Sample of Old Hangul

What You Didn’t Know About Hangul

An interview with Typeface Designer Aaron Bell of Saja Typeworks

TypeThursday founder Thomas Jockin chatted with Non-Latin Typeface Designer Aaron Bell to learn the history of the Hangul script and what you should consider when designing fonts for the script.

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Thomas Jockin: Aaron, thanks so much for being here. You’re the Dialogue Lead for TypeThursday Seattle so it’s exciting to have this chance to speak with you about your upcoming Hangul workshop at TypeCon XX.

Aaron Bell

Aaron Bell: Hi Thomas. Thanks for having me! I’m really looking forward to teaching the Hangul workshop and am excited to talk with you about it.

TJ: Before we start, could you give us some background how you got interested in Hangul.

AB: For sure. In a ‘previous life’, I was actually an Asian Studies major in college and have long had an interest in East Asian language, culture and art. Prior to attending the University of Reading MATD program, I was exploring different scripts to study and was really taken by the logic and thought inherent in the Korean script, Hangul. Naïvely, I thought it would be fairly easy to use components and generate a full set of Hangul syllables from a basic set of forms. It turned out that Hangul wasn’t quite that straightforward!

TJ: For those who do not know, what is the history of Hangul?

The forms in the script follow the shape that the mouth takes when making that sound.

Aaron’s account of the history of Hangul

AB: Korea originally used the Chinese script (known as Hanja) as its written language. However, there were some issues with this. For one, it was an adopted script and needed to be adapted to represent the Korean language. Additionally, literacy using Chinese characters is a challenging prospect. In fact, those scholars seeking government jobs studied for years to achieve mastery. As such, only the privileged could hope to achieve literacy. “Therefore, even if the ignorant want to communicate, many of them in the end cannot state their concerns,” wrote King Sejong in 1446. “Saddened by this, I have [had these] letters newly made. It is my wish that all the people may easily learn these letters and that [they] be convenient for daily use.”

Image of King Sejong

This new script, at the time known as Hunminjeongeum (i.e. The Correct/Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People), was created specifically with the Korean language in mind and is modernly categorized as a ‘featural script’. That is to say, the design of the script is based on the shape that the mouth takes when making each sound. Furthermore, consonant forms with similar sounds have a similar shape. All together, Hangul is a very simple script to learn to read and write.

Unfortunately, Hangul didn’t replace Chinese characters immediately. There was something of a ‘revolt’ by the Korean scholar elites who knew that Chinese character knowledge was key to their positions and pushed back against Hangul’s introduction. For this, and other reason, Hangul was not used for official government documents until around 1900, when it became a symbol of Korean nationalism.

That said, Hangul was used between its announcement in 1446 and 1900. Thanks to its simplicity, Hangul was used by commoners, popular writers, Buddhist monks, and others who wanted to communicate. It was also popular with courtiers and other elites for personal writing and letters. Truly, Hangul’s importance in Korea was quite established even before official use.

Korean handwritten letter

TJ: Such a through history! I can tell you really have taken the time to learn about Hangul. You said before you thought it would be fairly easy to use components and generate a full set of Hangul syllables from a basic set of forms, but it turned out it wasn’t quite that straightforward. What kind of surprises did you run into?

A major surprise for me was that Hangul is actually a vertical script.

Two surprises Aaron discovered about making Hangul fonts

AB: Hangul consists of 14 basic consonants and 10 vowels that are grouped into one of nine different syllable blocks. At first, I thought that the exact same consonant shape would be used in every syllable combination — a ㄱ is a ㄱ is a ㄱ. However, that is not the case. In fact, there is significant variation in the design of each component depending on which other components it is paired with and in which syllable block. I’ve even seen cases of 40+ different variants of a single consonant! In the image below, you can see five different variants of the ㄱ component overlapped.

Syllable variation

The other major surprise for me was the vertical nature of modern Hangul. Looking at contemporary examples of Korean, one primarily sees the language written horizontally, but it was originally a vertical script and still bears the hallmarks of that way of typesetting. Unlike Chinese and Japanese which have a central vertical axis, Korean uses an vertical axis slightly off-center to the right. After making this discovery, my way of looking at, and thinking about Hangul design changed completely.

Calligraphy off axis

TJ: What can people who take your Hangul workshop expect to learn?

What you can expect to learn at Aaron’s workshop

AB: In the workshop, we’re going to be taking a broad look at Hangul. We’ll start with the history of the script, its influences and development. Then we’ll study the core structure of Hangul, different design variants, and lettering. Finally, everyone will sketch / draw / create their own lettering projects. I think it’ll be a really fun workshop and intend for everyone to come away with a deeper understanding of the script with enough knowledge to start designing their own Hangul projects.

Sketch of Hangul

TJ: Thanks so much for your time, Aaron.

AB: Thanks for having me!

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