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Friday, June 9 • 4:30pm - 4:50pm
The Korean Alphabet — a Design Case Study of Critical Making and Social Justice

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The Korean alphabet was designed by Great King Sejong in 1443, and it is a phonetic writing system perfectly matched to the Korean spoken language. Before and during Sejong’s reign, the Koreans used the Chinese pictorial writing system, which required the memorization of thousands of characters and the learning of the Chinese language. There were several issues with the use of the Chinese writing system for the Korean language, including a major structural difference between the two. Chinese is an isolation language — words remain unchanged no matter what function they play in the sentence — while Korean is highly inflective, similar to Latin, Greek, or German. Therefore, reading and writing in the Chinese writing system as a Korean speaker required about 10 years of elaborate education, resulting in literacy being limited to only the wealthy. Furthermore, it contributed to the attitude that China represented the height of civilization while Korea was seen as lesser, vulgar, and even barbaric.

With the Korean alphabet, King Sejong promulgated a writing system with just 26 letters that could be combined to represent all the words within the Korean spoken language. Its ease to learn and use provided access to literacy for all of his people, not just the elite few. Unsurprisingly, the elite protested the new alphabet because it threatened their elevated status within society. Its success can be measured in its continued survival, including its first 500 years as the unofficial alphabet of the country (due to the powerful dissenters) and a ban during the Japanese occupation in the 1900s.

There are layers of function and identity within the writing systems we use to communicate. I argue that through his alphabet, Sejong confronted Chinese cultural imperialism and gave voice to the underrepresented in order to strengthen his country. Increased literacy in a writing system that accurately documented and expressed the spoken language provided a foundation from which Korean literature, science and technology, music, and other cultural spheres accelerated in advancement. It also provided a means to maintain their language and culture in the face of forced assimilation and cultural elimination by the Japanese in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

In addition to the social justice achievements of the Korean alphabet, it is an inspiring design system that incorporates elements of the culture’s understanding of human physiology — the consonants representing the speech organs from which their sounds originate — and humankind’s place within the cosmic order. The vowels represent heaven, earth, and (hu)man, for example, and represent the ideas of complementing opposites (yin and yang). It is the only writing system completely native to East Asia and is considered one of the most scientific writing systems ever invented.

This paper will provide the historical context of the development of the Korean alphabet, its structure and design, lessons of critical design and social justice, and how it’s laid a strong foundation for my creative and scholarly research inquiries. My creative work explores the in-between cultural and lingual spaces I navigate as a Korean-American, including experiments in combining Korean and English letterforms, interactive multi-lingual typographic projects, and large-scale print installations that aim to give voice to the underrepresented.


Alice Lee

Associate Professor and MFA Graduate Advisor, Texas State University

Friday June 9, 2023 4:30pm - 4:50pm EDT
PS 401 (Design Center)