Korean ( , see below) is the official language of North Korea and South
Korea. It is also one of the two official languages
in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous
Prefecture in China.
- This article is mainly about the spoken Korean
language. See Hangul for details on
the native Korean writing system.
There are about 78 million Korean speakers.
In the 15th century a national writing system was developed by
Sejong the Great
, currently called
The genealogical classification
the Korean language is debated. Some linguists place it in the
language family, while
others consider it to be a language
. Some believe it to be distantly related to Japanese.
Like Japanese it is agglutinative
in its morphology and
in its syntax
The Korean names for the language are based on the names for Korea
used in North and South
In South Korea, the language is most often called
( ; ), or more formally, Hangugeo
( ; ) or Gugeo
( ; ; literally "national language").
In North Korea and Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China,
the language is most often called Chosŏnmal
( ; with
: ), or more formally, Chosŏnŏ
On the other hand, Korean people in the former USSR
, who refer to themselves as
[ ; ; literally, "Goryeo
person(s)"]) call the
( ; ).
In mainland China
, following the
establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, the
( or the short form: Cháoyǔ
has normally been used to refer to the language spoken in North
Korea and Yanbian, while Hánguóyǔ
( or the short form:
( )) is used to refer to the language spoken in
Some older English sources also used the name "Korean" to refer to
the language, country, and people. The word "Korean" is derived from Goryeo, which is
thought to be the first dynasty known to western
The classification of the modern Korean language is uncertain, and
due to the lack of any one generally accepted theory, a cautious
classification will describe it as a language isolate
On the other hand, since the publication of the article of Ramstedt
in 1928, some linguists
support the hypothesis that Korean can be classified as an Altaic
language or as a relative of
proto-Altaic. Korean is similar to the Altaic languages in that
they both lack certain grammatical elements, including articles
, fusional morphology and relative pronouns
. However, linguists agree
today on the fact that typological resemblances cannot be used to
prove genetic relatedness of languages as these features are
typologically connected and easily borrowed. Such factors of
typological divergence as Middle Mongolian's exhibition of gender
agreement can be used to argue that a genetic relationship is
The hypothesis that Korean might be related to Japanese
has had some more supporters due
to some considerable overlap in vocabulary and similar grammatical
features that have been elaborated upon by such researchers as
Samuel E. Martin
. Sergei Starostin
(1991) found about 25% of potential cognates in the Japanese-Korean
100-word Swadesh list
, which - if true
- would place these two languages closer together than other
possible members of the Altaic family.
Other linguists, most notably Alexander
, argue, however, that the similarities are not due to any
genetic relationship, but rather to a sprachbund
effect and heavy borrowing
especially from Korean into Western Old Japanese. A good example
might be Middle Korean sàm
‘hemp’ and Japanese asa
‘hemp’. This word seems to be
cognate, but while it is well-attested in Western Old Japanese and
Northern Ryūkyū, in Eastern Old Japanese it only occurs in
compounds, and it is only present in three subdialects of the
South-Ryūkyūan dialect group. Then, the doublet wo
is attested in Western Old Japanese and Southern Ryūkyū. It is thus
plausible to assume a borrowed term. See East Asian languages
morphological features shared among languages of the East Asian
, and Classification of Japanese
further details on the discussion of a possible relationship.
Korean is descended from Old Korean
and Modern Korean
. Controversy remains over the
language family and
its inclusion of Proto-Korean. Since the Korean War
, contemporary North-South
in Korean have developed, including variance in
pronunciation, verb inflection, and vocabulary.
spoken by the Korean people in North Korea and South
Korea and by the Korean
diaspora in many countries including the People's
Republic of China, Japan, and the
Korean-speaking minorities exist in these
states, but because of cultural
into host countries, not all ethnic Korean
immigrants may speak it with native fluency.
the official language of South Korea and North
Korea. It is also one of the two official languages
of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous
Prefecture in China.
Korea, the regulatory body for Korean is the Seoul-based
Institute of the Korean Language ( ), which was created by
presidential decree on January 23, 1991.
In North Korea, the
regulatory body is the Sahoe Kwahagwon Ŏhak Yŏnguso
Dialects of Korean
Korean has several dialects
[literally "speech"], saturi
in Korean). The standard
language (pyojuneo or pyojunmal) of South
Korea is based on the dialect of the area around Seoul, and the
standard for North Korea is based on the dialect spoken around
P'yŏngyang. All dialects of Korean are similar to each
other, and are in fact all mutually intelligible, perhaps with
the exception of the dialect of Jeju Island (see Jeju
The dialect spoken in Jeju is in fact
classified as a different language by some Korean linguists. One of
the most notable differences between dialects is the use of stress:
speakers of Seoul dialect
little stress, and standard South Korean has a very flat
intonation; on the other hand, speakers of the Gyeongsang dialect
have a very pronounced
It is also worth noting that there is substantial evidence for a
history of extensive dialect
, or even convergent
or intermixture of two or more originally distinct
linguistic stocks, within the Korean language and its dialects.
