“A WISE man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a lesser man can learn them in the space of ten days,” says the Hun min jeong eum* Hae-rye (“Hun min jeong eum Explanation and Examples”). King Sejong invented the Korean alphabet, Han-geul (han refers to “Korean” and geul refers to “script”), to provide a means of writing for the illiterate. It was designed to be easy to learn and write even for the commoners of the day, and the underlying principles of Han-geul make it adequate for word processing even in the context of modern technology. Geoffrey Sampson, a renowned English linguist, evaluated Han-geul as “one of the great intellectual achievements of mankind.” On a wider scale, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes the linguistic significance of Han-geul by conferring the King Sejong Literary Prize to government and non-governmental organizations that contribute to the strive for literacy. What is it about Han-geul that garners praise from renowned linguists and organizations around the world?
The basics of Han-geul
Han-geul is a writing system that consists of a set of basic 14 consonants and 10 vowels and their respective variations. The consonants are modeled after the five shapes that the articulatory organs make while pronouncing them, and the vowels are visually inspired by the three elements—heaven, earth, and man—that comprise the universe based on the eastern philosophy of cheon-ji-in (cheon refers to “heaven,” ji refers to “earth,” and in refers to “man”)**. Conjoining simple anatomical and philosophical elements to create a comprehensive linguistic system, the natural construction of Han-geul is illustrative of its artistic and scientific value.
The principle of simplicity pertaining to the formation of words through Han-geul also demonstrates its merit as an economical linguistic system. Han-geul is a phonogram, which means that each written symbol represents a particular sound**. Compared to the previous writing system in Korea, which required its users to memorize several hundred Chinese characters to be able to write even the most basic expressions, Han-geul utilizes a simpler combination of consonants and vowels.
Another remarkable structural formula behind the system is the principle of adding strokes**, which renders Han-geul even more scientifically efficient and adept at fast communication. Fundamental shapes and lines form the basis of all the characters of Han-geul. Consonants with similar composition can be categorized into groups, in which they are differentiated from each other only in terms of the number of strokes each requires. This feature facilitated the introduction and subsequent evolution of unique configurations of Han-geul on computer and mobile keyboards. Due to limited space on most keyboards, linguistic components must be tactically placed, able to compound the entirety of the Korean lexicon without the aid of a secondary input system. Had it not been for the invention of an indigenous system, Korean users would have to type in Chinese characters with Pinyin: the romanization of Chinese characters. The architecture of Han-geul guarantees its autonomy from a secondary input system, which can bestow significant advantages in the field of language technology.
Han-geul’s computer keyboard
In 1949, the first Han-geul keyboard was introduced using the se-beol-sik system (se refers to “three”). Under this system, the keyboard is divided into three sections—the initial consonant, the medial vowel, and the final consonant—based on the way characters are grouped together into a syllable*** in Han-geul. After the invention of a se-beol-sik keyboard, other keyboards were gradually introduced, such as the nae-beol-sik keyboard (naerefers to “four”), followed by the du-beol-sik keyboard (du refers to “two”)****. After the consecutive release of several types of Han-geul keyboards, the du-beol-sik keyboard was set as the national standard during the Chun Doo-hwan regime*****.
Unlike the se-beol-sik keyboard, the du-beol-sik keyboard is split into only two sections—the initial consonant and the medial vowel. Developments in Korean orthography led to the initial and final consonants becoming indistinguishable (with the exception of some consonants which are only used as either initial or final consonants), and the du-beol-sik keyboard accordingly merged the two groups of consonants into one section******. The simplification of the keyboard made it easier to memorize its layout; however, grouping initial and final consonants together on the keyboard significantly lowered its efficiency when it came to typing*******. The se-beol-sik keyboard allows users to type a syllable by pressing a sequence of two or three keys—an initial consonant, a medial vowel, and a final consonant—simultaneously, as the software can recognize and place the consonants in the right order*****. In contrast, it is impossible to press more than one key at a time in a du-beol-sik keyboard due to the grouping of the consonants, which slows down the typing speed.
