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HOME > Useful Information > Korea in Brief > Language

Linguistic and ethnological studies have classified the Korean language in the Altaic language family, which includes the Turkic, Mongolic and Tungus-Manchu languages.

The Korean Alphabet Hangeul, was created by King Sejong the Great during the 15th century. Before its creation, only a relatively small percentage of the population could master the Chinese characters due to their difficulty.

In attempting to invent a Korean writing system, King Sejong looked to several writing systems known at the time, such as old Chinese seal characters and Uighur and Mongolian scripts.

Hangeul which consists of 10 vowels and 14 consonants, can be combined to form numerous syllabic groupings. It is simple, yet systematic and comprehensive, and is considered one of the most scientific writing systems in the world. Hangeul is easy to learn and write, which has greatly contributed to Korea's high literacy rate and advanced publication industry.

Korean language is spoken by about 70 million people. Although most speakers of Korean live on the Korean Peninsula and its adjacent islands, more than 5 million are scattered throughout the world.

The origin of the Korean language is as obscure as the origins of the Korean people. In the 19th century when Western scholars "discovered" the Korean language, from what family of languages the Korean language derived was one of the first question. These scholars proposed various theories linking the Korean language with Ural-Altaic, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, Dravidian, Ainu, Indo-European and other languages. Among these theories, only the relationship between Korean and Altaic (which groups the Turkic, Mongolian and Manchu-Tungus languages) and the relationship between Korean and Japanese have continuously attracted the attention of comparative linguists in the 20th century.

Altaic, Korean and Japanese not only exhibit similarities in their general structure, but also share common features such as vowel harmony and lack of conjunctions, although the vowel harmony in old Japanese has been the object of dispute among specialists in the field. These languages also have various common elements in their grammar and vocabulary.


According to early historical records, two groups of languages were spoken in Manchuria and on the Korean Peninsula at the dawn of the Christian era: one belonged to the Northern Buyeo group and the other to the Southern Han group. Around the middle of the 7th century when the kingdom of Silla unified the peninsula, its language became the dominant form of communication. As a result, the linguistic unification of the peninsula was achieved on the basis of the Silla language.

When the Goryeo Dynasty was founded in the 10th century, the capital was moved to Gaeseong, located at the center of the Korean Peninsula. From that time onward, the dialect of Gaeseong became the standard national language. After the Joseon Dynasty was founded at the end of the 14th century, the capital was moved to Hanyang, today's Seoul. However, since Seoul is geographically close to Gaeseong, the move had little significant effect on the development of the language.

Korean Script

The Korean script which is now generally called Han-geul was invented in 1443 under the reign of King Sejong (r.1418-1450), the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty. It was then called Hunminjeongeum, or proper sounds to instruct the people. The script was promulgated in 1446 in a document which was also called Hunminjeongeum. The motivation behind the invention of the Korean script, according to King Sejong's preface to the above book, was to enable the Korean people to write their own language without the use of Chinese characters. Until the introduction of Hunminjeongeum,

In attempting to invent a Korean writing system, King Sejong and the scholars who assisted him probably looked to several writing systems known to them at the time, such as Chinese old seal characters, the Uighur script and the Mongolian scripts. The system that they came up with, however, is predominantly based upon their own phonological studies. Above all, they developed a theory of tripartite division of the syllable into initial, medial and final, as opposed to the bipartite division of traditional Chinese phonology.

The initial sounds (consonants) are represented by 17 letters of which there are five basic forms. According to the explanations of the original Hunminjeongeum text,

ㄱ (g) depicts the root of the tongue blocking the throat;
ㄴ (n) depicts the outline of the tongue touching the upper palate;
ㅁ (m) depicts the outline of the mouth;
ㅅ (s) depicts the outline of the incisor; and
ㅇ (ng) depicts the outline of the throat.

The other initial letters were derived by adding strokes to the basic letters. No letters were invented for the final sounds, the initial letters being used for that purpose.

The original Hunminjeongeum text also explains that the medial sounds (vowels) are represented by 11 letters of which there are three basic forms:

. (a) is a depiction of Heaven
_ (eu) is a depiction of Earth
l (i) is a depiction of man
By combining these three signs, the other medial letters are formed.

After the promulgation of the Korean alphabet, its popularity gradually increased, particularly in modern times, to the point where it has replaced Chinese characters as the primary writing system in the country.

나무 (na-mu) "tree"
사람 (sa-ram) "man"
손님 (son-nim) "guest".

One of the more interesting characteristics of the Korean script is its syllabic grouping of the initial, medial and final letters. Some examples are as follows:

Standard Language and Orthography

Modern Korean is divided into six dialects: Central, Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Jeju. Except for the Jeju dialect, these are similar enough for speakers of the various dialects to communicate. This is due to the fact that Korea has been a centralized state for more than a thousand years. The language of the capital exercised a steady influence on the language spoken throughout the country.

The language of the capital was established as the basis for modern standard Korean in 1936, as a result of the deliberations of a committee organized by the Korean Language Research Society. The language of the political and cultural center of a nation usually becomes the standard language for the entire population. In Korea, however, the case was somewhat different, since the guidelines for the national language standard were set forth by a small but dedicated group of scholars who had worked during the Japanese occupation. They endeavored to preserve their own language in the face of an oppressive regime which had sought the eventual extinction of the Korean language.

