The Korean Alphabet — Its Devanagari Inspiration

Recently, there is a wave of Korean films and serials sweeping the world in 2021, especially demonstrated, or triggered, by the sudden worldwide popularity of a Netflix serial "The Squid Game". It is being said that there is a sudden fad (whether it is temporary one or whether it will have an important lasting effect is yet to be seen) of people all over the world wanting to learn the Korean language.

In my college days (in the late seventies), the vista of different alphabets and languages of the world fascinated me so much that, although too lazy to go the whole hog in learning any particular language fully, it became my hobby to learn different scripts/alphabets of the world as well as the numbers 1-100 in different languages of the world (admittedly a case of "Jack of all trades, master of none"). The latter predilection will become apparent from my article "India's Unique Place in the World of Numbers and Numerals". About alphabets, I did learn practically all the major alphabets of India (including Ashokan Brahmi) and many others as well: from Sinhalese, Lepcha, Ahom, Tibetan and Burmese to Japanese (Katakana), Mongolian, Manchu(rian) and Korean to Greek, Amharic, Somali, Cyrillic, Gaelic, Georgian (Mkhedruli), Armenian, Hebrew, etc. (and even the relatively new Cherokee alphabet). The different varieties of the Arabic alphabet (including for example the variety used in Sindhi) proved much more difficult and my fluency over them was more superfluous; and the Khmer and Thai alphabets with their complicated techniques and combination rules were a really big problem, and I will not dare to claim that I was ever proficient in them. The Chinese alphabet was impossible for me.

With the passage of time, my familiarity with most of these alphabets has rusted very much. Nevertheless, the Korean alphabet (apart from being a relatively simple and logical alphabet, and a picturesque one) still exercises a fascination because it is clear that, whatever the approved or official history of the alphabet, this alphabet was definitely influenced by our own Devanagari alphabet (with touches of other related Indian alphabets like Brahmi). I will try to demonstrate this point in this article.

The nine basic Korean consonant symbols are as follows:

ㄱ    ㄴ    ㄷ    ㄹ    ㅁ   ㅂ    ㅅ   

k/g                n              t/d               r/l               m          p/b             s

ㅇ    ㅍ

ng (ṅ)            ph

There are two special forms for varieties of the first and third symbols above:


k/g          t/d

Doubled forms are formed by doubling the symbols, but other distinct consonants are formed by adding a horizontal stroke or two above some of the single consonants:

ㅈ    ㅊ    ㅎ     

   j                  c                h

The Devanagari (Brahmi-family) inspiration for the shapes of most of the basic consonant symbols is clear and obvious. The first four are immediately obvious, but the others are also reasonably obvious, sometimes in the form of the Indian symbols being turned sideways in a different angle:

  1. 1. r/l

र     ல     (Devanagari proper, Gujarati, Tamil).

  1. ㅁ  m

म      (Devanagari proper, Gujarati).

  1. ㅅ  s

स  স  (Devanagari proper, Bengali).

  1. p/b

प/ब  ப   (Devanagari proper, Tamil).

  1. ㄷ t/d

त/द        (Devanagari proper, Gujarati).

  1. ㄴ  n

   न  ನ  (Brahmi, Devanagari proper, Kannada).

  1. ㄱ  k/g   

Λ   ಗ   (Brahmi, Kannada). 

  1. ㅇ ng (ṅ)

This symbol, pronounced ṅ at the end of a syllable, is worth noting because when placed at the beginning of a syllable it is not pronounced, and denotes a silent or unpronounced consonant (i.e. it functions as the base to which vowel signs are affixed to express pure initial vowel sounds, somewhat like the Devanagari अ ).

The similarity to the Devanagari scheme lies in the fact that in Devanagari the tiny circle or dot is used to indicate the nasal sound when placed above a letter (as  in sagha संघ), and an emphasized silent sound (du:kha दुःख) or an aspirated "h" sound (sah सः) when two such tiny circles or dots are placed after a letter.

In Korean, the symbol is silent at the beginning of a syllable, pronounced  at the end of a syllable, and the only other consonant formed by adding strokes to this symbol is ㅎ h.

