Understanding Korea materials - Hangeul: Appendix/The Philosophical Background of Hunminjeongeum

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The Philosophical Background of Hunminjeongeum

Hunminjeongeum haerye also explains the philosophical significance behind each of the 17 consonants and 11 vowels. This explanation is generally based on the Eastern philosophy. First, five sounds of consonants are explained in four ways: five elements, five seasons, five musical sounds, and five directions. This can be summarized as follows:

Five Sounds Molars Linguals Labials Incisor Laryngeals
Five Elements Tree Fire Soil Metal Water
Five Seasons Spring Summer Last summer Autumn Winter
Five Musical Sounds Gak Chi Gung Sang U
Five Directions East South Center West North

The Yin-Yang philosophy is used to explain the vowels. ‘ㅡ’ is modeled after the Earth with the quality of ‘Yin’. Since ‘ㆍ’ is modeled after the Heaven which has the quality of ‘Yang’. For ㅜ, ㅓ, ㅠ, and ㅕ, ‘ㆍ’ is located at the bottom or inside: this means all of these vowels emerged from the earth, hence Yin. In case of ㅗ, ㅏ, ㅛ, and ㅑ, ‘ㆍ’ is placed on top and outside because these vowels emerged from the Heaven, hence Yang. This can be summarized as follows:

Yin [陰] ㅡ[i] ㅜ[u], ㅓ[ə] ㅠ[yu], ㅕ[yə]
Yang [陽] ㆍ[ʌ] ㅗ[o], ㅏ[a] ㅛ[yo], ㅑ[ya]
Neural ㅣ[i]

Classifying vowels by Yin and Yang corresponds perfectly to the phenomenon of vowel harmony opposition: vowels with Yin quality go well with each other, and vowels with Yang quality go well together. This is one of the distinctive features of Korean vowels.