Korean inputting on cellphones

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For the first time in my life, I closely observed someone inputting Korean on a cell phone.  (I was sitting behind the person doing it on the train ride to the city this afternoon.)  Of course, I don't know exactly how it works, but what I observed was very interesting.

First of all, the young woman's phone had a special feature I've never seen in any other type of inputting.  Namely, she could use a little, built-in, popup, electronic magnifying glass to hover over a particular syllable block that she had composed to inspect it carefully to see that she had formed it correctly.  She did this fairly often.

Next, she seemed to spend a lot of time typing and retyping individual syllable blocks to make sure she got them right.

Another interesting part of her typing is that she fairly frequently checked in an online English-Korean dictionary to pick up Korean terms that she seemed unsure of (I noticed that several times she tried to produce the syllables she was after but wasn't sure about them, so she retrieved them from the English-Korean dictionary).

Basically, she typed rather slowly and seemingly laboriously in comparison with young people typing English on cell phones whose fingers / thumbs dance over the glass.

A correspondent told me that there are other special features of typing Korean on digital devices:

Getting the syllable right is quite important because, with a single change, the word can mean something totally different.

Also, today, young people shorten words when they communicate via text (In fact young-middle age people do this).

Here are three examples:

어디야? (uhdiya?): Where are you?

ㅇㄷ? : people change the word above to this to indicate the same meaning (어디=> ㅇㄷ)

ㅇㅇ for 응 eung (yes-intimate)

ㅇㅋ for 오케이 (okei, okay)

Another correspondent observed:

Many people, especially Korean learners / heritage speakers have trouble with spelling words because Korean words are not spelled as they sound. This is partly because Korean words are written morpho-phonemically (though highly regularly) and also because some Korean vowels have been merged. Maybe you happened to sit behind a perfectionist on the train or she was sending a very important message to someone so she did not want to make any mistakes?

I asked myself this question more than four decades ago when I first became familiar with the basics of the Korean script:  "Why don't Koreans type their letters linearly instead of in square blocks?"

Within a few years, of course, I naturally came to the realization that this distinctive feature of the Korean alphabetical script, Hangul, was the legacy of its emergence within the Sinographic Cosmopolis (cultural sphere).  It's ironic that the Hangul alphabetical script, which was ostensibly intended to make writing radically easier than hanja ("Sinographs) for the Korean people, could not escape from the square shape of the individual Chinese characters.  The subordinate status of Hangul is evident from its original name — Hunminjeong'eum 훈민정음 (The Correct/Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People) — and from the Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese preface by King Sejong to the book in which Hangul was promulgated:

Metaphrase translation:

Because the speech of this country is different from that of China, it [the spoken language] does not match the [Chinese] letters. Therefore, even if the ignorant want to communicate, many of them in the end cannot state their concerns. Saddened by this, I have [had] 28 letters newly made. It is my wish that all the people may easily learn these letters and that [they] be convenient for daily use.

Paraphrase translation:

The language of [our] people is different from that of the nation of China and thus cannot be expressed by the written language of Chinese people. Because of this reason, the cries of illiterate peasants are not properly understood by the many [in the position of privilege]. I [feel the plight of the peasants and the difficulties faced by the public servants and] am saddened by the situation.

Therefore, twenty eight [written] characters have been newly created. [My desire is] such that, each [Korean] person may become familiar [with the newly created written language of Korean] and use them daily in an intuitive way.


I have heard that, for various reasons (such as in certain IT applications), some people have experimented with linear writing (i.e., not in a square, syllabic block) of the Hangul letters..  Yet the centuries of writing the letters in square-shaped blocks makes it very hard to abandon that practice for writing the letters linearly.  This means that people like the woman sitting in front of me on the train from Swarthmore to Philadelphia must be attentive to how they arrange the letters within those little square boxes — or so it seemed to me as I sat behind her watching closely what she was doing.

It is interesting that Choe Hyon-bae (1894-1970), the distinguished Korean educator and scholar of Korean language, was an early proponent of linear Hangul.  It's not an accident that he was also in favor of all-Hangul writing:

Choe was an advocate of writing Korean entirely in hangul rather than in mixed script (hangul and hanja). He saw the overuse of Sino-Korean vocabulary, with its many homonyms, as a symptom of the problematic elevation of foreign culture in Korean society He believed that Korea had always been a "junior member" of the "Chinese character cultural community", and argued that continuing participation in that sphere was no longer necessary in modern Korea. He also argued that time spent learning hanja in primary school fostered cramming and rote memorisation, and took time away from more important studies.

Choe was clearly a man who was ahead of his time.


[Thanks to Robert Ramsey, Haewon Cho, and Haewon Kim]


  1. Tom Dawkes said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 4:06 pm

    … but the aesthetic value of the hangul script as used is hard to deny. I still recall the thrill I felt as a teenager when I saw a sample in Mario Pei's "The story of language", and it is a wonderfully constructed system.

