Korean – Facts and History of the Language

Last Updated on October 14, 2020 by 90 Day Korean
Illustration of students reading books

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 Korean. We’ll also include some resources you can put into practice if you decide you want to learn the language, or just know how to speak Korean for a trip out to the Korean Peninsula.

Here we go!

Illustration of students reading books

What is Korean?

Korean can refer to the language, people, or an aspect of the culture. Typically when people say Korean, they are referring to South Korea. However, Korean can also refer to anything in the Korean peninsula and its history.

Is Korean a language?

Yes, Korean is the official language of both North and South Korea. They have different dialects, but the fundamental parts of the language are the same. A North Korean and South Korean would be able to communicate with each other fairly easily.

Korean has its own language family called Koreanic. The Koreanic language consists of mainland Korean plus the dialect on Jeju Island. There are many dialects in Korean, and Jeju is the most significantly different.

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

How many people speak Korean?

Korean 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.

Outside of the Korean peninsula, the cities with the most Koreans in them are Beijing, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, Osaka, Atlanta, and Sydney. The United States, China, and Japan have the largest total number of Korean speakers.

Korean language dialects

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

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

Besides the Korean peninsula, 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.

How many languages are spoken in South Korea?

There is one official language spoken in South Korea, with five different dialects. Seoul dialect is the standard version that is used in speeches and used on news reports.

Some other commonly spoken languages in South Korea are English, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian.

What language is Korean most similar to?

Korean shares some similarities with both Japanese and Chinese. Korean is similar to Japanese in terms of grammar and sentence structure. They both also have their own unique writing systems that is fairly easy to learn. However, the Japanese writing system also uses adopted Chinese characters called Kanji.  The Korean writing system also used something similar called Hanja, but they’re not used as often as in Japanese.

Many words in Korean have Chinese roots, so in that way, it is similar to the Chinese language. However, there are no tones in Korean like there are in Chinese.

Some modern-day newer Korean words, sometimes called Konglish, are adapted from languages such as English and German.

What type of language is Korean?

Korean is a phonetic language, meaning that you can sound out the individual letters to make words. It has an alphabet with individual sounds for each letter, and the letters are read from left to right and top to bottom. There are individual syllables. Many native English speakers can learn the alphabet (Hangul) in about 1-2 hours.

What is the history of the Korean language?

Korean pagoda on a sunny day in a valley

The earliest forms of the language have likely existed since the Stone Age, although the specific history of the language remains a mystery. Chinese characters were introduced to the region in the first century BC. They were adapted to the language and became known as Hanja (한자).

These Chinese 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 some Hanja used in South Korea, especially in official documents.

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

The Hangul system 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.

The Hangeul Alphabet and Writing System

There are 14 consonants and 10 vowels in the Hangul (also spelled “Hangeul”) writing system.  These are then combined into blocks to form words. Writing the basic Korean letters is fairly simple. Many of the letters in the alphabet are only a single line or two.

One convenient aspect of the writing system is that many of the letters in the alphabet have similar equivalent sounds in English. That makes it to learn the letters and sounds fairly easily. Many people can learn basic Hangul in about 1 hour.

Does the Korean language have tones?

No, Korean doesn’t have tones like Chinese. 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 of the language are very simple and clear. You will not find tones in standard Korean, so getting started with speaking is quite effortless.

Korean can be written in English letters following an official romanization system. It’s useful for approximating 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 flexible and the verb is often the only word you need for the sentence to make sense. Thanks to this, it’s easy to start creating sentences right away for beginners who want to practice the language. If you wish to start learning the grammar today, start with our guide on Korean grammar for beginners.

There are nine parts of speech in the 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. If you know Japanese, you may recognize similarities in the grammar structure to Korean.

What are Korean honorifics?

Korean uses honorifics and speech levels to show the relationship between the speaker and who they’re speaking to or speaking of. Speakers need honorifics when talking of someone with higher status or older age. For example, you would make use of 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 존댓말 (jondaetmal) should be used. That is because 존댓말 (jondaetmal) is the polite speech level. With friends and people younger than you, the informal speech level 반말 (banmal) can be used.

Additionally, there is a neutral speech level which is used by speakers in general situations. This speech level may be used 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, as in French, for example. And because you only need a verb in your sentence, you don’t need to write “he” or “she” in your sentence as 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 owns a lot of words that are specific to gender such as 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 many words that were adapted 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 language has borrowed from other languages. For example, there are some parts of the vocabulary that come from Mongolian. And then there are some new words which were adapted from the Japanese language, which in turn originated from German.

This has led to additional differences in vocabularies used in the South and in the North. North Korea has tried to implement as many native Korean words into daily practice as possible, decreasing the number of words taken from the Chinese language. Thus, there are some popular vocabularies used in the North that does not exist in the South, and vice versa. Over the years the two main dialects of Korean have 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 Korean 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 the Chinese language, 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 language and culture. If you want to learn more, we’ve got some fantastic resources on things such as 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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