five hundred years ago, the Korean writing system was specifically designed to be easy to learn. similar sounds are written with similar characters, and related sounds have consistent patterns. some characters are actually pictures of the way your mouth pronounces them. seriously, check out this video and come back when you’re done.
many years later, the Korean keyboard layout seems to have been designed according to the same philosophy.
(don’t worry, i’ve written this article so that people with minimal knowledge about Korean can understand it.)
the first thing you’ll notice is that the left hand takes all the consonants and the right hand takes all the vowels. you can’t do this with English, but you can with Korean, because it happens to have a similar number of consonants and vowels: 14 of each, not including combinations.
the vowels yae and ye are then placed on Shift modifications of ae and e, which fits all the letters onto 26 keys, just like in English. and because Korean uses roman-style rather than Chinese- and Japanese-style punctuation, this allows the punctuation keys to remain unchanged between Korean and English, making it easy to switch between the two.
splitting the keyboard into consonants and vowels not only makes it easier to remember, it also causes good hand alternation, which makes typing faster because while one hand is hitting the current key, your other hand can start reaching for the next one.
the one exception to the consonant–vowel split is that yu is a vowel, but it’s placed on the B key, the rightmost key typed with the left hand.
5 of the consonants have “twin” versions, not included in the individual 14: b j d g s and bb jj dd gg ss. twin consonants are “tense”, pronounced with more stress than their plain counterparts. (official romanizations differ slightly.)
the twin consonants are placed on Shift modifications of their plain counterparts, and these are placed on the first 5 keys on the upper row, which is easy to remember.
if you’re curious, the twin consonants couldn’t be typed by hitting their plain versions twice in a row, because that would cause ambiguity: you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between one syllable ending with s and the next syllable starting with s too, versus just ss at the beginning of the second syllable.
4 of the consonants have aspirated counterparts, included in the individual 14: b j d g and p ch t k. see how they sound similar? aspirated consonants have an extra burst of air, which you can feel if you hold your hand in front of your mouth while saying p versus b, for example.
the aspirated consonants are placed on the first 4 keys on the lower row, and they correspond with the first 4 letters on the upper row.
for some reason though, the aspirated consonants go in reverse order of their plain counterparts; i haven’t thought of a good reason for this. if they had gone in the same order, you would have been able to use the same finger for related pairs, like b and p, j and ch, and so on.
the consonant s has a twin version, but no aspirated counterpart, so that’s why it’s the 5th key in the upper row; it’s in the group of 5 twin consonants, but not in the group of 4 aspirated consonants.
that leaves just 5 more consonants, which don’t have any counterparts: m n (empty) l h. these are placed on home row.
horizontal and vertical vowels
Korean vowels are written as long horizontal or vertical lines with short perpendicular marks. each syllable block can have either a horizontal vowel, a vertical vowel, or a horizontal vowel followed by a vertical vowel.
on the keyboard, horizontal and vertical vowels are grouped separately.
merely separating the two groups of vowels makes them easier to remember, but the key is that the vertical vowels are above and to the right of the horizontal vowels.
this exactly follows how syllable blocks are written when they have two vowels, meaning the keys are arranged spatially. this has a remarkable effect: when you type Korean, you feel like you’re tapping directly on the letters where they appear in the syllable block.
there are only so many possible vowel pairs, and they all start with one of o u eu and end with one of eo a i ae e. in all these pairs, the second vowel is placed above or to the right of the first vowel, and because all consonants are on the left too, the keys you type are all roughly mapped to their final positions in the syllable block you’re typing.
it really is a cool feeling.
direction of vowel markings
the horizontal and vertical vowels are then divided into subgroups. for the horizontal vowels, vowels with short marks above the long line are placed above, and vowels with marks below are placed below. likewise for the vertical vowels: vowels with marks to the left are placed to the left, and vowels with marks to the right are placed to the right.
this further makes the layout easier to remember and feel more spatial when you type on it.
it’s not perfect—ae and e are exceptions, although it’s easy to remember those two as a separate group because they’re the only vowels written with two long lines.
i also wish that i were in between eo and a. since i has no mark, it would fit perfectly between eo with a left mark and a with a right mark. this would have broken up a and ya next to each other though.
number of vowel markings
finally, vowels with two marks are placed further away than their one-mark counterparts. two-mark vowels are pronounced the same way, just with a y- sound before them.
again, this makes the layout easier to remember, and it’s also practical because the y- vowels are less common than the regular vowels. and also again, ae and e are exceptions; their y- counterparts are on Shift modifications.
do you remember how long it took you to learn to type in English? Qwerty is nonsensical, not grouped by letter type in any way. the vowels are scattered, and good luck finding any relationship between D and T, or G and K, for example—most English speakers aren’t even aware of the relationships between these sounds, because the letters don’t indicate them.
logical grouping makes the Korean keyboard layout remarkably easy to learn. most people who learn it won’t analyze in such detail, but they’ll benefit from somehow being able to pick it up easily, and experience that unique feeling of spatially arranged letters.
the Korean keyboard layout follows the same philosophy as the Korean writing system: the easier something is to learn, the more people can make good use of it. these two systems were designed centuries apart, and yet they follow the same guiding principle. that, to me, is delightful and charming.