Understanding Korea materials - Hangeul: 3.4 Letter Usage

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Understanding Korea Series No.1
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Appendix: The Philosophical Background of Hunminjeongeum 4) Letter Usage 1) Changes in the Name: From Hunminjeongeum to Hangeul

3. The Creation of Hunminjeongeum

4) Letter Usage

Hunminjeongeum haerye defines three major guidelines for the actual usage of the 28 letters of Hunminjeongeum: 1) combining the letters; 2) terminal sounds; and 3) complex letters. Hunminjeongeum haerye explains the first guideline is as follows:[1]

The three sounds, the initial, the medial, and the terminal, combine to form the complete syllable. Some of the initial sounds stand above the medial sound; some stand to the left of the medial sound ... Among the medial sounds, the round one and the horizontal ones stand below the initial sounds; these are ㆍ[ʌ], ㅡ[i], ㅗ[o], ㅜ[u], ㅛ[yo], ㅠ[yu]... The vertical ones stand at the right of the initial sound; these are ㅣ[i], ㅏ[a], ㅑ[ya], ㅓ[ə], and ㅕ[yə]... The terminal sounds stand below the initial and the medial.

As previously mentioned, Hunminjeongeum is a phonetic alphabet consisting of consonants and vowels. Generally, in a phonetic alphabet consonants and vowels are arranged linearly. However, even though Hunminjeongeum is a phonetic alphabet, it is used in syllabic blocks constructed with syllable onset, nuclei and codas. Using the letters in syllable blocks is a unique tradition still maintained today. Here are some examples:

English: Hangeul is the script that transcribes Korean.

A: ㅎㅏㄴㄱㅡㄹㅡㄴ ㅎㅏㄴㄱㅜㄱㅓㄹㅡㄹ ㅍㅛㄱㅣㅎㅏㄴㅡㄴ ㅁㅜㄴㅈㅏㅣㄷㅏ

B: 한글은 한국어를 표기하는 문자이다.

The linear arrangement of vowels and consonants in example A is typical for phonetic alphabets. The Hangeul transcription system uses B.

The second guideline can be confirmed by examining the provision ‘initial sounds are reused as terminal sounds’ in Hunminjeongeum yeuipyeon and another explanation in Hunminjeongeum haerye, ‘only the eight letters of ㄱ, ㆁ, ㄷ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㄹ can be used as terminal sounds’.

Hunminjeongeum named consonants as intial sounds and vowels as medial sounds. In view of syllable structure, the initial sound corresponds to the syllable onset, and the medial sound, the syllable nuclei. However, separate consonants for syllable codas, the final element of the syllable, were not created. Phonologically speaking, the syllable coda is a consonant; therefore, the consonants created as syllable onset can be used as syllable codas instead of creating a separate set of consonants. This was possible because it was obvious that the possible change in the consonant, when placed in the onset and coda, is related to the allomorph, not the phoneme. Consequently, all 17 consonants can be used as syllable codas in principle. This is what the first rule regarding guideline 2, ‘initial sounds are reused as terminal sounds’ means. This is still valid in the current Hangeul writing usage.

The second rule related to guideline 2, ‘only the eight letters of ㄱ, ㆁ, ㄷ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㄹ can be used as terminal sounds’ can be understood as realizing the phonological process in syllable-final consonants, or neutralization. In Korean, consonants in a syllable-final position are never released. So consonants lose the distinction among plain, tense, and aspirated in a syllable-final position. As the result, the rule indicates that the above eight consonants can represent syllable codas.

The third guideline about complex letters is also discussed in Hunminjeongeum haerye. Hunminjeongeum consists of 17 consonants and 11 vowels; however, open closer examination, letters other than these 28 are found in texts after its invention. These letters were created by combining the 28 letters of Hunminjeongeum in various methods.

There are two methods of consonant combination: Byeongseo (Horizontal Combination) and Yeonseo (Vertical Combination). In Byeongseo, two or three consonants are written side-by-side to create a different letter. In Yeonseo, two consonants are written stacked to create a different letter.

Byeonseo is divided once again into Gakja Byeongseo (Horizontal Doubling Combination) and Hapyong Byeongseo (Horizontal Combination of Different Letters). Gakja Byeongseo uses the same letter repeatedly, and Hapyong Byeongseo uses different letters. The actual examples of these letters can be found in 15th century texts translated into Hangeul. Letters created using Gakja Byeongseo are ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ, and ㆅ. These belong to wholly muddy consonant category according to Hunminjeongeum haerye. As mentioned, these were infrequently used when transcribing Korean, and in most cases were used to transcribe Chinese characters’ sounds. Letters created by Hapyong Byeongseo are ㅺ, ㅼ, ㅽ, ㅳ, ㅄ, ㅶ, ㅷ, ㅴ, and ㅵ. These were used to transcribe Korean consonant clusters or tense sounds in the 15th century.

Letters created by Yeonseo were ㅸ, ㆄ, ㅹ, and ㅱ. These were constructed by writing ‘ㅇ’ under labial ㅂ, ㅍ, ㅃ, and ㅁ. These are called light labial and mainly used to transcribe Chinese, especially the artificial readings of Chinese characters. However, ‘ㅸ’[β] was used in Korean until the end of 15th century in Korean and then disappeared.

New vowel letters were created by combining the 11 letters. Only ㅘ, ㅝ, ㆎ, ㅢ, ㅚ, ㅐ, ㅟ, ㅒ, ㅔ, ㅖ, ㅙ, and ㅞ were used in transcription of Korean. UKS01 Hangeul img 21.jpg, ㆊ, ㆉ, ㆌ, ㆈ, and ㆋ were used to transcribe the artificial readings of Chinese characters and were almost never used to transcribe Korean.


  1. Translation from Lee Ki-Moon & Ramsey (2011: 122).

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