Modern orthography was also determined by this same Korean Language Research Society in 1933. In this way, Korean orthography, rather than being a product of a gradual process of natural selection, was deliberately manufactured. Whereas 15th century orthography had been based on a phonemic principle, with each letter representing one phoneme, modern Korean orthography operates on a morphophonemic principle. That is, while a morpheme, or a minimum meaningful unit, may be realized differently according to its context, its orthographic representation is a single base form. The Korean word "?" for "price," for example, is pronounced [gaps] or [gap], according to the context; nevertheless, it is always spelled according to its base form, "값"


The Korean language possesses a rich variety of vowels and consonants with nine simple vowels and three series of stops and affricates: plain, aspirated, and glottalized. These variations make it difficult for foreigners to learn and pronounce the language. They also complicate the task of Romanization.

Phonemes of the plain stop series are realized as unvoiced sounds in the word-initial position, voiced sounds in the intervocalic position and unreleased sounds in the word-final position, e.g. 갑 [gap] "case or small box" and 갑에 [gabe] "in the case." The liquid phoneme is realized as [r] in the intervocalic position and [l] in the word-final position. For example, 달 [dal] "moon," and 달에 [dare] "at the moon."

Stops Velar ㄱ (g, k) ㄲ(kk) ㅋ(k)
Dental ㄷ(d, t) ㄸ(tt) ㅌ(t)
Labial ㅂ(b, p) ㅃ(pp) ㅍ(p)
Affricates ㅈ (j) ㅉ(jj) ㅊ(ch)
Fricatives ㅅ (s) ㅆ(ss) ㅎ(h)
Nasals ㅁ(m) ㄴ(n) ㅇ(ng)
Liquid ㄹ(r, l)
Notes: The letter o has a double function: in the final position, it denotes a nasal consonant (n, g), while in the initial position, it denotes that the syllable begins with a vowel.

Simple ㅏ (a) ㅓ(eo) ㅗ(o) ㅜ(u)
Vowels ㅡ(eu) ㅣ(i) ㅐ(ae) ㅔ(e) ㅚ(oe)
Diphthongs ㅑ (ya) ㅕ(yeo) ㅛ(yo) ㅠ(yu) ㅒ (yae) ㅖ(ye) ㅢ(ui) ㅘ(wa) ㅝ(wo) ㅙ(wae) ㅞ(we) ㅟ(wi)

Another characteristic of modern Korean is that there are no consonant clusters or liquid sounds in the word-initial position. As a result, Koreans pronounce the English word "stop" in two syllables, as [seu-top], and change the initial [l] or [r] in foreign words to [n]. Recently, however, there has been a tendency to pronounce initial liquid sounds in Western loan words.


Korean is a difficult language to Romanize, given the variety of vowel and consonant phonemes and the complex rules for their realization. Of the Romanization systems that have been in use since the 19th century, the most widely accepted have been the McCune-Reischauer System (1939), and the Ministry of Education System (1959). The former has been used mainly in the United States and other Western countries, while the latter has been used in Korea. In 1984, however, the Korean system was revised along the lines of the McCune-Reischauer System, with a few modifications, so that the two systems most widely used in Korea and the West were, in effect, the same.

Examples of Syllabics
가 (ga) 격(gyeok) 관(gwan) 오(o) 옹(ong) 왕(wang)

Examples of Sentences
마을 앞 에 높 은 산 이 있 다.
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9)

There is a high mountain in front of the village

(1) Noun: village
(2) Noun: front
(3) Locative particle: at, in
(4) Adjectival stem: to be high
(5) Ending, marking the modifier
(6) Noun: mountain
(7) Particle, marking the subject
(8) Verbal stem: to exist
(9) Sentence-final ending

There was, however, a drastic revision of Romanization system by the Korean Government in 2000, which, in effect, returned to the system of 1959. This was made necessary by the widespread use of the computer which required automatic transliteration in searching words. There also was the need to adopt a system which does not use diacritical signs as those seen in the M-R System. The Romanized forms in this book reflect the latest revised system.

Morphology and Syntax

Korean is one of the so-called agglutinative languages which add suffixes to nominal and verbal stems in derivation and inflection. Suffixes agglutinate one after another and indicate different styles of speech, express moods and aspects, and function as case markers, connectives, etc. Vowel gradation, that is, the change of vowels to make morphological distinctions such as singular-plural in nouns (e.g. man-men) and present-past in verbs (e.g. sing-sang), is not found in Korean.

Korean is a verb-final language: the verb is always the last constituent of the sentence. Constituents other than verbs are relatively free to switch around, although the normal and preferred word order is subject-object-verb. In Korean, modifying words or phrases precede the modified words without exception: adjectives precede nouns, adverbs precede verbs, etc. Since Korean has no relative clauses, the clauses precede the nouns they modify however long they may be. One of the important characteristics of Korean grammar is the honorific system. Korean is perhaps the only language in the world which has honorific suffixes such as -si-, exalting the subject of the sentence, and -seumni-, showing the speaker's respect to the hearer. Although Japanese has a well-developed system of honorific expressions, it is different from that of Korean in that it utilizes auxiliary verbs instead of suffixes.


The vocabulary of the Korean language is composed of indigenous words and loanwords, the latter being the result of contact with other languages. The majority of the loanwords are of Chinese origin, often called Sino-Korean words, a reflection of several millennia of Chinese cultural influence on Korea. In modern Korean, native words are significantly outnumbered by Sino-Korean words. As a result, a dual system of native and Sino-Korean words pervades the Korean lexicon, including two sets of numerals which are interchangeable in some cases but mutually exclusive in others. For example, native numerals are used with si (the hour, i.e. ahop si, "nine o'clock") but Sino-Korean numerals are used with bun (the minute, i.e. gu bun, "nine minutes"). The process of modernization has resulted in a steady flow of Western words entering the Korean language. Technological and scientific terms represent the majority of these loanwords, although Western terms have been introduced into almost every field.
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