Understanding Korea materials - Hangeul: 4.2 Changes of Letters

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Understanding Korea Series No.1
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1) Changes in the Name: From Hunminjeongeum to Hangeul 2) Changes of Letters 1) Records Written in Hangeul

4. Changes of Hangeul

2) Changes of Letters

At the time of Hunminjeongeum’s invention, there was a total of 28 basic letters, 17 consonants and 11 vowels. However the contemporary Korean orthography designates 14 consonants and 10 vowels, 24 in total, as the basic letters. This is due to the changes of the letters over time.

There were 17 basic consonant letters in the late 15th century, in which Hunminjengeum was created: ㄱ, ㅋ, ㆁ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㅌ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅍ, ㅅ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅿ, ㅇ, ㆆ, and ㅎ. Among these ㆁ, ㅿ, and ㆆ have become obsolete nowadays. So 14 basic consonant letters are in use in the contemporary Korean orthography: ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅇ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅎ.

The letters that was used in the 15th century but not in use nowadays are ㆁ, ㅿ, and ㆆ. The phonetic for ‘ㆁ’ was [ŋ]. In Korean the [ŋ] sound appears in the syllable coda position, and this sound still exists in contemporary Korean. After the 16th century, the letter representing [ŋ] sound was switched from ‘ㆁ’ to ‘ㅇ’. Consequently, the reason why ‘ㆁ’ was not in use is that the letter itself disappeared, not the sound it represented, [ŋ]. The phonetic for ‘ㅿ’ was [z], which I disappeared toward the end of the 16th century. As a result, the consonant letter representing [z], ‘ㅿ’, disappeared with it and is obsolete nowadays. The phonetic for ‘ㆆ’ was [ʔ]. ‘ㆆ’ was mainly used to transcribe the artificial readings of Chinese characters, and rarely used in Korean transcription in the 15th century. However, it became obsolete after the end of the 15th century.

Besides the basic consonant letters, the complex initials also went through change. ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, ㅆ, and ㆅ mainy transcribed the artificial readings of Chinese characters in the 15th century. But they have represented the tense sounds since the 20th century. ㅳ, ㅄ, ㅶ, ㅷ, ㅴ, and ㅵ gradually died out after the 17th century. ㅺ, ㅼ, ㅽ became obsolete since the 20th century. ㅸ was the only letter used in transcribing Korean among letters created by the Yeonseo method, yet it became obsolete after the end of the 15th century.

Accommodating the aforementioned consonant changes the contemporary Korean orthography designates ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅇ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅎ as the 14 basic consonants, and ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, and ㅆ as consonants representing tense sounds as below:

<Table 5> Contemporary Korean Consonants
Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Obstruent Plosive Plain ㅂ[p] ㄷ[t] ㄱ[k]
Aspirated ㅍ[ph] ㅌ[th] ㅋ[kh]
Tense ㅃ[p’] ㄸ[t’] ㄲ[k’]
Fricative Plain ㅅ[s]
Aspirated ㅎ[h]
Tense ㅆ[s’]
Affricate Plain ㅈ[ʧ]
Aspirated ㅊ[ʧh]
Tense ㅉ[ʧ’]
Sonorant Nasal ㅁ[m] ㄴ[n] ㅇ[ŋ]
Liquid ㄹ[l]

Hunminjeongeum has 11 basic vowels: ㆍ, ㅡ, ㅣ, ㅗ, ㅏ, ㅜ, ㅓ, ㅛ, ㅑ, ㅠ, and ㅕ. Among them, ‘ㆍ’ became obsolete in the contemporary Korean transcription. The contemporary Korean orthography designates the following 10 letters as basic vowels: ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ, ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ, ㅡ, and ㅣ. ‘ㆍ’ represented the [ʌ] sound in the 15th century. But after the 16th century, the sound [ʌ] started disappearing in the second syllable of the word or under the word and, from the mid 18th century, it began disappearing in the first syllable of the word as well. As a result, ‘ㆍ[ʌ]’ tended to be replaced with ‘ㅡ[i]’ and sometimes with ‘ㅏ[a]’ or ‘ㅗ[o]’ depending on the vocabulary. Although the sound [ʌ] disappeared from the Korean phonological system, the letter ‘ㆍ’ survived until the beginning of 20th century. This is due to the slower pace of change in the script compared to that of language, the so-called ‘conservatism of script’. The letter ‘ㆍ’ ultimately vanished after the adoption of the contemporary Korean orthography in the early 20th century.

