From disdained to revered scriptOn Nov. 4, 1926, the members of the Korean Language Society and Shinminsa, an academic society, held a memorial ceremony to celebrate the octo-sexagesimal (480th) anniversary of the declaration of the Hunminjeongeum, the original promulgation of Hangul. Participants declared it the first observance of “Gagya Day,” based on a mnemonic recitation beginning “ga-gya-geo-gyeo,” like another phonetic symbol, the Roman alphabet. However, the ceremony for Gagya Day ended that year, because the Korean Language Society decided to use “Hangul” instead of “gagya,” on the occasion of the publication of its organization magazine called Hangul, as the official word for the Korean alphabet.
Even though King Sejong tried to make Hangul the most effective means to describe the sound of the Korean language, the script could not be applied for all written materials. Chinese characters were still overwhelmingly used. The King himself humbly named his invention “jeongeum,” meaning right sound, rather than “jeongja,” meaning right characters.
Therefore, Hangul was given the following different names by those who preferred the Chinese characters: eonmun (vernacular script), bangeul (indecent script) and amkeul (script for slow females). As banmal, meaning indecent speech, was only allowed to be used by young children before they received a proper education, bangeul was for uneducated females and children mostly.
The word Joseongeul or gungmun (national script) appeared after Joseon acquired diplomatic independence from China at the beginning of the 20th century. A research institute for the study of gungmun was established as a government agency in 1907. However, after the fall of the Joseon Dynasty, the Japanese hiragana obtained the status of the new national script and Hangul became demoted again to a lower rank for the exclusive use of the “indigenous people.”
Hangul, meaning “great script,” was coined by Ju Si-gyeong in 1913. The name can be also be read as “great Korean script.” The name reflects a bitter introspection into our disdainful treatment for the Hunminjeongeum in the past, also striving to help restore our people to our forbidden memory of the Great Korean Empire while under Japanese colonial rule.
Since then, although Hangul was often used in several places, such as local workshops, it was not widely used by the general public through the mid-1920s. It was not until the general principle toward the exclusive use of Hangul in public documents was confirmed upon the inauguration of the government of the Republic of Korea that Hangul finally became the perfect national script for the Korean people.
It was a good thing to establish the bronze statue of King Sejong the Great and redesignate Hangul Day as an official holiday. However, we should reflect on ourselves whether Hangul is being dropped to a lower rank of bangeul, as the craze for English has swept over every corner of the nation.
The writer is a research professor of the Center for Hospital History and Culture at the Seoul National University Hospital.
By Jeon Woo-yong