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The Korean Language 

The Koreans are one ethnic family speaking one language.  They share certain distinct physical characteristics which differentiate them from other Asian people including the Chinese and the Japanese, and have a strong cultural identity as one ethnic family.

The Korean language is spoken by more than 65 million people living on the peninsula and its outlying islands as well as 5.5 million Koreans living in other parts of the world.  The fact that all Koreans speak and write the same language has been a crucial factor in their strong national identity.  Modern Korea has several different dialects including the standard one used in Seoul and central areas, but they are similar enough that speakers/listeners do not have trouble understanding each other.

Linguistic and ethnological studies have established that the Korean language belongs to the Ural-Altaic group of Central Asia, which also includes Turkish, Hungarian, Finnish, Mongolian and Japanese.

Korean, like Japanese, also includes a rich vocabulary borrowed from Chinese in the same way many European languages includes a large number of words of Latin and Greek derivation.  Han-gul, the Korean alphabet (originally called Hunmin chong-um) was invented in 1446 by a group of scholars under the patronage of King Sejong, and consists of 10 vowels and 14 consonants which are used to form numerous syllabic groupings.  Han-gul is easy to learn and write, which has greatly contributed to the high literary rate of Koreans.  



 

Overview

한국말(Korean)

Korean 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 questions posed about the language. 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. Moreover, it has been found that these languages have various common elements in their grammar and vocabulary.  Although much work remains to be done, research seems to show that Korean is probably related to both Altaic and Japanese.

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HISTORY

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 Puyo group and the other to the Southern Han group.  Around the middle of the seventh century when the kingdom of Shilla 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 Shilla language.

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

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SCRIPT

조선시대(Choson Dynasty)

The Korean script which is now generally called Han-gul was invented in 1443 under the reign of Hing Sejong (r. 1418-1450), the fourth king of the Choson Dynasty.  It was then called Hunmin Chong-um, or proper sounds to instruct the people.  However, evidence for a script version did not appear until 1446 when 훈민정음 Hunmin Chong-um appeared in a written document.  The motivation behind the invention of the Korean script, according to 세종대왕King 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 Hunmin Chong-um, Chinese characters were used by the upper classes, and Idu letters, a kind of Chinese-based Korean character system, were used by the populace.  There also seems to have been a second motivation behind the development of Korean script: to represent the "proper" sound associated with each Chinese character.

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 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.  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 Humin Chong-um text also explains that the medial sounds (vowels) are represented by 11 letters of which there are three basic forms.

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 altogether.

One of the more interesting characteristics of the Korean script is its syllabic grouping of the initial, medial and final letters.  However, the Korean script is essentially different from such syllabic writing systems as Japanese Kana.  It is an alphabetic system which is characterized by syllabic grouping.

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Standard Language and Orthography

Modern Korean is divided into six dialects: Central, Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Cheju.  Except for the Cheju 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 Korea 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 standard language for the entire population.  In Korea, however, he 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, which 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.

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Phonology

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 lean and pronounce the language.  They also complicate the task of Romanization.

Phonemes of the plain stop series are realized as unvoiced sounds in the world-initial position, voiced sounds in the intervocalic position and unreleased sounds in the word-final position, e.g. kap (kap) "case or small box" and kap-e " (kabe) in the case." The liquid phoneme is realized as "r" in the intervocalic position and "l" in the word-final position.  For example, tar (tal) "moon" and tar-e (tare) "at the moon."

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 (swt'op), 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.

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The Korean Alphabet

ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅍ ㅎ 

ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅢ 

Korean is similar to the Altaic languages in that it possesses vowel harmony.  Evidence that vowel harmony was rigidly observed in old Korean, but rules have been significantly weakened in modern Korean.  Vowel harmony nevertheless continues to play an important role in the onomatopoetic and mimetic words so abundant in the language.

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Romanization

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 used since the 19th century, the most widely accepted have been the McCume-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 Korean and the West are now, in effect, the same.

The system is a phonetic one, designed to faithfully represent modern Korean pronunciation with the Latin alphabet.  Under this system, a single phoneme of Korean may be represented by more than one Latin letter, depending on how the Korean phoneme is realized in a given context.  As explained above, plain stops and affricates in modern Korea are pronounced as either unvoiced or voiced sounds, and the liquid "r" and "l," depending on the context.  The 1984 Romanization system reflects these variations.

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Vocabulary

The vocabulary of the Korean language is composed of indigenous words and loanwords, the latter being the result of contacts 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 native numbers are used with the shi (the house, i.e. ahop shi, "nine o'clock") but Sino-Korean numerals are used with pun (the minute, i.e. ka pun, "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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Information provided by the Korean Embassy

 

 

 
 
 
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