Equally significant is the fact that the Korean alphabet not only has the same symbol to indicate both voiced and unvoiced sounds (e.g. the same symbol for both g and k, or the same symbol for both b and p, or the same symbol for both d and tas is the case in Tamil, but the only other (than the above) clear cases of new symbols formed in the Korean alphabet by adding strokes to an existing symbol areㅈ j and  c formed by adding strokes to  s.  Significantly, Tamil has originally one symbol   to depict the same three sounds saja and ca.

It is clear that eight out of the nine basic consonantal symbols in the Korean alphabet are clearly inspired by the Devanagari alphabet in particular and Indic (Brahmi-based) alphabets in general. It is generally recognized that the alphabets of India and South-east Asia belong to this Brahmi-based alphabet group, but it is not recognized that the Korean alphabet too is inspired by Devanagari and its Indian sister-alphabets. According to the official version (as we find for example in the Wikipedia article on Hangul): "The Korean alphabet, known as Hangul in South Korea and Chosŏn'gŭl in North Korea is a writing system for the Korean language created by King Sejong the Great in 1443". Korea is supposed to have been influenced by Buddhism since 372 CE, and Buddhism was the official predominant religion of Korea from 918-1392 CE. At that point of time, it became the official policy to patronize a form of Confucianism, and at the time King Sejong created this alphabet, it was not perhaps customary to give credit for anything to Buddhism (which only came into its own again after 1897, after which it again became an important part of Korean identity, although much decimated later by Evangelist Christianity in present-day South Korea and by the official policy of Communist Atheism in present-day North Korea). But the fact is that a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and the Indian Buddhist texts, languages and alphabets was already a part of the Korean scholarly ethos at the time King Sejong created the Korean alphabet. It is clear that the ideas for the alphabet system as a whole, as well as the shapes for the letters, were fully inspired by this knowledge of Devanagari and the Indian Brahmi-based alphabetic systems:

We already saw the case for the Devanagari/Brahmi origin of eight of the nine basic consonant symbols in the Korean alphabet, but the last or ninth symbol (ㅍ ph) seems to be more independently designed.

The Korean alphabet has nothing at all in common with the complicated Chinese alphabets (which are not based on sounds but on pictographic-ideographic symbols, so that Chinese has ten-thousands of very complicated shaped "letters") or the Japanese syllabaries (where different syllable-letters with the same consonant but different vowels have no connection to each other in shape), except in the common style of forming letters with strokes with the aid of a brush: Korean syllables, like the Brahmi-based alphabets form consonant+vowel syllables with regular vowel signs attached to the consonants. The vowels are formed mainly by horizontal and/or vertical strokes immediately after or below the concerned consonant symbol: it must be remembered that Korean is a syllabic alphabet where each syllable mainly consists of consonant-vowel and consonant-vowel-consonant combinations.

While the formation of the vowels displays more independence (but this does not negate the original Devanagari inspiration, since we find more completely independent and complicated symbol-combinations and special rules in the Thai and Khmer alphabets which are definitely derived from the Brahmi-based alphabets of India), they were also definitely inspired in their shapes by the Indian alphabets.

Compare for example the Korean forms for ra and ri with the Gujarati and Devanagari forms to see the connection:

Korean           ra      ri

Gujarati:    રા  rā     રી  rī

Devanagari:   रा  ra    री  ri

For further comparisons (note for example the formation of "o" and "u", with "o" having a vertical stroke upwards as in Devanagari "o", and "u" having a vertical stroke downwards as in most "u" formations in Brahmi-based alphabets including Devanagari, where the "u" vowel symbol appears below the consonant), here are the consonant+vowel forms in Korean (illustrated with one consonant"k/g" below):

기 ki/gi   가 ka/ga   거 keo/geo   그 keu/geu   고 ko/go

구 ku/gu   개 kae/gae   게 ke/ge      괴 koe/goe   긔 kui/gui

갸 kya/gya   겨 kyeo/gyeo   교 kyo/gyo

규 kyu/gyu   걔 kyae/gyae   계 kye/gye

과 kwa/gwa   괘 kwae/gwae   궈 kwo/gwo   궤 kwe/gwe

 귀 kwi/gwi


This article is written by Srikant G Talageri and was first published here.