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 5:01 pm

    Re: "Hunminjeong'eum 훈민정음 (The Correct/Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People)", it hadn't occurred to me that Hangul and Japanese kunyomi are identically subjugated in name to Chinese characters as mere instructional expedients (Chin. xun4 訓)…

    And on this point the Wikipedia "paraphrase" looks like a rather ideologically freighted version of the Classical Chinese as given… i.e., the point of the original text is probably not that "[t]he language of [our] people […] cannot be expressed by the written language of Chinese people" per se.

  3. 번하드 said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 5:05 pm

    What age was that young woman?
    Most Koreans in their 20s that I could observe type at dizzying speed, only rarely backtrack,
    and mistakes do happen. They definitely don't look up things in 영한 dictionary.
    Maybe she sent a message to her boss?

    ㄱㅅ for 감사(합니다), ㄷㄷ (대단), ㅊㅋ (축하(see what happened here?)) were already widespread on Internet Relay Chat many years ago.

    Fun fact: iirc there is an international standard for hangeul input on phones, but I never saw a phone that uses it.
    That standard was defined and promulgated by North Korea and China. South Korean companies were too much preoccupied with pushing each company's proprietary system to notice:)

    How many "keys" did that woman's virtual keyboard show? Similar to English (unsuited for my sausage fingers) or just about a dozen (same as on old Samsung phones, I love it)?

    P.S.: Sorry for OT, but I saw a sentence at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-24472322 and am wondering what it is. Are there semantically driven garden paths?
    "The current fighting threatens to further disrupt oil supplies and fuel migration to Europe."

  4. Bob Michael said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 5:12 pm

    Hangul is a beautiful and beautifully designed system of writing. I would think it’s near ideal for Korean, and don’t understand why it would be so hard to type. Maybe the person you observed just wasn’t very skilled?

  5. Katie Martin said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 7:04 pm

    It seems awfully broad to suggest that because you encountered one person struggling to type in Korean, all Korean speakers struggle to type correctly and must look up the spelling of many words. Even I, an extremely mediocre non-native Korean speaker, do not often need retype when I am entering Hangeul on my phone, and type in Korean almost as fast as I do in English. Plus, most "blocks" contain no more than two characters, with four at an absolute maximum, so it's not much more difficult to read than if it was completely linear. Maybe this woman just needed to increase her phone's text magnification or take another Korean class!

  6. KWillets said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 7:27 pm

    Layout is in blocks, but input is linear. I believe the block segmentation and layout for any particular sequence is unambiguous.

    In my experience I often miskey and fail to notice it due to similar-looking vowels being all next to each other.

  7. 번하드 said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 8:34 pm

    @Katie Martin:

    Same here, for another mediocre non-native speaker. But I also know that for me,
    there is some maximum speed above which my typo rate goes up dramatically:)


    You're perfectly right, especially about unambiguousness.

    I would like to expand a little bit upon what I wrote above.
    I saw quite a few things while on an IRC network based in Korea, and
    in comments below news articles.

    Apart from shorthands like the ones mentioned above, orthography is being taken
    quite seriously when in public. One or two chat members "wrote as one speaks" but
    this was being frowned upon.
    I would assume that one is much more relaxed about typos when chatting 1:1 with
    somebody who is a good friend or at the same age or social level or below.
    If speaking to somebody "above" you, but also if speaking to a group, even of people
    "below" you, you would tend to be very careful about such things.

    And in the sometimes quite poisonous discussion section for news articles etc.,
    Koreans seem to be no less liable than French people to "ad hominem" through "ad orthographiam".

  8. David Morris said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 9:19 pm

    The first Korean phone I had, instead of providing separate keys for each of the vowels, had a vertical line, a horizontal line and a dot, by which the vowels could be built up, with 'vertical line dot' for 'a', 'dot vertical line' for 'eo' etc. (Not sure if I can enter hangeul on my work computer.) That was laborious, especially for a beginner second-language learner.
    As with other commenters, I have seen express Korean texting, with shorthand very common.

  9. Noel Hunt said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 10:46 pm

    '…argued that time spent learning hanja in primary school fostered cramming and rote memorisation, and took time away from more important studies.' One has only to look at modern Korea to realise how true this is, how horribly backward they are compared to the West which doesn't labour under such burdens in education. One feels a sympathy for them akin to what one does towards China, after none other an authority than Prof. Pullum pointed out in his essay on The Awful Chinese Writing System that 'this horror-show of a writing system, with its crippling memorization burden for students and malign impediment to progress in science and industry…' , which similarly has brought China to the backward state it is in.

  10. Keith said,

    April 9, 2019 @ 2:46 am

    In my work, I do a small amount of typing in Korean, copying from print or photographic sources and using the Internet to research the words (they are mostly company or product names).

