Understanding Korea materials - Hangeul: 2. Transcription of Korean Using Chinese Characters

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Understanding Korea Series No.1
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Appendix: Korean and the Altaic Family 2. Transcription of Korean Using Chinese Characters 1) King Sejong and Hunminjeongeum

2. Transcription of Korean Using Chinese Characters

The major influx of Chinese characters into Korea began around 108 BC. Until the invention of Hunminjeongeum, Korea had to use Chinese characters to transcribe Korean, since no native writing system existed. This system of using Chinese character’s sound and meaning to transcribe Korean is referred to as chajapyogi (借字表記; literally “borrowing Chinese characters transcription”).

Take the noun phrase ‘去隱春’ (interpreted as “past spring”) for an example to understand how Chinese characters had been used in the chajapyogi system:

Chinese characters:
Sound/meaning: [kə]/“to pass” [in]/“to hide” [chun]/“spring”
Borrowing: “to pass” [in] “spring”
Korean: [ka] [in] [pom]
pass.V REL spring.N

The chajapyogi system was used for transcription of words and sentences of Korean. Transcriptions of words with borrowed characters are found in nouns, especially proper nouns such as names of places, persons, and titles. Transcription of sentences with borrowed characters is classified into three types: Hyangchal, Idu, and Gugyeol. But they have three differences.

First, unlike Hyangchal and Idu that use the original form of Chinese characters, Gugyeol sometimes borrowed fragments of Chinese characters for transcriptions. For example, a Gugyeol character ‘UKS01 Hangeul img 7.jpg’ was used as a genitive marker. The presumed original character of it is a Chinese character ‘叱’. A Gugyeol character ‘UKS01 Hangeul img 8.jpg’ was used as a stem of verb “do”, and its presumed original character is a Chinese character ‘爲’. Secondly, Hyangchal and Idu were used for transcription of lexical elements and grammatical elements. But Gugyeol were used for transcription was used for transcription of grammatical elements only. This difference appeared because Gugyeol was the method designed for helping interpret the Chinese text. So unlike Hyangchal and Idu, Gugyeol left the original Chinese text intact, and added characters corresponding to grammatical elements of Korean. Lastly, Hyangchal, Idu, and Gugyeol were found in different kinds of texts. Hyangchal was found in Hyangga, the vernacular poetries of the Shilla period (57 BC~935AD); Idu was mainly used for technical writings; Gugyeol was found in primarily in Buddhist scriptures of the Goryeo period (918~1392).

Hyangchal, Idu, and Gugyeol were highly systematic methods of transcription, and had been used for a long time. But they had inherent disadvantage, namely using Chinese characters. A lot of Koreans, except for the upper class, could not read and write Chinese characters, so they had difficulty in understanding books and documents written by the chajapyogi system, as well as Chinese characters. Hence, the invention of Hunminjeongeum was a triumph for the Korean people.

Understanding Korea Series No.1 Hangeul

Foreword · Acknowledgments

1. Korean Language and Hangeul in East Asia · Appendix: Korean and the Altaic Family

2. Transcription of Korean Using Chinese Characters

3. The Creation of Hunminjeongeum · 3.1 King Sejong and Hunminjeongeum · Appendix: King Sejong and Jiphyeonjeon(The Academy of Worthies) · 3.2 The Design Principles of Hunminjeongeum Letters · Appendix: Various Hypotheses on the Creation of Hunminjeongeum · Appendix: Special Features of the Korean Alphabet(called Hunminjeoneum or Hangeul) · 3.3 The Phonological Features of the 28 Letters of Hunminjeongeum · Appendix: The Philosophical Background of Hunminjeongeum · 3.4 Letter Usage

4. Changes of Hangeul · 4.1 Changes in the Name: From Hunminjeongeum to Hangeul · 4.2 Changes of Letters

5. History of Hangeul Usage · 5.1 Records Written in Hangeul · 5.2 Establishment of Korean Orthography · Appendix: Korean Romanization · 5.3 The Script Reform: Mixed Script to Hangeul-only Script

6. Hangeul Now

Reference · Glossary · Sources · About the Author