I’m going to cheat and set this post as published on October 9, 2014 (even though it’s really October 13 here shhhh) because that day was Hangeul Day!
I have so much admiration for King Sejong. He took the problem of illiteracy into his own royal, ink-stained hands and literally created a whole new alphabet so his subjects would be educated. Are our nations’ leaders even half as proactive these days? I think not.
So what exactly is Hangeul Day?
October 9, 1446 is the purported date of the publication of 訓民正音 [훈민정음]. Considered one of UNESCO’s World Heritage records, 훈민정음 is the official document detailing King Sejong’s new script and the reasons behind its creation.
What does the title mean? Once again the Hanja tells you the entire story.
- 訓 [가르칠 훈] = to teach
- 民 [백성 민] = commoners
- 正 [바를 정] = pronunciation
- 音 [소리 음] = sound
Put that all together and in English you get something like “Instruction on Pronunciation for the Common People.”
Hangeul as we know it and use it today has 24 자모 or characters (14 consonants and 10 vowels). But back when Sejong wrote the 훈민정음 during the 25th year of his reign, Hangeul actually had 28 자모 – 17 consonants and 11 vowels. Over the centuries, as the language evolved, four characters slipped quietly into extinction. 한글날 made me strangely nostalgic for these letters.
I first learned about these 옛한글 (old Hangeul) characters from my dear friend (and ex-language partner) Kwang-im and was really curious about what they looked like and how they were pronounced. So after some researching and digging around, this is what I found.
ㅿ[반시옷]: It’s a sound that is made between your teeth and the tip of your tongue, closest to the English ‘z’ sound. It went extinct during the Imjin War (1592).
ㆁ[옛이응]: This is pronounced likeㅇ but was written little tick mark (꼭지) on the top. I think the usage between ㅇ and ㆁis actually different in terms of when one is used as 받침 verus another, but that’s something I still need to read about and clarify! It went extinct around the 17th century.
ㆆ [여린 히읗]: This character was created specifically to in order to pronounce Hanja. I’m… actually not sure how exactly it’s pronounced. It didn’t have a really prominent role in spoken language so it went extinct during the 15th century.
ㆍ[아래아]: It’s really just a dot! And for a character that looks so simple, I honestly can’t even fathom the sound in my head. It’s a mix between basically all the other Korean vowels but closest to a sound that lies midway between ㅗ and ㅏ. Unsurprisingly, a sound that complex went extinct quickly but the script remained in use until 1933. Supposedly some inhabitants of Jeju Island still use it to this day.
Naturally, the four ‘extinct’ 홑낱자 (single 자모) means there’s a whole bunch of ‘extinct’ 겹낱자, or double (think the ㅄ in 값), and even triple 자모 , as well!
A while back I remember reading something about historical dramas and how even in the most historically accurate ones, the way the actors speak isn’t necessarily how people really spoke back in the Joseon Era. Not just in terms intonation and grammar. The lost characters of 옛한글 is evidence that even pronunciation was different back in those days.
Why did these specific characters go extinct? As with any language, Korean is constantly evolving. The way words are pronounced keeps changing and sounds blend into one another. Just think about how difficult it is for the untrained ear to pick out the difference between 애 and 에 these days! Words and sounds that are rarely used die out and are replaced. Society seeks to optimize both speed and efficiency when it comes to spoken and written language; of course, the definitions of speed/efficiency change over time too as technology evolves.
I am, without a doubt, a purist when it comes to language. It pains me to see lost words and alphabets, but language isn’t static. Understanding how and why it changes is just as rewarding as understanding its past.