job done rather than the tradition, art, and prestige of the more established Chinese writing system.

Hunminjeongum contained 28 letters, 17 of which were initial sounds (consonants in English) while the other 11 were medial sounds (what we call vowels). The new letters could be mixed and matched to create syllables that were organized into neat blocks. Speaking of neat, this new writing system also used far fewer “strokes,” or brush movements, to form words.

If you look at the photo below, you’ll find that it’s easy to tell hunminjeongum apart from traditional Chinese. It’s cleaner, bigger, and just simpler to write.

Fast forward to the late 1800s and Ju-Sigyeong, a prominent Korean linguist, began the effort to standardize the Korean language in terms of spelling and grammar. This included polishing hunminjeongum and giving it its modern name hangul in 1912.

Han (한) referred to Korean and the Korean people while geul (글) stood for script. It was a uniquely Korean alphabet that later helped Koreans maintain a sense of national pride and identity during and after the Japanese occupation in World War II.

What Makes Hangul So Efficient?

There’s a video on YouTube made by Sam Gellman entitled “Learn to Read Korean in 5 Minutes (seriously)” and it’s not just clickbait. Gellman manages to go over how to read Korean in only five minutes.

Why is hangul so easy to learn? It all comes down to how it’s the alphabet equivalent of playing with Lego blocks.

Modern hangul is written from left to right, much like English, and has 14 consonants and 10 vowels. After that, you take a slight detour south since hangul stacks its letters vertically into blocks. For example, “hello” in Korean is annyeong haseyo and is written as “안녕하세요.”

The way the consonants look is an instruction on how to position your lips and tongue to say them correctly.

You have five syllabic blocks with about two or three letters each. This makes it possible to write Korean in a syllabic way, making pronunciation clear to the reader. The blocking system also makes reading faster as familiarity with common syllabic combinations makes blocks instantly recognizable. But that’s not all hangul does.

Hangul has another trick up its sleeve in the way it writes its consonants. The consonants of the Korena language aren’t just fun little shapes the way the English alphabet’s consonants are. The way the consonants look is an instruction on how to position your lips and tongue to say them correctly.

(Video) Learn Hangul in 90 Minutes - Start to Finish [Complete Series]

The Simple Genius of Hangul: The World’s Most Efficient Alphabet (4)

Paul Jorgensen is a Canadian linguist best known for his YouTube channel “Langfocus” where he talks about, well, linguistics and the history of languages. If you want to hear how hangul letters are pronounced, you can check out his video which goes over the Korean language in general.

The Growing Popularity of Korean in North America

The Simple Genius of Hangul: The World’s Most Efficient Alphabet (5)

If there’s one thing the hit Netflix TV series Squid Game has proven, it’s that South Korean entertainment is for everyone everywhere. Despite the potential challenges of a language barrier, South Korea’s music, movies, and shows have spread far from its oriental hometown.

K-pop (Korean pop) groups, for example, have started to break into mainstream Western music through collaborations with artists like Halsey, Dua Lipa, and Lady Gaga. Though American radio stations aren’t keen on K-pop, that may have more to do with the fact that younger audiences prefer music streaming services like Spotify. Why does this matter?

Because K-pop and South Korean pop culture, in general, are both becoming incredibly popular among Gen Z and Millennials. It’s not just Korean and Asian Americans listening either. The majority of K-pop fans in the U.S. are actually white.

This strong fanbase for Korean entertainment in the U.S. and other parts of North America is behind the recent boom in Korean language lessons.

Before K-pop and K-drama’s popularity, Korean had only roughly 163 students. By the late 2010s, that number had ballooned to about 14,000 along with a 14% rise in Korean language class enrollments in American universities while overall language enrollment was dropping.

Professor Andre Schmid, who teaches Korean history at the University of Toronto, says K-pop has even drummed up interest in his niche field. “Among my students,” the professor explains, “I have a young woman who grew up in an isolated farmhouse in Grey County Ontario, but she chose the University of Toronto because she wanted to learn all about Korea.”

Okay, so non-Koreans are learning Korean, hangul, and Korean history. How about the Korean diaspora then?

