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The Korean Alphabet

The history of the Korean alphabet begins with Chinese writing. The Chinese writing system was utilized from 108 BC to 313 BCE while the Chinese occupied North Korea.

In the 5th century, Classical Chinese was used. There were three writing systems with Chinese characters called Hyangchal, Gukyeol and Idu. Hyangchal was used for poetry and contained only Chinese characters. Idu, the official system for writing, used symbols for Korean language distinctions with Chinese characters.

The Korean alphabet, known as Hunmin Chong-um, was invented in 1443 and promulgated in 1446 under King Sejong. Literally translated Hunmin Chong-um, means "The correct sounds for the instruction of the people". Hunmin Chong-um contained 28 letters. King Sejong's objective was to provide the common people with a means to become literate. The symbols were formed by the way the mouth shapes the sounds.

Hunmin Chong-um was regarded as an alphabet for the uneducated or women. It was considered too simple in comparison to Classical Chinese or Gukyeol and Idu. Literate Koreans in eschewed the former in favor of the latter.

Four centuries later a mixture of Hunmin Chong-um and Chinese characters, Hanja, came into being. It was commonly used until the mid-20th century, when the use of Hanja decreased substantially. North Korea did not use Hanja from 1949 until its reintroduction in the late 1960's. North Korea does not, however, currently use Hanja in publications. Students in North Korea learn 2,000 Hanja characters by high school graduation. South Korean children learn 1,800 characters by graduation. South Korea publications include Hanja in differing degrees.

Today the Korean alphabet is referred to as Hangeul. There are 24 surviving letters, 16 of which are consonants, k, n, t, r or l, m, p, s or sh, ch, ch', k', t', p', h and a voiceless symbol, and 8 vowels, a, ya, o, yo, o, yo, u, yu, u, and i.

Korean spelling is complex. Words are not spelled phonetically. Symbols are written in blocks, with a vowel(s) nucleus and consonant symbols placed in front and behind the vowel nucleus. A Korean syllable has three parts consisting of the initial consonant, peak vowel and final consonant.

Korean sentences are subject-indirect object-direct object-predicate. While it is permissible for other elements to be absent, predicates are necessary and processive predicates express actions. Modifiers always go before what is modified.

Traditionally, Korean is written from right to left vertically from top to bottom. Modern Korean may be written left to right in horizontal lines.

Korean was originally an accented language but, with the exception of the far south and northeast, accents in Seoul Korean are disappearing. Accents still in use in the two regions are for distinctions of pitch and vowel length.

Spaces were inserted between words in 1896 and Korean has adopted modern English punctuation.

There are two methods for transcribing the Korean language into English: McCune-Reischauer system and Yale Romanization. The McCune-Reischauer system is popular but has limitations. Linguists prefer to use the Yale Romanization system.

Illiteracy has been almost completely eradicated in Korea.