Furthermore, the du-beol-sik keyboard makes the user susceptible to typing errors as exemplified by the do ggae bi bul phenomenon: when the syllable does not have a final consonant, the initial consonant of the next syllable momentarily shifts under the previous syllable as a final consonant*****. This error occurs in the du-beol-sik keyboard because it disregards the fundamental principle behind Han-geul’s syllable composition.
Still, the du-beol-sik keyboard is more widely used by Koreans compared to the se-beol-sik keyboard. Because the se-beol-sik keyboard has more keys than the du-beol-sik keyboard, established users of the latter are often reluctant to memorize an unfamiliar keyboard layout*******. In addition, the du-beol-sik keyboard is more compatible with the English QWERTY keyboard because it also consists of three rows, unlike the se-beol-sikkeyboard employing four rows. Practicality is one of the representative axioms of Han-geul, and thus the debate between du-beol-sik keyboards and se-beol-sik keyboards continues to this day.
Han-geul’s mobile character input system
With the widespread use of mobile devices, Han-geul’s formative principles have been applied to twelve-button mobile phone keypads, underscoring the efficiency of Han-geul as a versatile writing system worthy of global attention. When it comes to using an English keyboard, a virtual keyboard is displayed onscreen in the same layout as a PC keyboard, but in a smaller size to fit the screen. If not, the 26 letters of the alphabet are compressed into a 3*4 keypad in which each key must stand for three to four letters. These two types of keyboards for mobile devices pose varying degrees of inconvenience for their users. In contrast, there are many efficient Han-geul mobile keypads that serve as alternatives to the miniature computer keyboard design.
The 3*4 Han-geul keypads were initially introduced during the flip phone generation, prior to the mass commercialization of smartphones********. Telecommunication companies had respective keypad designs pre-installed into their devices, which led to a competition to devise the most user-friendly layout. The most notable rivalry was between Samsung’s cheon-ji-in keyboard and LG’s na-rat-geul keyboard. The cheon-ji-in layout includes keys for each class of similar consonants and the three elements (ㅣ, ㅡ, ㆍ) that can be used to “create” vowels. The user has the capacity to make a new vowel or modify the consonants by adding strokes. For example, when the user double-clicks the “ㄱ” key, this adds one more stroke to form the consonant “ㅋ.” On the other hand, the na-rat-geul keypad has two specialized functional keys: a stroke-adding key and a key that shifts a single consonant to a double consonant. In the case of vowels, the na-rat-geul keypad includes keys for basic vowels which the user can modify through the stroke-adding key; one can shift the “ㅏ” vowel to “ㅑ” with a press of a key.
The introduction of smartphones with large capacitive touchscreens enabled users to freely select and download their preferred virtual keyboards, and cleared a path for the involvement of third parties other than the incumbent telecommunication companies. Since then, the production of mobile keypads has diverged in two directions: the modification of existing keypad layouts by mobile operators, and the invention of new designs by third parties such as Google. Although the various keyboard designs are credited to different companies, their common goal is to appropriately reflect Han-geul’s formative principles and to reduce the number of double and triple taps.
* * *
Han-geul was designed to be a writing system that would liberate the common people from illiteracy. In the information age, its scientific excellence has been acknowledged by the public as it proves to be adaptable to diversifying keyboard designs. Set side by side with other languages, Han-geul stands out as a writing system that lends itself to flexible rearrangement to suit different layouts both on PC keyboards and on the mobile screen. From spoken language to paper, and from paper to the digital screen, Han-geul reaffirms its status as a timeless invention able to meet the communicational demands of the ages.
*Hun min jeong eum: A Sino-Korean term that is synonymous with Han-geul, which refers to the Korean alphabet; Hun-min means “to instruct the people” and Jeong-eum means “correct sound.”
**National Institute of Korean Language
***A syllable in Han-geul is a combination of phonemes—the initial consonant, the medial vowel, and the final consonant—written as separate blocks, such as 한 (han) and 글 (geul).
****Official website of the National Han-geul Museum
*****Oct. 8, 2009, The Han-kyo-reh
******Pratt, Rutt, Hoare, 1999. Korea: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary. Routledge.
*******March 11, 2013, IT Cho-sun
********July 20, 2017, IT Dong-a