Hangul, the Korean alphabet was a project promoted by Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty.
During his reign he set up a group of specially selected scholars called the Hall of Worthies. They were involved with publishing a lot of scholarly and scientific writings and because of their contribution to Korean culture this time period is widely regarded as the golden age of Korean history.
The most well-known accomplishment of the Hall of Worthies was the Hunmin Jeongeum. Translated as “the correct/proper sounds for the instruction of the people”, this document described the brand new Korean alphabet that later became known as Hangul.
The Hunmin Jeongeum was published on October 9, 1446 and that day is celebrated as Hangul Day in South Korea.
Another document called the Hunmin Jeong-eum Haerye (translated as the Hunmin Jeong-eum Explanation and Examples) explains how the consonants were designed after the shapes the mouth makes when saying the letters while the vowels were designed after the principles of yin and yang.
King Sejong decided that the Korean people needed a new alphabet because the Korean language was fundamentally different from Chinese.
Until this point all Korean was written in Chinese characters known as Hanja which were very difficult for common people to read and write. In fact, before the invention of Hangul the majority of Koreans were illiterate.
Hangul was designed so that even commoners would be able to read and write and as you might imagine this caused problems for the literary elite. Many scholars and aristocrats believed that Hanja was the only legitimate writing system and saw Hangul as a threat to their status.
Because Hangul was so easy to learn and easy to use to spread information the tenth king Yeonsangun banned the study and use of Hangul and banned all documents written in Hangul. Hangul later saw a revival in the last 16th century however.
In the 19th century there was increased Korean nationalism which led to an increase in the use of Hangul.
Western missionaries also promoted Hangul in schools and in 1894 Hangul was adopted for official documents.
In 1895 elementary schools started using Hangul in their textbooks and in 1896 the first newspaper was printed in both Hangul and English.
During the Colonial Rule in 1910 the official language of Korea became Japanese. However, Hangul was still taught in Korean schools and once public schooling became mandatory for children the majority of Korea started learning Hangul.
The characters were somewhat standardized in 1912 with a few changes being made in 1930.
A man named Ju Sigyeong came up with the term Hangul which means “Great Script” in 1912.
In 1938 the Korean language was banned in schools as part of a policy of cultural assimilation. Later, in 1941 all publications written in the Korean language were outlawed.
After Korea’s independence from colonial rule in 1946 Hangul was brought back and North Korea even tried to add a few new letters.
In 1949 North Korea made Hangul it’s official writing system and banned the use of Hanja completely.
In South Korea Hangul remains the official writing system however in some cases Hanja characters are still used.