Is the Korean Hangul alphabet written from left to right?

The Korean Hangul alphabet has the reputation of being one of the easiest alphabets in the world. It was originally introduced to Korea by the 15th century King Sejong the Great who commissioned it and had it developed as a replacement to the Chinese characters that were the standard for writing Korean back in the day.

Chinese characters weren’t exactly made for the Korean language, and because of the complexity of the writing system, many lower-class Koreans were illiterate.

With the creation of Hangul, the modern Korean alphabet, this all changed. Hangul was meant to be an easy writing system that everyone could learn and it was specifically adapted to the Korean language.

Back in the 15th century, when the Korean Hangul alphabet was first developed, it was written both vertically and horizontally. Like many Asian scripts each syllable in Hangul is stacked together in a block, meaning that blocks can easily be directed either horizontally or vertically without rendering the text difficult to read.

Hangul syllable blocks
The word “hangul” written in two syllable-blocks in Korean

In most of the time the Korean alphabet has been in use, it has actually been written vertically, but with no specific rules making neither direction the correct one. With the spelling reforms that followed Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century, writing in Hangul gradually became more standardized. Punctuation that were better adapted to horizontal writing were introduced, and things gradually started changing.

In 1948, the new North Korean state was the first to publish new universal rules for the writing of the Korean alphabet. The publication was called “조선어 신철자법” (New Grammar Rules of the Chosun Language). In this publication, the following is directly stated:

  1. 모든 文書는 왼쪽으로부터 오른쪽으로 橫書함으로써 原則을 삼는다.

Which translates roughly to “All texts are written by writing from left to right.

An article from Chosun Ilbo, a popular South Korean newspaper. The article is dated July 9, 1970 and it is clear that no standard of writing direction had yet taken effect in South Korea at that time. The headline is written horizontally, but the main text is formatted to be read vertically.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, no distinct rules have been published, and in principle, the Hangul alphabet can still be written correctly both vertically and horizontally. South Korea did, however, slowly and gradually adapt to publishing texts with the alphabet written horizontally. The first newspaper that adapted horizontal writing was “한겨레신문”(The Hankyoreh, a newspaper still in existence today). This happened in 1988, and writing from left to right has since become the norm in South Korea.

If you want to read more about the Korean language, go read my article entitled “How to learn the Korean Language by Yourself“.

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