Many Korean dialects have basic vocabulary that is etymologically
distinct from vocabulary of identical meaning in Standard Korean or
other dialects, such as South Jeolla dialect /kur/ vs. Standard
"mouth" or Gyeongsang
dialect vs. Standard Korean "garlic
." This suggests that the Korean Peninsula may have at
one time been much more linguistically diverse than it is at
present. See also the Buyeo
There is a very close connection between the dialects of Korean and
the regions of Korea
, since the
boundaries of both are largely determined by mountains and seas.
Here is a list of traditional dialect names and locations:
Incheon (인천/仁川), most of Gyeonggi (경기/京畿)
||P'yŏngyang, P'yŏngan region, Chagang (North Korea)
||limited areas of the Gyeonggi region (South Korea)
||Daejeon, Chungcheong region
||Busan, Daegu, Ulsan, Gyeongsang region (South Korea)
||Rasŏn, Hamgyŏng region, Ryanggang (North Korea)
||Hwanghae region (North Korea)
Island/Province (South Korea)
||Gwangju, Jeolla region (South
The Korean consonants
subscript double straight quotation mark, shown here with a
placeholder circle) is used to denote the tensed consonants . Its
official use in the Extensions to
is for 'strong'
articulation, but is used in the literature for faucalized voice
. The Korean consonants
also have elements of stiff voice
it is not yet known how typical this is of faucalized consonants.
They are produced with a partially constricted glottis
and additional subglottal pressure in
addition to tense vocal tract walls, laryngeal lowering, or other
expansion of the larynx.
||, , , , , , , ,
|Vowels preceded by intermediaries,
|, , , , , , , , , , ,
becomes an alveolo-palatal before or for most speakers (but see Differences in the language between North Korea and South Korea). This occurs with the tense fricative and all the affricates as well. At the end of a syllable, /s/ changes to /t/ (Example: beoseot (버섯) 'mushroom').
may become a bilabial before or , a palatal before or , a velar before , a voiced between voiced sounds, and a elsewhere.
become voiced between voiced sounds.
becomes alveolar flap between vowels, and or at the end of a syllable or next to another . Note that a written syllable-final 'ㄹ', when followed by a vowel or a glide (i.e., when the next character starts with 'ㅇ'), migrates to the next syllable and thus becomes .
Traditionally, was disallowed at the beginning of a word. It
disappeared before , and otherwise became . However, the inflow of
western loanword changed the trend, and now word-initial (mostly
from English loanwords) are pronounced as a free variation of
either or . The traditional prohibition of word-initial became a
morphological rule called "initial law" (두음법칙) in South Korea,
which pertains to Sino-Korean vocabulary. Such words retain their
word-initial in North Korea.
fricatives) are unreleased
end of a word.
Plosive stops become nasal stops before nasal stops.
spelling does not reflect these
assimilatory pronunciation rules, but rather maintains the
underlying, partly historical morphology
. Given this, it is
sometimes hard to tell which actual phonemes are present in a
One difference between the pronunciation standards of North and
South Korea is the treatment of initial , and initial . For
- "labour" - north: rodong (로동), south:
- "history" - north: ryŏksa (력사),
south: yeoksa (역사)
- "female" - north: nyŏja (녀자), south:
Grammatical morphemes may change shape depending on the preceding
sounds. Examples include -eun/-neun
(-이/-가). Sometimes sounds may be inserted instead.
Examples include -eul/-reul
(-이든지/-든지) and -iya/-ya
is somewhat irregular, since it will behave
differently after a rieul consonant.
|After a consonant
||After a rieul
||After a vowel
Some verbs may also change shape morphophonemically.
Korean is an agglutinative
. Modifiers generally precede the modified words, and
in the case of verb modifiers, can be serially appended. The basic
form of a Korean sentence is Subject
, but the verb is the only required and immovable
||store + [location marker (에)]
||[go (verb root) (가)]+[conjunctive (아)]+[past (ㅆ)]+[conjunctive
(어)]+ [polite marker (요)]
- "Did [you] go to the store?" ("you" implied in
Parts of speech
( , tongsa
, ) are also
known in English as "action verbs" or "dynamic verbs" to
distinguish them from [ , hyeong-yongsa
which are also known as "descriptive verbs" or "stative verbs".