    For this, I had to figure out how to set up the input method on my computer, and once I'd done that I found typing Hangul surprisingly easy. I have had to learn how to read the choseong (onset), jungseong (nucleus) and jongseong (coda) in the correct order, but the input method enforces the rules of composition.

    I haven't memorised the positions of the elements on the keyboard (my physical keyboards are in marked with the AZERTY layout), so I show the keyboard layout on-screen to help me; but I can now type in Korean at approximately half the speed I can type in English or French.

  11. Rodger C said,

    April 9, 2019 @ 6:56 am

    A crash blossom would probably cause some fuel migration.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 4:17 am

    '…argued that time spent learning hanja in primary school fostered cramming and rote memorisation, and took time away from more important studies.' One has only to look at modern Korea to realise how true this is, how horribly backward they are compared to the West which doesn't labour under such burdens in education.

    …South Korea keeps coming out on top in the PISA tests, together with Finland…?

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 9:10 am

    I believe that Mr Hunt is employing irony …

  14. Kristian said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 9:33 am

    "He also argued that time spent learning hanja in primary school fostered cramming and rote memorisation, and took time away from more important studies."

    I understand many of the arguments against unnecessarily complicated writing systems, but the argument that children would have more time to study "more important" things (if they didn't have to learn Chinese characters) somewhat confuses me. What are these more important subjects that they would learn? Do children in "alphabetical countries" study them? As far as I can tell, no where do most primary school children really learn anything besides reading, writing and simple math.

    It would be easy to make the counter-argument that the extra discipline and time required to learn hanzi prepare little children for further schooling by forcing them into studious habits. And that the success of primary school is to be measured more by how well it trains children to be students in the future, than by how much material they have learned. (I'm not making this argument, nor do I have any empirical evidence for it.)

  15. Andrew said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 12:11 pm

    As a "heritage speaker" of Mandarin Chinese, without any more context I'm wondering if the young woman in question is also the same, i.e. she is of Korean descent with Korean-speaking family, but her stronger language is English and she has limited exposure to reading and writing Korean in everyday life.

    Some of these behaviors strike me as something I would do when texting in Chinese — looking something up in an English-Chinese dictionary to make sure I'm thinking of the right Chinese phrasing, confirming that I've used the right characters a lot more than a fully fluent native speaker would, and just being a lot slower and more deliberate in general.

    Obviously there's no way to confirm this after the fact, but I'd be curious what language her smartphone operating system was in — if it were in English, as I suspect but have no way of knowing for sure, I would be inclined to guess that she were Korean-American and that she does not type in Korean on a very frequent basis.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 12:20 pm

    From Krista Ryu:

    It is actually the same as young people in the US using “jk” instead of joking and pronounce it either “jay kay” or just read it as “joking”.
    Using just the first consonant for a lot of common words is actually very very common these days. Other things are like 인정—> ㅇㅈ (means to recognize or acknowledge/agree) and because only certain words are often abbreviated like this there is no real confusion if you are in the age group that uses these on the internet frequently.

  17. 번하드 said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 7:27 pm


    Big yes, small no.
    I'm a foreigner learning Korean, and I have set up all my devices to use Korean for better learning:)

  18. KWillets said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 7:32 pm

    Korean taxi drivers also key in GPS destinations via Hangul acronyms; the interface does place-name matching as they type.

  19. John Roth said,

    April 11, 2019 @ 7:54 am

    I looked up Hangul in the Unicode standard, and learned that there are two forms of Korean: modern and classical. Apparently there are a lot of Hangul syllables in the older forms of Korean that aren't in modern Korean. I suspect that they aren't well served by modern smart-phone software.

  20. Keith said,

    April 15, 2019 @ 2:39 am

    In the US, I frequently encountered the use of JK (pronounced jay-kay) among the friends of my then young children; for them, it meant "just kidding".

  21. David Morris said,

    April 20, 2019 @ 5:41 am

    Similar to 번하드's comment of 8 April, a few days ago I saw a comment on Facebook to one of my wife's nieces from a friend, which read in its entirety: ㅅㄹㅎ, which I had to look up online and found is text shorthand for 사랑해요 (sa-rang hae-yo, I love you). Her reply in its entirety read: ㄴㄷㅅㄹㅎ which I comfortably guess means 나도 사랑해요 (na-do sa-rang hae-yo, I love you, too).

  22. Steve Bacher said,

    April 21, 2019 @ 5:56 pm

    It occurred to me not so long ago that the two dominant economies in the world (the USA and China) happen to have native languages that are possibly the two most difficult and time-consuming to learn to write: Chinese with its thousands of ideographs, and English with its thousands of anomalous and unpredictable spellings. Contrary to what I may have thought previously, it seems that the mental training required to master writing in either language toughens up one's faculties to achieve excellence in other areas.

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