Struggling with 한글


The Hangul Museum in Seoul

To Romans like us, non-Roman scripts can be quite troublesome. Greek and Cyrillic I find manageable, for reasons that I’ve explained in Lingo, and so is Chinese thanks to pinyin, but most others are too complex for comfort. Now that I’m writing the Korean chapter of my next book, I’m having a brush with Hangul (or Hangeul). Even though all my sources are in English, not being able to read the Korean alphabet remains a handicap that rather tests my inventiveness.

One beautiful but somewhat troubling aspect of the script is that the letters are not placed on a line, but in a block. To the layperson’s eye, Korean looks like Chinese (though the differences are easy to spot once you know what to look out for). When Hangul was developed in the 15th century, Chinese characters had been in use for well over a thousand years in Korea, so it must have seemed only natural to make the new script look like them. The visual similarity was probably also intended to overcome the resistance of the traditionalists against the new-fangled way of writing. If so, the trick didn’t work, for Hangul wouldn’t triumph until the 20th century.

Another problem for people used to the Roman alphabet is that there are several systems in circulation to Romanise Korean words. One is official in South Korea, a different one in North Korea (which, surprisingly enough, is clearly superior), linguists prefer another one yet – and that’s only mentioning the three that are most prevalent. This diversity explains why the name of the alphabet can be written as Hangeul, Han-geul, Han’gŭl or Hānkul – with Hangul as a compromise, I guess.

So when in one of my English sources I find a Korean word in Roman letters that for some reason I need to look up, I have three obstacles to overcome:

  1. figure out which Romanisation system has been used;
  2. convert the word back to Hangul;
  3. and input Hangul on the website that I want to consult.

And I’ve done it! Not by learning Hangul, mind you. It’s said to be easy but… I mean, come on, I have quite enough on my hands studying Vietnamese. No, it’s the internet that I have to kneel for and offer a prayer of thanks to. Here are the steps:

  1. The Romanisation system used can be determined by consulting Wikipedia’s Romanisation of Korean page, which gives examples of several systems and links to more detailed information. (After a while you can tell the systems apart at a glance.)
  2. There’s the Korean Romanisation converter which will not just Romanise Hangul, but also – hurray! – convert two types of Romanised text into each other. That was a relief, because my sources had chosen (for good reasons) the McCune-Reischauer Romanisation, whereas in step 3, I was going to need the Revised Romanisation that the South Korean government has inflicted upon the world.
  3. Lexilogos offers a keyboard of sorts that will convert your Roman letters into Hangul.
  4. The Hangul can then be copy-pasted into websites of reference such as Wiktionary and Forvo.

As I was going through all of these steps some dozens of times yesterday, I was grateful for these terrific resources. Still, I couldn’t help looking forward to writing the next chapters, which will be on English, French and Portuguese. But wait, there’s also Persian and Bengali coming up…

3 thoughts on “Struggling with 한글

  1. You say “Another problem for people used to the Roman alphabet is that there are several systems in circulation to Romanise Korean words”, but I have to disagree with that statement. It is only a problem when you rely on Romaja to read Korean. And, that is something you should never do if you want to learn Korean (which you, of course, aren’t. Learning Hangeul is easy, it took me only took me a little bit more time to get used to Hangeul, than it took me to learn Cyrillic.


    • Perfectly true – it’s said to be easy, and I have no reason to doubt it. But since I am writing about Korean for an English-speaking readership, I need to Romanise it. And then the different systems are a pain!


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