Examples of action/dynamic verbs include (hada
, "to do")
, "to go") which constitute an action or movement
as opposed to descriptive verbs such as (yehppeuda
, "to be
beautiful"). For a larger list of Korean verbs, see wikt:Category:Korean verbs
Unlike most of the European languages, Korean does not conjugate
verbs using agreement with the subject, and nouns have no gender.
Instead, verb conjugations depend upon the verb tense, aspect,
mood, and the social relation between the speaker, the subjects,
and the listeners.The system of speech levels and honorifics
loosely resembles the T-V
of most Indo-European languages
example, different endings are used depending on the speaker's
relation with their subject or audience. Politeness is a critical
part of Korean language and Korean culture, therefore, when talking
to someone esteemed, the correct verb ending must be chosen to
indicate the proper respect.
Words categorized as Korean adjectives
, ) conjugate similarly to verbs, so some
English texts call them "descriptive verbs" or "stative verbs
", but they are distinctly
separate from (tongsa
English does not have an identical grammatical category, so the
English translation of Korean adjectives may misleadingly suggest
that they are verbs. For example, (pukda
literally as "to be red" and (aswipda
) often best
translates as "to lack" or "to want for", but both are
, "adjectives"). For a larger list of Korean
adjectives, see wikt:Category:Korean
, ) are also known in English as
"determinatives", "adnominals", "pre-nouns", "attributives", and
"unconjugated adjectives". Examples include (kak
For a larger list, see wikt:Category:Korean
Core and basic noun words are native to the Korean language, e.g.
, country), (nal
, day). A large body of
( , myeongsa
, ) stem from
, e.g. (山, san
mountain), (驛, yeok
, station), (文化, munhwa
culture), etc. Many Sino-Korean
have a native Korean equivalent and vice versa, but not
always. Nouns do not have grammatical
and can be made plural
by adding 들
to the end of the word, however in most instances the singular
form is used even when in English it would
be translated as plural. For example, while in English the sentence
"there are three apples"
would use the plural
instead of the singular "apple"
Korean sentence 사과 세개 있습니다 (sagwa segae isssumnida
maintains the word 사과 (sagwa
, "apple") in its singular
form, thus rendered in English as "apple three(things) exist." For
a list of Korean nouns, see wikt:Category:Korean nouns
( , daemyeongsa
are highly influenced by the honorifics in the language. Pronouns
change forms depending on the social status of the person or
persons spoken to, e.g. the pronoun for "I" there is both the
) and the honorific/humble (jeo
general second person singular pronouns are avoided, especially
when using honorific forms. For a larger list or Korean pronouns,
( , busa
, ) include
, "also") and (gadeuk
, "fully"). For a larger
list, see wikt:Category:Korean
, ) are also known in English as "postpositions
". Examples include (neun
topic marker) and (reul
, object marker). For a larger
list, see wikt:Category:Korean
, ) are also known in English as "exclamations".
Examples include (ani
, "no"). For a larger list, see
or numerals ( , susa
) constitute two regularly used sets: a native Korean set and a
Sino-Korean system is nearly entirely based on the Chinese numerals
. The distinction between
the two numeral systems is very important. Everything that can be
counted will use one of the two systems, but seldom both.
Sino-Korean words are sometimes used to mark ordinal usage: yeol
beon (열 번) means "ten times" while sip beon (십(十) 번(番)) means
"number ten." The grouping of large numbers in Korean follow the
Chinese tradition of myriads (10000) rather than thousands (1000)
as is common in Europe and North America.
Speech levels and honorifics
The relationship between a speaker or writer and his or her subject
and audience is paramount in Korean, and the grammar reflects this.
The relationship between speaker/writer and subject referent is
reflected in honorifics
while that between speaker/writer and audience is reflected in
When talking about someone superior in status, a speaker or writer
usually uses special nouns or verb endings to indicate the
subject's superiority. Generally, someone is superior in status if
he/she is an older relative, a stranger of roughly equal or greater
age, or an employer, teacher, customer, or the like. Someone is
equal or inferior in status if he/she is a younger stranger,
student, employee or the like. Nowadays, there are special endings
which can be used on declarative, interrogative, and imperative
sentences; and both honorific or normal sentences. They are made
for easier and faster use of Korean.
There are seven verb paradigms
in Korean, and each level has its
own unique set of verb endings which are used to indicate the level
of formality of a situation. Unlike honorifics
—which are used to show respect towards
the referent—speech levels
are used to show
respect towards a speaker's or writer's audience. The names of the
seven levels are derived from the non-honorific imperative
form of the verb 하다
, "do") in each
level, plus the suffix 체 ("che", hanja
), which means "style".