It’s no secret that the Asian diaspora in general struggles with maintaining fluency in their heritage language. If you don’t know what a heritage language is, Ann Kelleher at the University of California, Davis defines it as, “languages other than the dominant language (or languages) in a given social context.”

A little confusing considering there are several dialects of American English, but heritage languages differ in that they’re considered “foreign” even if the diaspora that language belongs to has been present in the U.S. for most of its modern existence.

(Video) The Easiest Alphabet #72

Heritage languages are divided into three main categories. You have immigrant heritage languages, which is what Korean is for Korean Americans, as well as Indigenous (Native American) and Colonial heritage languages.

While it’s true that some of these heritage languages are actually in the majority in some areas, they remain culturally minor.

You don’t hear many heritage languages in American mainstream music or in Hollywood films, making these languages even more culturally irrelevant even though the communities they belong to make up sizeable chunks of the U.S. population.

Hangul had truly become more than a writing system and was now a symbol for the very idea of Korea itself.

First-generation Korean-Americans have a better chance of learning hangul and Korean from their older family members. When you get to second-generation Koreans though, fluency starts to take a hit.

A study by Lee Jin Sook on the role of cultural identity and heritage language among second-generation Korean Americans aged 17 to 26 found that an overwhelming majority of them aren’t exceptionally fluent in Korean despite knowing that Korean and hangul are important to their cultural identity.

The main reason was a lack of societal recognition of the importance of hangul and Korean. It’s a sad state of affairs considering that hangul and the Korean language are one of the only things tying all Korean people together — especially across the North Korean and South Korean border.

Language and Identity: How Hangul Overcomes Politics

The Simple Genius of Hangul: The World’s Most Efficient Alphabet (6)

When Japan occupied Korea during World War II, one of the first things the imperial army tried to destroy was the Korean national identity. One of the main ways they sought to destroy the Korean identity was through banning the use of Korean in schools and ordering the shutdown of newspapers that wrote in hangul.

Before the Japanese occupation, there was still an elitist attitude coming from scholars and the upper class with regards to hangul. But the occupation made hangul one of the only forms of protest available for Korean citizens. Hangul had truly become more than a writing system and was now a symbol for the very idea of Korea itself.

Korea’s subsequent split into North and South Korea in 1948, following World War II, kickstarted an ever-widening gulf between the lives of South and North Koreans. While political leaders remain in a decades-long stalemate at the demilitarized zone, Korean citizens seem to live in completely different eras from each other. One is a soft power giant with one of the best standards of living in the world. The other is, well, North Korea.

South Korean and North Korean are starting to develop differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. But no matter how different the lives of Koreans are today, they all read hangul or, as the North Koreans call it, chosongul.

(Video) How Korea crafted a better alphabet - History of Writing Systems #11 (Featural Alphabet)

The way a community uses language forms a major part of its unique identity. Learn how that works for Gen Z here.

FAQs

What is the most efficient alphabet? ›

Hangul supremacy or Hangul scientific supremacy is a claim that the Hangul alphabet invented by King Sejong the Great in 1443, is the simplest, most logical, most ingenious and most scientific writing system in the world.

Is Hangul The easiest alphabet to learn? ›

Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is easy to learn.

Compared to the Japanese and Chinese writing systems, Hangul is infinitely manageable and straightforward. Hangul began as the brainchild of King Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Chosun Dynasty. At that time, the Korean language was written with Chinese characters.

Is Hangul the best alphabet? ›

The Korean alphabet of Hangeul (한글) has a legitimate claim as being the world's best writing system. Language learners and linguists widely recognize Hangeul for its intuitiveness and ease of learning.

Is Hangul efficient? ›

It was designed to be easy for everyone

This goes back to the fact that Hangul was made so that less educated people could easily read and write. The writing system therefore has ease-of-use built into its design. Today, it's one of the most logical and efficient writing systems in the world.

What is so special about Hangul? ›

Hangul is an alphabet. That is, each letter corresponds to what linguists refer to as a phoneme—essentially just an individual sound (a vowel or consonant). This differs from other writing systems, like Japanese, that are syllabaries, in which each letter represents a full syllable.

