Korean – Overview and History of the Language

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Are you curious about Korean? Or maybe you want to know the difference between the South Korean and North Korean languages?

You’ve come to the right place!

We’re going to cover everything you need to know about the Korean language. We’ll also include some resources you can use if you decide you want to learn the Korean language, or just know how to speak Korean for a trip out to the Korean Peninsula.

Here we go!

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Korean Language Overview

The Korean language is spoken by more than 75 million people worldwide. The majority of the speakers live in South and North Korea, where it is the official language. It has its own language family with no other known modern languages in it.

The Korean taught in classrooms and spoken by Koreans today was formed a few hundred years ago. Before that, older versions of Korean were spoken.

Korean Language Dialects

The Korean language has nine different dialects. Both South and North Korea have their own standard Korean dialects, which are used in an official setting. In the South, it is Seoul’s dialect. In the North, it is Seoul’s dialect mixed with Pyeongyang’s region’s dialect.

Map of North and South Korea

Additionally, there are two more dialects spoken in North Korea and five more dialects spoken in South Korea. Of these, the most different from standard Korean is the dialect spoken on Jeju Island. Because of all of the time apart after the Korean War, the Korean spoken in North Korea has become quite different from the Korean spoken in South Korea. This is because both Korean languages were influenced by the other countries involved in the Korean War.

South Korea’s Korean was influenced by English and North Korea’s was influenced by Russian. Not only have their vocabularies changed but pronunciation as well.

Besides the two Koreas, there are many native Korean speakers living abroad. The regions with the biggest Korean populations are in the United States, China, Japan, Canada, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Russia, Australia, and Kazakhstan.

What is the history of Korean language?

Korean pagoda on a sunny day in a valley

Earliest forms of Korean language have likely existed since the Stone Age although the specific history of the Korean language remains a mystery. Chinese characters were introduced to Korea in the first century BC. They were adapted to the Korean language and became known as Hanja.

These characters were officially used in Korea until just 100 years ago, when Hangul, the Korean alphabet, finally became popular as the writing system. Even today, you can still see Hanja in some use in South Korea, especially in official documents.

In North Korea, however, they have officially not been used since 1949. Many words borrowed from Chinese have been replaced with native Korean words in North Korea. The Chinese loan words still used in North Korea are written in Hangul now. You can find Hanja in special situations, such as in North Korean dictionaries.

Hangul, the Korean alphabet, was created by King Sejong in 1443. In North Korea, it’s called Joseongul. It finally became the most important writing system in both North and South Korea after World War 2 and the Korean War. There are 14 consonants and 10 vowels in Hangul. These are then combined into blocks to form words. Hangul (also spelled “Hangeul”) can be learned in about 1 hour.

Does the Korean language have tones?

No, Korean doesn’t have tones. If you can read Hangul, it’s easy to pronounce Korean words. That’s because most of them are written the same way as they are pronounced.

There are some exceptions, but overall the pronunciation rules are very simple and clear. You will also not find tones in standard Korean so getting started with speaking Korean is quite effortless.

Korean can be written in English letters following an official romanization system. It’s useful for approximating Korean words into English, but it’s not good for pronunciation.

What is Korean grammar like?

The basic word order for Korean sentences is subject-object-verb. However, the word order for Korean is also flexible and the verb is often the only word you need for the sentence to make sense. Like this, it’s easy to start creating sentences right away for beginners in Korean. If you wish to start learning Korean grammar today, start with our guide on Korean grammar for beginners.

There are nine parts of speech in the Korean language. These parts are nouns, pronouns, numbers, action verbs, adverbs, descriptive verbs and adjectives, interjections and exclamations, particles and postpositions and, lastly, determiners, pronouns, and indeclinable adjectives.

What are Korean honorifics?

The Korean language uses honorifics and speech levels to show the relationship between the speaker and who they’re speaking to or speaking of. Honorifics are important to use when talking of someone with higher status or older age. For example, you would use honorifics if you are talking about or to your parents.

Different speech levels are used depending on who you are talking to. If they are older and have a higher status than you, then you should use 존댓말 (jondaetmal) which is the polite speech level. With friends and people younger than you, it’s okay to use 반말 (banmal) which is the informal speech level. There is also a neutral speech level which you can use in general situations, like with people who are similar age and status to you but not a close friend (Note that Korean age is different than international age).

Does the Korean language have genders?

Technically there is no gender in Korean grammar. This means words are not categorized separately, like in French, for example. And because you only need the verb in your sentence, you might not also clearly use “he” or “she” in your sentence like you would in English.

However, by using 그 (geu) for a man and 그녀 (geunyeo) for a woman in your speech or text, you can make it clear whether you are talking about a man or a woman. Additionally, Korean vocabulary also owns a lot of words that are specific to a gender like 오빠 (oppa) for men, meaning big brother, and 언니 (eonni) for women, meaning big sister, or other familial titles that are specific to a gender.

What is Korean vocabulary like?

Korean vocabulary consists of native Korean words at its core. However, a lot of the vocabulary consists of words that were directly borrowed from the Chinese language.

There are also many words that were adapted to the Korean language from Chinese characters. The exact amount of these words in Korean vocabulary is not known, but estimations vary from as low as 30% to as high as 65%.

In addition to these words, as well as the previously mentioned loan words from English and Russian, the Korean language has also borrowed from other languages. For example, there are some parts of Korean vocabulary that come from Mongolian. And then there are some words which were adapted from Japanese, which in turn originated from German.

This has also led to additional differences in vocabularies in use in South and in the North, as North Korea has tried to implement as many native Korean words into daily use as possible, decreasing the number of words taken from Chinese. Thus, there are some popular vocabularies in use in North Korea that does not exist in South Korea, and vice versa. Over the years the two main dialects of Korean have also developed differences in pronunciation, spelling, and grammar.

Korean language and literature

To give a picture of Korean language and literature

One of the parts of Korean culture that has been the most impacted by the evolution of the Korean language is literature. While some form of literature, such as oral literature, has existed since the discovery of the earliest form of Korean, its current form of literature is newer.

Initially, when the Chinese characters were introduced to Koreans, all of the literature, poetry, and so on were written in Chinese characters. So technically most of the Korean literature before the 20th century was written in Chinese, even after Hangul was created.

The first form of poetry was discovered during Silla Dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD). However, the form of poetry that has best lasted until nearly the modern days, called sijo, was created during Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897). The first written historical records, and thus the birth of prose in Korea, date back to Goryo Dynasty (918–1392). All in all, Korean literature’s origins can be traced all the way back to Old Stone Age.

The first modern Korean novel was published in 1917. A lot of the early period for modern Korean literature was influenced by Western poetry which was translated into Korean. By the 1930s, modern Korean literature reached maturity and has continued evolving ever since to what literature in the two Koreas looks like today.

That wraps it up for our writeup on Korean. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this and know a bit more about the Korean language and culture. If you’d like to learn more we’ve got some fantastic resources on things like Korean slang, Korean phrases, and Korean numbers that you can put into action right away.

We also have a structured online Korean course that will teach you how to have a 3 minute conversation in the first 90 days.

Is there anything else that you’re curious about? Please let us know in the comments below!

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