Spoken by approximately 78 million people around the world, the Korean language has an intriguing linguistic and cultural history. With the Korean language’s obscure history, experience with suppression and a past peppered with unresolved questions, the fact that it remains one of the world’s oldest living languages is all the more impressive.
History of the Korean Language: From Hanja to Hangul
Beginning in the 5th century AD, the Korean language was originally written in hanja, borrowed Chinese characters that were spoken with a unique Korean pronunciation. This continued until 1443, when King Sejong the Great commissioned a group of scholars to help him devise a Korean language alphabet that all of the Korean people could use.
The decision to develop an alphabet that could be used by all the Korean peoples was revolutionary at that time. Before this, only Korea’s upper class utilized hanja because, unlike the lower classes, they were educated to read and write in Chinese.
King Sejong’s alphabet was considered onmun, or “vulgar letters,” by the Japanese, and it was actually banned when Japan colonized Korea in the early 20th century. King Sejong’s original alphabet was revived after World War II, however, and from then on referred to as Hangul, or “top letters.”
King Sejong’s Korean Writing System
A number of theories exist as to how King Sejong developed the Korean writing system based on Hangul, which still serves as the Korean language’s primary writing system to this day.
Some linguists believe that Hangul was based on the characters of the Mongolian writing system of his time. Others claim that it was designed so that each letter resembles the mouth’s shape as it forms the letter’s sound.
Linguistic Lineage of the Korean Language
Some linguists classify Korean as having developed from the Altaic language family, which is generally thought to include languages such as Japanese, Mongolian, and Turkish. Others consider it to be a language isolate, meaning it is has no evident genealogical relationship to any other languages.
Due to a lack of concrete knowledge about the language’s origins, there is no one theory that is totally accepted, and the genealogical classification of the Korean language remains a point of contention to this day.
Borrowed Korean Grammatical Features and Vocabulary
Korean shares both grammatical features and vocabulary from the Japanese and Chinese languages.
Most linguists, however, argue that this is not caused by a “genetic” relationship to any other language. Instead, Korean appears to have borrowed from these languages – notably Chinese, from which Korean has borrowed thousands of words. In fact, an estimated 50 percent of Korean vocabulary words are either borrowed directly from written Chinese or have been coined using Chinese characters.
Today, the Korean language also shows evidence of having borrowed words from Mongolian, Sanskrit, and more. Most contemporary new words are borrowed from the English language, such as “weding deureseu” (“wedding dress”).
Korean as an Official Language
Korean is an official language in both North Korea and South Korea, as well as one of the official languages of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China.
South Koreans most commonly refer to the language as Hangungmal or Hangugeo, while speakers in North Korea and those in China generally refer to the language as Chosonmal or Chosono.
Korean Language Dialects
There are several dialects throughout North Korea and South Korea. The standard language of South Korea is based on the dialect of the Seoul area, while the North Korean standard is based on the dialect spoken in the Pyongyang area.
The varying dialects of the Korean language are generally very similar – a speaker from one province will have almost no difficulty understanding another speaker with a different dialect. The primary difference occurs in factors such as stress and intonation when speaking.
North vs. South Korean Language
General differences between the Korean language spoken in North Korea vs. South Korea include characteristics such as pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and even vocabulary.
One noteworthy difference between the language in North Korea and South Korea is the use of hanja, the characters borrowed from the Chinese language and adapted to Korean pronunciation. Korean is now primarily written in Hangul, the alphabet developed by King Sejong the Great. Although North Korea banned the use of hanja characters, South Korean schools continue to teach approximately 2,000 hanja characters.
The Significance of Social Status in the Korean Language
The Korean language places a large amount of importance on honorifics, grammatical forms used to convey honor or respect when speaking with a social superior. Special nouns or verb endings are used to indicate respect when speaking to a person who is a social superior.
Who is deemed to be of superior social status in Korean society? Generally someone is considered superior if he or she is older or holds a position of rank, such as an employer or teacher. Honorifics are an essential part of the Korean language and should be used correctly in order to avoid offence.
Korean Language in the Former USSR
It may come as a surprise that a significant number of Korean communities can be found in the former USSR. An estimated 500,000 ethnic Koreans reside in the former USSR. Most refer to themselves as Koryo-saram and the Korean language they speak as Goryeomal.
The majority of Koreans in the former USSR appear to have roots tracing back to the Far East of Russia, which housed a significant border minority in the early 19th century. After Imperial Japan occupied Korea in the 1920s, the number of Korean immigrants in this area rose drastically, nearly tripling.
A proposition to give the Korean minority its own autonomous territory was rejected by Moscow in 1925. In 1930, the Russian government began a resettlement plan, moving approximately 500 Korean families to the North, and later undertaking large-scale forced resettlement to other areas in the USSR.
Korean Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Hanguohua, Hanguk Mal, Hangungmal, Hangugeo, Chosonmal, Chosono, Goryeomal
Language Family: Language Isolate
Spoken by Approximately 72,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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