Is Korean the easiest writing system? ›

World's Easiest Writing System: Origin of Hangul (corrections in ... - YouTube

How long would it take to learn Hangul? ›

The great thing about learning Hangul is that it takes very little time. When I first came to Korea, I basically learned Hangul in 2-3 hours on the flight over. It's so easy, that if you spend just 2 or 3 hours learning it, you will already be able to read basic Konglish words like 치킨, 비어, 쥬스, etc.

Which is the most efficient language? ›

English came out on top, but not by much. Most of languages grouped pretty closely together, however, Japanese lagged behind the rest. Interestingly, the languages that conveyed the least amount of information per syllable, like Spanish, Japanese, and French, tended to be spoken at a faster rate.

What's the easiest language? ›

15 of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers - ranked
  • Frisian. Frisian is thought to be one of the languages most closely related to English, and therefore also the easiest for English-speakers to pick up. ...
  • Dutch. ...
  • Norwegian. ...
  • Spanish. ...
  • Portuguese. ...
  • Italian. ...
  • French. ...
  • Swedish.
Oct 24, 2021

What's the easiest alphabet in the world? ›

Hangul is the more phonologically faithful than many writing systems. Meaning, almost each symbol corresponds to one sound with little exception. Written left to right, the system at first glance may look like Chinese characters, but it couldn't be more different.

Is Korean language hard? ›

Although Korean might be ranked as one of the more difficult languages to learn by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), it is by no means impossible. So don't worry about the “hours” it takes to learn Korean. You can learn Korean fast — and you may even already know more Korean than you think!

Which is the hardest alphabet in the world? ›

Discover the 8 most difficult languages to learn
  1. Hindi. Script: Devanagari. ...
  2. Hungarian. Script: Latin alphabet with added accents. ...
  3. Navajo. Script: Latin alphabet, plus added letters and accents to represent unique sounds. ...
  4. Vietnamese. Script: Latin alphabet with a twist. ...
  5. Korean. ...
  6. Arabic. ...
  7. 7. Japanese. ...
  8. Mandarin Chinese.
Feb 20, 2022

Is Hangul the most scientific language? ›

The Korean writing system, the Hangeul, is considered to be the most scientific phonetic alphabet system. The late James McCawley (1938-1999), a University of Chicago linguist, once said that “Hangeul is the most ingeniously devised writing system that exists.

Which language has best script? ›

World's most popular writing scripts at a glance - style, characters and more
RankScriptType
1.LatinAlphabet
2.ChineseLogographic
3.ArabicAbjad
4.DevanagariAbugida
1 more row
Aug 23, 2021

How old is Hangul? ›

The Hangul system was developed by Sejong, fourth king of the Chosŏn dynasty, in 1443 to improve literacy. In 1446 Hangul was made the official writing system of Korea. Despite this, Hanja (Chinese characters) persisted as the main writing system of the elite class for 500 more years.

What is the original name of Hangul? ›

The Korean alphabet was originally named Hunminjeong'eum (훈민정음) by King Sejong the Great in 1443. Hunminjeong'eum (훈민정음) is also the document that explained logic and science behind the script in 1446. The name hangeul (한글) was coined by Korean linguist Ju Si-gyeong in 1912.

What is the hardest language to write? ›

Mandarin Chinese

In fact, the hardest language to write is one of the most spoken languages in the world! Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world if you are just counting native speakers, with around 918 million speakers.

Is Korean easier than Japanese? ›

Unlike other East-Asian languages, Korean isn't a tonal language. This means, that the meaning of the word doesn't change, regardless of what your accent is like. This makes learning Korean much easier than Japanese. Japanese has 46 letters in its alphabet.

Is Korean worth learning? ›

1) Korean is often considered to have the most logical writing system in the world. 2) Learning Korean gives you potential access to over 70 million native Korean speakers worldwide. 3) You definitely want to visit Korea in this lifetime. 4) Learning Korean is a way to futureproof yourself.

How many hours should I study Korean in a day? ›

You may also want to come up with a small minimum to do each day, even if it's only 5 minutes. That way, you still get some practice in but also leave yourself open to study more when you're motivated. If you're studying as a full-time student, you should aim for about 4-7 hours of study per day.

