> 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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."
ㄱ (g, k) ㄲ(kk) ㅋ(k)
ㄷ(d, t) ㄸ(tt) ㅌ(t)
ㅂ(b, p) ㅃ(pp) ㅍ(p)
ㅈ (j) ㅉ(jj) ㅊ(ch)
ㅅ (s) ㅆ(ss) ㅎ(h)
ㅁ(m) ㄴ(n) ㅇ(ng)
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.
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.