Photo: Hunminjeongeum Hyeryebon, the book that explains how the new alphabet works. c. 1446. Credit: National Hangeul Museum.
October 9 was Hangeul Day 한글날, a holiday established by Korea’s independence fighters in 1932 to celebrate the Korean alphabet. It is the only national holiday in the world that celebrates an alphabet. Hangeul was invented in 1446 by King Sejong the Great 세종대왕 to give relief to Koreans who at the time relied solely on Chinese characters for writing, leaving most of the population illiterate. More than six centuries later, Koreans continue the debate: how necessary is it to learn Chinese characters?
Similar to the ancestral relationship between English and Latin, a significant proportion of Korean originates from classical Chinese, and can be written in Chinese characters. Out of the 422,890 entries in the Standard Korean Language Dictionary 표준국어대사전, the most authoritative Korean language dictionary published by the National Institute of Korean Language 국립국어원, 56% of the words are Sino-Korean, or Korean words derived from Chinese. To this day, many newspapers use Chinese characters in their headlines for brevity, and pointing out the Chinese characters often clarifies the meaning of homophones or similar-sounding words. (For example, such as 결제 決濟, “to pay” and 결재 決裁, “to approve”.)
In a Gallup Korea poll conducted in Week 1, October 2022, 46% said not knowing Chinese characters was inconvenient in everyday life, a significant drop from 70% who answered the same 20 years ago, in 2002. Along the same lines, 48% said they favored hangeul-only writing and opposed a mixed use of hangeul and Chinese characters, an increase from 33% in 2002. Notably, the differences in age and education level did not correlate with a meaningful difference in the responses.
Nevertheless, most Koreans agreed that Chinese characters should be taught in school. Although fewer Koreans favor using Chinese characters in writing and feel any inconvenience in only using Hangeul, 78% said elementary and middle school students should learn Chinese characters as a part of their curriculum.