As mentioned in Chapter Two, as with consonants, some new vowels were created by combining two out of the 11 basic vowels. ㅘ, UKS01 Hangeul img 22.jpg, ㅝ, ㆊ, ㆎ, ㅢ, ㅚ, ㅐ, ㅟ, ㅔ, ㆉ, ㅒ, ㆌ, ㅖ, ㅙ, ㅞ, ㆈ, and ㆋ are some examples. Nevertheless, most of these have gradually disappeared or transformed, and only ㅐ, ㅒ, ㅔ, ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, and ㅢ are still in use in the contemporary Korean. UKS01 Hangeul img 22.jpg, ㆊ, ㆉ, ㆉ, ㆌ, ㆈ, and ㆋ were rarely used in 15th century Korean transcription and have since vanished. ‘ㆎ’ was formed by combining ‘ㆍ[ʌ]’ and ‘ㅣ[i]’, and the phonetic was [ʌy]. As discussed above, due to the dissolution and transformation of ‘ㆍ[ʌ]’ after the 16th century, ‘ㆎ’ was replaced by ‘ㅐ’ and became obsolete.

As the result of these transformations, only ㅐ, ㅒ, ㅔ, ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, and ㅢ are still being used in the contemporary Korean. In the case of ㅐ, ㅔ, ㅚ, and ㅟ the sounds they represented in the 15th century are different from those today. Until the 16th century, ‘ㅐ, ㅔ’ were diphthongs representing [ay] and [əy], but after the 17th century, they transformed into monothongs, and they represent [ɛ] and [e] in the contemporary Korean. ㅐ and ㅔ are examples of letters that survived even though their phonetics have changed.

ㅚ and ㅟ were diphthongs and represented [oy] and [uy] until the 16th century, but after the 17th century, they began to be pronounced as monothongs, [ö] and [ü]. Unlike ㅐ and ㅔ, in the contemporary Korean, ㅚ and ㅟ are not pronounced as complete monothongs in some cases. Depending on the area and generation using them or the phonological environment in which they appear, ㅚ and ㅟ are pronounced as either monothongs, [ö] and [ü] or diphthongs [we] and [wi]. Because of these, the Korean Pronunciation Standard Rules article 4 of the Standard Korean Regulations designated ㅏ, ㅐ, ㅓ, ㅔ, ㅗ, ㅚ, ㅜ, ㅟ, ㅡ, and ㅣ as monothongs yet added a provision that allows pronunciation of ㅚ and ㅟ as diphthongs.

Accommodating the aforementioned transformations in the vowels, the contemporary Korean orthography designates 10 vowels, ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ, ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ, ㅡ, and ㅣ as basic vowels, and further designates ㅐ, ㅒ, ㅔ, ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, and ㅢ as additional vowels. These vowels can be divided into monothongs and diphthongs according to their phonetics. The following table illustrates the contemporary Korean vowels according to their phonological features and the phonetic each represents.

<Table 6> The Monothong System of the Contemporary Korean
Front Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
High ㅣ[i] ㅟ[ü] ㅡ[i] ㅜ[u]
Mid ㅔ[e] ㅚ[ö] ㅓ[ə] ㅗ[o]
Low ㅐ[ɛ] ㅏ[a]

<Table 7> The Diphthong System of the Contemporary Korean
Rising ㅑ[ya], ㅕ[yə], ㅛ[yo], ㅠ[yu] ㅒ[yɛ], ㅖ[ye]
ㅘ[wa], ㅝ[wə], ㅙ[wɛ] ㅞ[we]
Falling ㅢ[iy]

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