The highest six levels are generally grouped together as
(존댓말), while the lowest level (haeche
해체) is called banmal
(반말) in Korean.
The core of the Korean vocabulary is made up of native Korean
words. Like Japanese and Vietnamese, a significant proportion of
the vocabulary, especially words that denote abstract ideas, are
in a similar way European languages borrow from Latin and
The exact proportion of Sino-Korean vocabulary is a matter of
debate. Sohn (2001) stated 50-60%. However, Jeong Jae-do, one of
the compilers of the dictionary Urimal Kun Sajeon
that the proportion is not so high. He points out that Korean
dictionaries compiled during the period of Japanese rule
many unused Sino-Korean words. In his estimation, the proportion of
native Korean vocabulary in the Korean language might be as high as
Korean has two number systems
native, and one borrowed from Chinese.
To a much lesser extent, words have also occasionally been borrowed
, and other languages. Conversely, the
Korean language itself has also contributed some loanwords to other
languages, most notably the Tsushima dialect
The vast majority of loanwords other than Sino-Korean come from
modern times, 90% of which are from English
. Many words have also been borrowed
and Western languages
such as German
"part-time job", allereugi
"allergy", "gibsu" "plaster
cast used for broken bones"). Some Western words were borrowed
indirectly via Japanese, taking a Japanese sound pattern, for
example "dozen" > dāsu
Most indirect Western borrowings are now written according to
current Hangulization rules for the respective Western language, as
if borrowed directly. There are a few more complicated borrowings
such as "German(y)" (see Names for Germany
the first part of whose endonym
the Japanese approximated using the kanji
that were then accepted into the Korean language by
their Sino-Korean pronunciation: dok
. In South Korean official
use, a number of other Sino-Korean country names have been replaced
with phonetically oriented Hangulizations of the countries'
endonyms or English names.
North Korean vocabulary shows a tendency to prefer native Korean
over Sino-Korean or foreign borrowings, especially with recent
political objectives aimed at eliminating foreign (mostly Chinese)
influences on the Korean language in the North. By contrast, South
Korean may have several Sino-Korean or foreign borrowings which
tend to be absent in North Korean.
Formerly the languages of the Korean peninsula were written using
, using hyangchal
. Such systems
relied on principles of rebus
, and were lost,
later in history. Writing became confined to the ruling elite, who
used hanja to write in Classical Chinese.
Korean is now mainly written in Hangul, the Korean alphabet
promulgated in 1446 by Sejong
; hanja may be mixed
to write Sino-Korean
. While South Korea schools still teach 1,800 hanja
characters, North Korea had abolished the use of hanja decades
Below is a chart of the Korean alphabet's symbols and their
Modern Korean is written with space
a feature not found in Chinese or Japanese. Korean punctuation
marks are almost identical to
Western ones. Traditionally, Korean was written in columns from top
to bottom, right to left, but is now usually written in rows from
left to right, top to bottom.
Differences between North Korean and South Korean
The Korean language used in the North and the South exhibits
differences in pronunciation, spelling, grammar and
In North Korea, palatalization
optional, and can be pronounced between vowels.
Words that are written the same way may be pronounced differently,
such as the examples below. The pronunciations below are given in
and Hangul, the
last of which represents what the Hangul would be if one writes the
word as pronounced.
||idea / sense / conception
* Similar pronunciation is used in the North whenever the hanja "的"
is attached to a Sino-Korean word ending in ㄴ, ㅁ or ㅇ. (In the
South, this rule only applies when it is attached to any
single-character Sino-Korean word.)
Some words are spelled differently by the North and the South, but
the pronunciations are the same.
||The "sai siot" ('ㅅ' used for indicating sound change) is almost
never written out in the North.
||When a ㄴ-ㄴ combination is pronounced as ll, the
original Hangul spelling is kept in the North, while the Hangul is
changed in the South.
||In words where the original hanja is spelt "렬" or "률" and
follows a vowel, the initial ㄹ is not pronounced in the North,
making the pronunciation identical with that in the South where the
ㄹ is dropped in the spelling.
Spelling and pronunciation
Some words have different spellings and pronunciations in the North
and the South, some of which were given in the "Phonology" section
||Initial r's are dropped if followed by i or
y in the South Korean version of Korean.
||Initial r's are demoted to an n if not
followed by i or y in the South Korean version of
||"Mortal enemy" and "head of state" are homophones in the South.
