Just when you think you mastered 한글 (han-geul), you run into something like this:
Now, don’t freak out! You won’t see very many things written this way anymore…actually, you will probably only come across vertical writing in different types of advertisements or when you go to a restaurant. Although it’s not as common now, just 15 years ago, seeing vertical writing in Korea was the norm. In fact, up until the late 1990s, most Korean newspapers were written vertically and read from right to left.
Let’s take a short field trip back in time before 한글 (Korean script) was invented. Before 세종대왕(King Se-jong) invented 한글 (although he’s attributed to inventing 한글, whether he invented it by himself or with the help of scholars is still widely debated), the only writing system used in Korea was 한자 (Chinese characters). It was only used by people in the highest social class in Korea who were fortunate enough to receive an education. Since Chinese characters are traditionally written vertically and read right to left, all early Korean texts took on this tradition.
Korea, however, was not the only country to adopt this tradition: Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Mongolia all traditionally wrote in this way as well, with Japan still currently using 세로 쓰기 (vertical writing) in addition to 가로 쓰기 (horizontal writing).
When 한글 was first invented in 1443, and for many years after that, it was not well received by scholars, rather it was looked down upon as an alphabet for women and the poor (yes, back then, there was a lot of gender inequality in Korea.) This mentality lasted until the 1900s, and although the use of 한글 became more widespread throughout Korea, writing with 한자 was still considered to be more “educated” or “sophisticated.” Therefore, back then, most books and documents were written using mostly 한자, with the exception of particles.
Korea was under Japanese rule for the early half of the 1900s. After Japan surrendered and ended its occupation of Korea in 1945, Korea’s desire for independence and a cultural identity was stronger than ever. At that time, many intellectuals and scholars pushed the idea of strictly using 순한글 (pure Korean i.e. not using Chinese characters) in all texts to help establish identity and independence. In doing so, many people in Korea traded in the traditional way of writing vertically for a more westernized way of writing horizontally.
Although many people started writing horizontally, until 한겨례 [han-gyeo-rye] 신문 (newspaper) was first published in 1998, all 신문 were written vertically and were packed full of 한자. 한겨례 was the first 신문 in Korea not only to be written horizontally, but it was also the first 신문 that was written using only 한글. Slowly but surely, all other 신문 companies in Korea made the switch to horizontal writing. After the newspaper 세계일보 switched over to horizontal writing in 1999, seeing vertical writing became very rare.
With the majority of material in Korea being written horizontally nowadays, people may think that’s the way it has always been and they might find it confusing, odd, or just plain strange when they see something written vertically. Now that you have learned a little bit more about the directional history of 한글, you and your friends won’t be confused next time you see it!
1. horizontally = 가로로
2. vertically = 세로로
3. horizontal writing = 가로 쓰기
4. vertical writing = 세로 쓰기
5. to be printed = 인쇄되다, 출판되다
6. newspaper = 신문
7. the 1990’s = 1990(천구백구십)년대
8. first issue of a newspaper or magazine = 창간호