Photo by Jay P. Lee

If you ask anyone what the single greatest innovation to come out of Korea is, you’re likely to hear many responses – hallyu, kimchi, Samsung’s blazingly fast Galaxy Note, “Sandglass”, the towering masterpiece of Korean television drama that transfixed an entire nation back in 1995, or even Kakao Talk, the amazing mobile messenger service I couldn’t imagine living without. But by far the most notable intellectual achievement in Korean history was the creation of hangeul, the Korean writing system. The ease with which hangeul can be learned has been credited with the high literacy rate in Korea. And unlike some other Asian languages, hangeul ingeniously accommodates itself to computer and handphone keyboards. The Korean alphabet was even unofficially adopted by a town in Indonesia to write the local dialect. Hangeul was a truly democratizing force in Korea, but it initially met with overt hostility (it was considered so dangerous that it was banned by two kings during the Joseun dynasty), and some five hundred years would pass before the writing system as we now know it would be universally adopted. While linguists generally praise the script’s elegant design, many misperceptions persist, including the true origins of the writing system, and there is controversy concerning the correct Romanization of hangeul. And just last year, accusations of “hangeul nationalism” erupted when a fourth grade ethics textbook exalted hangeul as the “the world’s most superior writing system”. We will be looking at hangeul’s turbulent history in the weeks to come, so stay tuned!

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