EDIT Writing System Hangul is the Korean writing system. It was devised by a group of scholars working on behalf of the Korean King Sejong the Great (born 1397) in the years between 1443 and 1446 .
Originally, Hangul had 28 characters, 24 of which are still in use today. They are comprised of 14 consonants and 10 vowels that are also used to create diphthongs and sharp sounds. These characters are called Jamo.
The shape of the vowels is based on philosophical considerations (cosmos, earth and man) whereas the shape of the consonants reflects the shape of the mouth during the creation of the sounds.
Syllables are created by a combination of either two or three Jamo that always follow the structure of consonant-vowel(-consonant). They are written in a block-shape that's evocative of the appearance of Chinese characters. The sequence of writing within the block (syllable) is always left-to-right first, then top-to-bottom. The syllables are written in a row, words are divided by spaces.
Traditionally, the writing direction complied with the Chinese one and created rows from top to bottom, but western influence caused a gradual change to horizontal lines, written left to right. There is no distinction between upper and lower case. Punctuation is used similarly to Western writing, as are numbers.
Orthography is handled differently in North- and Southkorea and the phonetic character of this writing system makes standardisation very difficult. Transcription of the language into Latin characters is very complicated as well, and various standards were devised, the most well-known of which is the McCune-Reischauer system.
EDIT Hangul and Unicode The Hangul script is encoded in the Unicode in three different blocks. This is quite exceptional. It does happen that a block gets »extended« (as seen with Latin or Greek) but the various Hangul blocks are comprised only of characters (or syllable-combinations thereof) that have in principle already been encoded in Hangul Jamo.
The blocks are Hangul Jamo (U+1100 to U+11FF), Hangul Compatibility Jamo (U+3130 to U+318F) and Hangul Syllables (U+AC00 to U+D7AF).
Hangul Jamo contains all character-variations (created out of and including the 28 base-characters) that are used to build a syllable. »Jamo« means »mother of a character«, and one Jamo is comparable to one character in Latin script. The block is also called the »Ganada-order« according to the first three letters of the script.
The second block, Hangul Compatibility Jamo (U+3130 - U+318F, contains just characters that are already encoded in the Hangul Jamo block. But unlike the Hangul Jamo, no semantic properties have been encoded for the Hangul Compatibility Jamo and they cannot be used for ordinary writing. This block exists for the sole purpose of backwards compatibility of the Unicode with the Korean Hangul-characterset KS C 5601, that was encoded according to to the Korean Hangul-in-Un ix industrial norm KS C 5861-1992 (this industrial norm is also known as EUC-KR; the EUC is a procedure developed by AT&T that makes the parallel use of different fontcharts possible).
Hangul Syllables (U+AC00 - U+D7AF) is the third block and contains complete syllables composed out of Hangul Jamo. In all possible variations that makes for the number of 11.172 syllables, also known as the »Johab-Set«. There is a debate going on on whether it was necessary to encode all those syllables. Since they are all just combined Hangul Jamo it would also have been possible to have them created on the fly with more sophisticated treatment by the software processing the characters and fonts.
EDIT History of Hangul How the Hangul script came to be is unprecedented in the world. As opposed to the usual gradual evolving Hangul was invented between 1443 and 1446 by a group of scholars working for the Korean King Sejong the Great who had assigned them with the invention of an independent new writing system. Today, Hangul is still considered one of the most logical and scientific scripts to exist.
Before the invention of Hangul, the Korean people had no own script and Chinese characters, known as Hanja, were used. Lessons in Hanja were exclusively held for male members of the nobility, so most of the Koreans were effictively illiterate. Another problem was that there's no relation beteen the Korean and the Chinese language at all and both use completely different structures, which makes the Chinese characters all but unsuitable for writing Korean. They were used as a kind of semantical and phonetical symbols and there were two ways to do that. One way was to use Hanja that had roughly the same meaning in Korean as they had in the Chinese language. The administrative language Idu however used a different approach. Here Hanja were chosen where the sound of the associated Chinese word sounded like a Korean word that this character would then represent.
King Sejong the Great was the fourth king of the Li dynasty and the king most concerned with the well-being and independence of his people. To further their independence he established in 1443 a committee at the Chiphyonjon, a royal academic institution, that had the task of inventing a unique Korean script based on exact observations of the language and ways of speaking. Their work was finished in 1446. The name of the new script was »Hunminjongum«, which means »correct letters for the education of the people«. A book was published which in detail described the script and the rules of how to apply it, called »Hunminjongumhaerye«, and teachers were sent around the country to explain the script to the people. It consisted of 28 characters, 17 consonants and 11 vowels, 24 of which are still in use today.
The people were happy, but the nobility, namely the literate male members of it, rejected the new script. They used derisive names for it like »Onmun« (script for the ordinary crowd), »Amgeul« (women's script) oder »Ahageul« (children's script).
Directly after Sejongs death, though, the leading mandarin class banned the new script again, because it enabled the people to read and write, thus making it harder for the leading class to control them. It took til 1894 for the script to become official writing system again during the Kabo Reform.
After the annexation of Korea by Japan the Korean script was suppressed again. In 1911, the order was given to use Japanese language and writing, which effectively meant a ban of Korean script and language. For the Korean restistance movement the fight for their own script as a representation of the cultural identity of Korea had a very high priority, and so in 1912 the academic Ju Si-gyeong renamed the script »Hangul«, it means »great letters« or »great script« and at the same time »Korean script«. Also October 9th, the supposed day of the introduction of the script by sejong the Great in 1446, was introduced as »Hangul day«. it is still celebrated today.
It took until the liberation of Korea in 1945 for Hangul to be allowed to be freely used again. Today, about 80 million people use Hangul and it is ranked 12th in frequency of use worldwide.
EDIT Typography There is a multitude of fonts for hangul, and most operating systems have a least one font with the Hangul Jamo installed. The Arial Unicode font features all Korean characters and syllables, to have a font include all syllables is not so common and usually only happens with specialised fonts that also include Japanese or chinese characters.
The trend is to use more »sans-serif« fonts, which in this case means the avoidance of the brush-stroke aesthetic and the loss of beginning- and endstrokes that are not part of the actual character.
One of the most popular freefont set is the baekmuk, it includes various fonts in different styles.
EDIT The Korean Language was made the official language during the Korya-dynasty. In North Korea the language is called Chosono, in South Korea Hangugeo or Hangugmal. Worldwide there are about 80 million people speaking Korean. Apart from Korea, there are large groups in Japan, China, the USA and parts of the former Soviet Union.
Although Korean contains many Chinese loan words the languages are not related. It is hard to classify Korean, and it is unclear if there is a genetic relation to Japanese, if it is a seperate language group or if it belongs to the Ural-Altaic languages, members of which are also Mongolian, Finnish and Hungarian.
The Korean language has about seven different dialects that are named by the province where they are spoken with an additional »mal« (»language«) at the end. The dialects are actually quite similar and differ mainly in the way the words are stressed.
Korean has an agglutinating, which means assembling, sentence structure. Words are not declined but changed by prefixes and suffixes. Nouns have no sex and verbs are conjugated according to tense.
Politeness and status are very important factors in the Korean society, and that is reflected in the use of the language. The conjugation of verbs does not only depend on the tense, but also on factors like: does your conversational partner have a social rank similar to your own or is it higher or lower? and which status does a third person you are talking about have? There are seven different levels of courtesy which already leads to fourteen different flections of a verb.
This obviously makes it very hard to learn the Korean language, just understanding the various significancies in matters of social rank will be very hard to comprehend for anyone who hasn't grown up with them.