The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #10 July / August 2014
Celebrations
Hangul Day
by Sonja Krüger
July / August 2014 | 

Normally, celebrations and holidays are based around religious events or seasonal occurrences. There is one that is the celebration of a new writing system for a language. It is Hangul Day, celebrated in the fall by both North and South Korea.

History

Korean has not always been written by the average citizen. Once, it was rarely written at all. When it was written, it was done so using the classical Chinese alphabet, called Hanja. This was such a complex writing system, having literally thousands of characters, that only a few people, mainly the members of the aristocratic families, had the time (it took a few years to memorize completely) and teachers to properly learn it. That also meant they were the only ones who were literate.

That changed in the 15th century. King Sejong (세종대왕) was the fourth king of the Choson Dynasty. Under his rule, Korea progressed in many ways, such as the defences against Japanese pirates and invaders from Manchuria being greatly improved.

King Sejong was a great supporter of literature, science, and technology, and so in 1420, the Jiphyeonjeon, or Hall of Worthies, a collection of scholars selected by the king, was established. One of the major assignments for these scholars was to come up with a writing system to represent the Korean language.

At the time, Korean society was extremely hierarchical, consisting of three tiers: nobles, commoners, and slaves. Under this, it was almost impossible for a slave to become free, or for any commoner to become a noble. A slave owner even had the right to kill his slaves at any time, but King Sejong outlawed that practice in 1444. Other restrictions existed, such as women could not inherit property.


Statue of Sejong the Great, the fourth king of Joseon.

The king knew that providing the country with the mass literacy, which the simpler alphabet would provide, would be a major step towards making all the citizens more equal, rather than just the power residing in the noble, literate class. The ruling aristocrats also knew the effect it would have, and strongly opposed the new Hangul alphabet. They argued with him, claiming that it was wrong to deviate from the Chinese way of doing things. Nevertheless, in 1446, Hangul was introduced to Korean society in the Hunmin Jeongeum, which outlined the new alphabet.

As it entered the culture it became used by most people, especially women and writers of popular fiction. It was also very effective at providing information among the uneducated, since the alphabet could be learned easily in a few days.

It did not instantly replace the old Chinese writing system, though, as the aristocracy worked to hard to suppress it. Indeed, after King Sejong's death in 1450, they very nearly manage to quash it. The members of the aristocracy were not the only ones who feared an educated population. The tenth king, King Yeonsangun, was very destructive to the country. Commoners mocked and insulted him with posters written in Hangul, and so he banned the use of it. His tyranny ended in a coup which placed Jungjong, his half-brother on the throne. There was a revival of Hangul in the 16th century, with new literature flourishing.

The Alphabet

The newly established Hangul consisted of 28 characters, each of these being based on a simplified diagram of the patterns made by the mouth, teeth and tongue when one made the sound related to the character. That is, they were direct representations of a spoken sound, which may be many have claimed Hangul looks like faces. The small number of characters and the simple lines makes it easier to decipher and quicker to learn than most Asian languages.

Hanja is still used on occasion in South Korea, appearing in newspaper headlines, but it is no longer used in North Korea.

The Date


A page from the Hunmin Jeongeum Eonhae, a partial translation of Hunmin Jeongeum, the original promulgation of Hangul.

While Hangul has been around for over 500 years, it has only become truly celebrated in the last century. In 1926, the Hangul Society celebrated the octo-sexagesimal (480th) anniversary of the declaration of Hangul.

They did this on November 4, which is the last day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar. The Society declared it the first observance of "Gagyanal" (가갸날), an early colloquial name for Hangul. The name of the day was changed to "Hangullal" in 1928. The date was changed to October 29th of the Gregorian calendar in 1931. It was changed again to October 28th in 1934 when the claim was made that the Julian calendar must have been the one in use in 1446.

This was challenged again in 1940 after a document was discovered showing that the Hunmin Jeongeum was announced during the first ten days of the ninth month. The tenth day of that month according to the lunar calendar in 1446 was the same as October 9th of the Julian calendar, so the date was changed to that. When the South Korean government became established in 1945, Hangul Day became a legal holiday on which all government workers were excused from work.

Just to confuse the date more, in North Korea it is celebrated on January 15th, which is considered to be the creation date of the alphabet.

Celebrations

Hangul Day remained a national holiday in South Korea until 1991. When several large corporations wanted more work days in the year, they put pressure on the government and managed to get the holiday eliminated. Efforts were made to get this overturned, and finally, on November 1st, 2012, the National Assembly voted by a huge majority to re-instate Hangul Day, starting on October 9th 2013. That means that this year will be the second year of the restarted observation.

While it is a national day, it is not a day off, so people still need to be at their jobs. There is also no single large scale, celebration, like with Mexico's Day of the Dead or Brazil's Carnival. Last year, several events related to Hangul were held at different tourist attractions and universities. Some of these were Hangul calligraphy exhibitions and writing contests. A true language lovers celebration!


 
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Celebrations - Hangul Day
Writer: Sonja Krüger
Images:
Francisco Anzola: Busy street corner (title)
Mammique at fr.wikipedia / Camille Harang: Statue of Sejong the Great
Petey: Hunmin Jeongeum Eonhae
Sources:
• "Happy Hangul Day" Emma Lee, Korea 4 Expats <http://www.korea4expats.com/news-hangul-day-history.html>
• "Hangul Day" Language Log <http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002529.html>
• "Happy Hangul Day!" Mollie Kirk <http://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/happy-hangul-day>
• "Hangul Day" Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hangul_Day>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.

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