Sino al XV secolo il coreano esisteva solo come una lingua parlata. La scrittura era basata su caratteri cinesi la cui complessità limitava l'alfabetizzazione alle sole elite del paese.
Damn Interesting racconta come a partire dal 1430 Sejong Daewang, quarto re della dinastia Joseon, sviluppò l'idea di creare un alfabeto coreano basato sui suoni della lingua parlata, l'hangul, rendendo la scrittura accessibile alle masse.
In the late 1430s and early 1440s, a certain Korean scholar embarked on a massively ambitious project, working almost single-handedly and spurred on largely by personal interest. Although the Korean language had existed for almost 1,500 years, it had never had its own dedicated writing system. Korean writers had long tended to rely on Chinese writing, which was logographic—that is, it was a system of symbols that stood for concepts. Adapting the Chinese characters to Korean meant borrowing some Chinese symbols because of the way they were pronounced, and others because of the concept they conveyed.
This approach had centuries of tradition behind it, but it was not ideal. In particular, Korean had more prefixes, suffixes, and short grammatical words (e.g., prepositions) than Chinese did, and Chinese logographs were not well-suited to capturing these. More practically, learning the thousands of Chinese characters required a good deal of study, which meant that only the most well-educated Koreans could read and write. The Korean scholar in question was determined to bring literacy to the masses. His insight was that they needed an alphabet—that is, a writing system based entirely on pronunciation, and one that required far fewer characters than the logographs.
A differenza del sistema di scrittura cinese, basato su logogrammi, l'hangul è un alfabeto fonetico. Ogni carattere rappresenta una sillaba che è la composizione grafica di due o tre suoni elementari che la compongono; a ciascuno di questi suoni elementari corrisponde un simbolo, detto jamo.