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The King’s Letters

Before the 15th century, Korean existed as a spoken language only. Korean writing used Chinese characters, which limited literacy to the elite class who could spend years learning the thousands of pictograms. Then in the 1430s, a scholar came up with an idea to develop a Korean alphabet based on the sounds of the spoken language. Once the alphabet was learned, writing would become accessible to the masses. It was an idea that scared the wits out of the ruling elite class.   

“What do you know of language and linguistics?” the bold scholar asked of several high-ranking officials who objected to his idea. “This project is for the people, and if I don’t do it, who will?” The scholar was none other than Sejong, the king of Korea, who had held the throne since 1418. His profoundly democratic conviction that literacy ought to be accessible to everyone was revolutionary in every sense. When King Sejong unveiled Hangul—his new alphabet for the Korean language—it was met with vehement opposition from Sejong’s advisors, from the literary elite, and from subsequent monarchs. For these objectors, Hangul was barbaric, it was primitive, it was unnecessary, it was an insult, and it needed to be eliminated.

Nevertheless, Sejong was the king, and his alphabet was developed. Still, the powerful bureaucrats of Korea fought its adoption for centuries. The history of Hangul is a fascinating story told at Damn Interesting.

(Image credit: Republic of Korea)


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