Possibly to avoid referring to Kim
Il-sung / Kim Jong-il as the enemy,
the second syllable of "enemy" is written and pronounced 쑤 in the
||When transcribing foreign words from languages that do not have
contrasts between aspirated and unaspirated stops, North Koreans
generally use tensed stops for the unaspirated ones while South
Koreans use aspirated stops in both cases.
||pye (p'ye), pe (p'e)
||In the case where ye comes after a constant, such as
in hye and pye, it is pronounced without the
palatal approximate. North Korean orthography reflect this
In general, when transcribing place names, North Korea tends to use
the pronunciation in the original language more than South Korea,
which often uses the pronunciation in English. For example:
||North Korea transliteration
||South Korea transliteration
Some grammatical constructions are also different:
||past tense of 되다 (doeda/toeda), "to become"
||All similar grammar forms of verbs or adjectives that end in ㅣ
in the stem (i.e. ㅣ, ㅐ, ㅔ, ㅚ, ㅟ and ㅢ) in the North use 여 instead
of the South's 어.
||ㅂ-irregular verbs in the North use 와 (wa) for all those with a
positive ending vowel; this only happens in the South if the verb
stem has only one syllable.
||Shall we do?
||Although the Hangul differ, the pronunciations are the same
(i.e. with the tensed ㄲ sound).
Some vocabulary is different between the North and the South:
||(appateu/appat'ŭ) is also used in the North.
In the North, guillemets
and are the
symbols used for quotes; in the South, quotation marks equivalent
to the English ones, “ and ”, are standard, although and are
sometimes used in popular novels.
Study by non-native speakers
Language Institute classifies Korean alongside Arabic, Chinese, and
Japanese as a Category IV
language, meaning that 63 weeks of instruction (as compared to just
25 weeks for French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian) are required to bring an
English-speaking student to a limited working level of proficiency
in which he or she has "sufficient capability to meet routine
social demands and limited job requirements" and "can deal with
concrete topics in past, present, and future tense."
result, the study of the Korean language in the United States is
dominated by Korean American
heritage language students; they are estimated to form over 80% of
all students of the language at non-military universities.
However, Korean is considerably easier for speakers of certain
other languages, such as Japanese; in Japan, it is more widely
studied by non-heritage learners. The Korean Language Proficiency
, an examination aimed at assessing non-native speakers'
competence in Korean, was instituted in 1997; 17,000 people applied
for the 2005 sitting of the examination.
- eg Miller 1971, 1996, Starostin et al. 2003
- eg Vovin 2008: 1
- Trask 1996: 147-151
- Rybatzki 2003: 57
- Vovin 2008: 5
- eg Martin 1966, 1990
- eg Miller 1971, 1996
- Vovin 2008
- Whitman 1985: 232, also found in Martin 1966: 233
- Vovin 2008: 211-212
- Sohn, Ho-Min. The Korean Language (Section 1.5.3
"Korean vocabulary", p.12–13), Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- . The dictionary mentioned is
- Kanno, Hiroomi (ed.) / Society for Korean Linguistics in Japan
(1987). Chōsengo o manabō (『朝鮮語を学ぼう』), Sanshūsha, Tokyo.
- (Volume 4 of the London Oriental and African Language
- Hulbert, Homer B. (1905): A Comparative Grammar of the
Korean Language and the Dravidian Dialects in India.
- Martin, Samuel E. (1966): Lexical Evidence Relating Japanese to
Korean. Language 42/2: 185–251.
- Martin, Samuel E. (1990): Morphological clues to the
relationship of Japanese and Korean. In: Philip Baldi (ed.):
Linguistic Change and Reconstruction Methodology. Trends
in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 45: 483-509.
- Miller, Roy Andrew (1971): Japanese and the Other Altaic
Languages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN
- Miller, Roy Andrew (1996): Languages and History: Japanese,
Korean and Altaic. Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in
Human Culture. ISBN 9748299694.
- Ramstedt, G. J. (1928): Remarks on the Korean language.
Mémoires de la Société Finno-Oigrienne 58.
- Rybatzki, Volker (2003): Middle Mongol. In: Juha Janhunen (ed.)
(2003): The Mongolic languages. London: Routledge. ISBN
- Starostin, Sergei A.; Anna V. Dybo; Oleg A. Mudrak (2003):
Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages, 3
volumes. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 9004131531.
- Sohn, H.-M. (1999): The Korean Language. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
- Song, J.-J. (2005): The Korean Language: Structure, Use and
Context. London: Routledge.
- Trask, R. L. (1996): Historical linguistics. Hodder
- Vovin, Alexander: Koreo-Japonica. University of
- Whitman, John B. (1985): The Phonological Basis for the
Comparison of Japanese and Korean. Unpublished Harvard
University Ph.D. dissertation.