The Korean Language

Yanbian (Yeonbeon; 연변) Province, China

Yanbian (Yeonbeon; 연변) Province, China

The Korean language, known as 한국어 (韓國語) “han-gu-geo”, and in North Korean it’s called 조선말 (朝鮮말) “cho-son-mal”. Korean is one of the major languages of Northeast Asia, spoken as a first language by a total of about 80 million people. In South Korea, there are about 50 million Korean speakers, while in North Korea, there are about 25 million Korean speakers. Also in other parts of China especially the Jilin province, specifically the Yeonbeon (연변) and Changbaek (장백) region. Korean is also spoken in minority communities in Japan, Russia, parts of South-east Asia, and through out the world.

The origin of the Korean language is much debated and a lot of its root is unknown. Korean has been classified to be part of the Altaic language family[1][2], yet some sources classified Korean under the Japonic, Mongolic, or Turkic languages. As many of such theories remain unvalidated to date, Korean is thus classified as a language isolate, the sole member of the Koreanic language family. This lack of evidence is partially due to the lack of samples of older Korean texts and writing system. The oldest samples are less than 1000 years old and they were written in Chinese characters, which makes them hard to decipher.

Changbai (Changbaek; 장백) Region, or the Jilin Province in China.

Changbai (Changbaek; 장백) Region, of the Jilin Province in China.

Old Korean

Old Korean dates back to as early as the first century, during the beginning of the Three Kingdoms Period. The kingdoms are Goguryeo (고구려; Koguryŏ), Baekje (백제), and Silla (신라). It is not known for sure how closely the languages of these kingdoms were related. They may have been the spoken Korean dialects, which were distinct members of the Koreanic language family. Although these languages may have been similar, their distinct characteristics remain unknown due to limited information.

It was believed that there could have been two distinct groups of Koreanic languages — the Buyeo (부여; 扶餘) group (probably spoken in Buyeo, Goguryeo, and the Baekje region), and the Han (한; 韓) group (mainly spoken in the Silla kingdom). In South Korea, many believe that Silla is the direct ancestor of Modern Korean, while in North Korea, it is believed that Goguryeo is the direct ancestor of Modern Korean.

When the kingdom of Silla conquered the rest of the remaining Korean kingdoms and unified Korea in the 7th century, the Silla variety became the dominant language of the Korean peninsula. The old form of Korean then, became the ancestor of Middle Korean. Nevertheless, Korea has been heavily influenced by China throughout its history, through invasion attempts, extensive trade, and forged alliances.

Since Korean did not have its own writing system, it adopted the Chinese writing system and huge amount of Chinese vocabulary.

Middle Korean

After the fall of the Silla Dynasty in the 10th century, the Goryeo dynasty took over the Korean Peninsula and moved its capital to Gaesong. Thus, the Gaesong dialect became the prestige language at that time. By this period, practically every one in the Korean Peninsula spoke the same language despite the dialect shift. Here is where the earliest sources of Korean writing system was found, written phonetically using Chinese characters. One such record came from a Chinese Song Dynasty writer named, Sūn Mù (孫穆). In his writings, the Jīlínlèishì (雞林類事) was recorded in Goryeo-era Korean in the year 1103.

In Middle Korean, there were altogether four different tones. This was found in the Hangul writing system, which began in 1443, and promulgated three years later by the fourth Joseon king, Sejong the Great. The original Hunminjeongeum (훈민정음; 訓民正音) was an entirely new native script for the Korean people, which was later known as “Hangul” (한글).

Modern Korean

For centuries, Korean was often written and/or published in a mixed script. Similar to Modern Japanese, it used Chinese characters, also known as Hanja, for content words, and Hangul for functional or grammatical words, and inflections.

After the Japanese occupation, a significant amount of Japanese vocabulary was absorbed into the Korean language. Decades later, Hanja gradually became de-emphasized in favor of Hangul. Most modern Korean texts are written entirely in Hangul, with exceptions where Hanja was used to prevent possible ambiguity between homophones.


Korean Hangul Script

The Korean Hangul consists of 14 consonants and 5 double consonants, as well as 10 basic vowels, and 11 compound vowels. Each one of these components form a word block, which can easily be recognizable at a single glance when one has sufficient practice reading or studying Hangul.


Korean Hangul Script

Korean Hangul Script

Korean Vocabulary

All words in Modern Korean are written in Hangul, including both native Korean words and Sino-Korean words. Sino-Korean words are of Chinese origin and they account for over 60% of Modern Korean vocabulary. They are very commonly used both in academic or professional context as well as in everyday communication.

Some good examples of Sino-Korean words are:

Sino-Korean Examples of Korean Vocabulary

Korean also contains loanwords from many other languages, mainly English.

Examples of English Loanwords in Korean

Korean Sentence Structure

A typical Korean sentence usually ends with a verb. It follows the Subject-Object-Verb (S-O-V) structure.

Examples of Korean Sentence Structures

Korean Verb Conjugations and Tenses

Korean sentences must end with a verb or an adjective. Both verbs and adjectives are conjugated for past and non-past tense, as well as different level of politeness. For this section, let us examine the verb conjugations.

Korean Verb Conjugations and Tenses

Korean Speech Levels

There are altogether seven levels of politeness in the Korean language, but for starters, it is only essential to focus on just three levels — the Formally Polite, Formally Non-Polite (or Casually Polite), and Informally Non-Polite (or casually impolite).

Informally Non-Polite is used when speaking to very close friends, a sibling who is younger than you, or someone you want to be rude to.

Formally Non-Polite is used when speaking to friends and acquaintances, colleagues, or any service personnel.

Formally Polite is used when speaking to someone of a higher status than you, sometimes sometimes somebody who is much older than you, and people you are meeting for the first time.

Korean Speech Levels and Seven Level of Politeness