Which languages speak the fastest? ›

List of The 7 Fastest Spoken Languages in The World.
  1. 1. Japanese: Japanese is the fastest recorded language. ...
  2. Spanish: Spanish is right behind Japanese and is nearly as fast with a rate of 7.82 syllables per second.
  3. French. ...
  4. Italian. ...
  5. English. ...
  6. German. ...
  7. Mandarin.

Which language has best script? ›

World's most popular writing scripts at a glance - style, characters and more
RankScriptType
1.LatinAlphabet
2.ChineseLogographic
3.ArabicAbjad
4.DevanagariAbugida
1 more row
Aug 23, 2021

What language has the most beautiful writing? ›

Arabic. When it comes to the most beautiful written language, Arabic has to be a strong contender. The beautiful cursive script has an inherent artfulness to it.

Why is Latin alphabet so popular? ›

The spread of Western Christianity during the early Middle Ages strongly contributed to spreading the Latin script across Europe, especially in areas beyond the old Roman limes that barely had any written culture up to that point, such as Scandinavia and East Central Europe.

What is the most information dense written language? ›

That said, Chinese is most information dense per written character, and per faded ankle tattoo. Interestingly, the languages that conveyed the least amount of information per syllable, like Spanish, Japanese, and French, tended to be spoken at a faster rate.

Which language is known as queen of world scripts? ›

Amazingly, Kannada has the highest number of Janapeeta literary awards compared to any other Indian language. One of the greatest scholar, thinker, and writer, Shri Vinoba Bhave called the “Kannada” script to be the “Queen of World Scripts” that is “Vishwa Lipigala Raani” 'ವಿಶ್ವ ಲಿಪಿಗಳ ರಾಣಿ'.

What is the most complex alphabet? ›

Discover the 8 most difficult languages to learn
  1. Hindi. Script: Devanagari. ...
  2. Hungarian. Script: Latin alphabet with added accents. ...
  3. Navajo. Script: Latin alphabet, plus added letters and accents to represent unique sounds. ...
  4. Vietnamese. Script: Latin alphabet with a twist. ...
  5. Korean. ...
  6. Arabic. ...
  7. 7. Japanese. ...
  8. Mandarin Chinese.
Feb 20, 2022

Which language is richest? ›

The Top 10 Business Languages of the World in 2018 by GDP (IMF)
RankLanguageGDP($US Billions)
1English28.088
2Chinese26.56
3Spanish8.17
4Arabic7.1
6 more rows
Nov 29, 2018

What is the most unique language? ›

Pirahã: The Most Unique Language in the World
  • What's the most unique language in the world? ...
  • Pirahã lacks basic sentence structure, undermining the long-held belief that sentence structure is something that all languages have in common. ...
  • Tonality isn't the only thing that makes Pirahã so unique.

What is the most famous language? ›

Which Languages Have the Most Speakers?
RankLanguageTotal Speakers
1English1,132 million
2Mandarin Chinese1,117 million
3Hindi615 million
4Spanish534 million
6 more rows
Feb 15, 2020

Is Latin a dead language? ›

Similar to Sanskrit or Ancient Greek, Latin does not have native speakers, which qualifies it as a “Dead Language”. However, Latin had such an overwhelming prevalence in European and Western science, medicine, and literature, it may never be classified as an “Extinct Language”.

Which countries speak Latin today? ›

Top 10 Latin Speaking Countries in the World [Update 2022]
  • Mexico. Mexico is the most populous Latin-speaking country in the world. ...
  • Colombia. Colombia is indeed the second-largest Latin-speaking nation, with Latin spoken by 99 percent of the total population. ...
  • Spain. ...
  • Argentina. ...
  • Equatorial Guinea. ...
  • United States. ...
  • Brazil. ...
  • Morocco.
Sep 28, 2021

Is the letter J in the Latin alphabet? ›

J, or j, is the tenth letter in the modern English alphabet and the ISO basic Latin alphabet. Its usual name in English is jay (pronounced /ˈdʒeɪ/), with a now-uncommon variant jy /ˈdʒaɪ/.
...
J
Writing systemLatin script
TypeAlphabetic
Language of originLatin language
16 more rows

What is the fastest language? ›

1. Japanese:

Japanese is the fastest recorded language. It has a rate of 7.84 syllables per second.

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