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Korean language

The Korean language is spoken primarily and officially in Korea (South Korea and North Korea), also used by ethic Koreans living in China, Japan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and the United States of America.

Korean is also used by democratic state governments and companies, outside Korea, as a secondary language to assist in public service and to provide corporate customer services. All in all, the language is used by more than 75 million people in the world.

The Korean language is a member of a wider linguistic family of the Altaic languages. The Korean writing system, Hangeul, was invented in 1446 by King Sejong to widely spread education as the Chinese characters was thought to be difficult for a common person to learn through the proclamation of Hoonminjungeum [훈민정음/訓民正音)] which literally means the "proper sounds to teach the general public." It is different from the Chinese form of written communication as it is phonetically based.

Numerous underlying words still stem from Hanja and older people in Korea still prefer to write words in Hanja, as they were strictly forbidden to study and speak the Korean language when Japan ruled. Koreans are the only people in the world who fully understand how, when and why their written language was created through the transcripts of King Sejong's innovative contributions.

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The local names:

  • in North Korea are:
    • Chosŏnŏ (조선어) or
    • Chosŏnmal (조선말)
  • in South Korea are:
    • Han-guk-eo (한국어) or
    • Han-guk-mal (한국말).


Korean, as such, is often classified as being a separate language in a family of its own. Its former link to Altaic and proto-Altaic also have been much argued as of late. It does have some semblances considering the morphology to some languages of the Eastern Turkic group, namely, Yakutsk[?] and some of its variants.

Though some may think that the Korean language is clearly different to Japanese, this is due to the Japanese using non-Chinese readings to some Chinese characters. For instance, the city of "Hitachi" (日立) is pronounced "Il-Lip" in Korean. This is a case where the Japanese word "Tachi" (meaning "standing") is used instead of Chinese-based "Ritsu". In other words, there are irregularities for pronouncing Hanja (or "Kanji") in the Japanese language, due to Japanese using and adapting the Chinese script to the Japanese language. Korean knows no such diviation, due to adoption of the Korean alphabet Hangul.

It should be noted, however, that it were the Koreans of Baekjae[?] that taught and spread Chinese characters to the Japanese during the 7th century which gives explaination for gramatical similarities.



Bilabial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop Voiceless p t   k  
Ejective p’ t’   k’  
Aspirate ph th   kh  
Fricative Voiceless   s   h
Ejective   s’     h
Affricate Voiceless     c    
Ejective     c’    
Aspirate     ch    
Nasal m n   N  
Liquid w l y    

Note that there is no aspirated /s/, and the dental fricative has a conditioned palatal allophone.

Some linguists consider the Korean "ejectives" to be tensed[?] obstruents[?], namely, pronounced with greater glottal tension.


i   u, M
E   O, 7
{ a A

It is possible that the pair /a, A/ consitute a rounding contrast comparable to the other two pairs of back vowels.

Source: Talking to Koreans (http://www.arts.monash.edu.au/korean/centre/course/index) at Monash University, Australia.

Written language

Main article: Hangul

The Korean language used Hanja, the Chinese characters; and now uses Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Hangul consists of 24 letters -- 14 consonants and 10 vowels that are written in groups of 2 to 5 characters. Unlike the Chinese writing system and the Japanese Kanji system, Hangul is not an ideographic system. The shapes of the individual Hangul letters were designed to model the physical morphology of the tongue, palate and teeth; up to four letters join to form a syllabic unit.

Below is a chart of the Korean alphabet's symbols and their canonical SAMPA values:

p t c k
p’ t’ c’ k’
ph th ch kh
  s   h
m n   N
w r j  
(n/a) (n/a)  

i e } a o u 7 M
Mi je j} ja jo ju j7  
ui ue o} oa     u7  

Korean is written with spaces in between words. A features that the other CJK languages (Chinese and Japanese) do not use. Korean punctuation marks are almost identical to the Western European ones.


Phonetic rules, mostly assimilation[?], transform the pronunciation of some words. For example,

  • JongLo is pronounced as JongNo
  • HanKukMal as HangGungMal

Before vowel, consonants are plain, and before consonant, they became aspirated. For example,

  • b -> p (aspirated)
  • g -> k

Some consonants are velarization. For example,

  • n -> ng (before k)
  • k -> ng (before m)

These "irregularities" in pronunciation causes a minute amount of inconsistencies in Hangul spellings.


Korean is an agglutinative language. Korean grammar is similar to that of the Japanese language. The basic form of a Korean sentence is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), and modifiers precede the modified word. So whereas in English we would say, "I'm going to the store to buy some food", in Korean it would be something like: *"I food in-order-to-buy to-store am-going."

In Korean, "unnecessary" words (see theme and rheme[?]) can be left out of a sentence as long as the context makes the meaning clear. So a typical exchange might translate word-for word to the following:

H: "가게에 가세요?"
G: "예."

H: *"store-to are-going?"
G: "yes."

which in English would translate to:

H: "are you going to the store?"
G: "yes."

Unlike 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 and on the relation between the people speaking. When talking to or about friends, you would use one conjugate ending, to your parents, another, and to nobility/honored persons, another. This loosely echoes the T-V distinction of Spanish and German


A large percentage of its vocabulary has been borrowed from Chinese. To a much lesser extent, words have been also borrowed from Japanese, Mongolian, and Indian languages such as Dravidian. In modern times, many words have also been borrowed from Western languages, chiefly English.


There are several dialect groups of Korean. The standard language[?] 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 Pyongyang. These dialects are similar, and in fact all dialects except that of Jeju (Cheju) Island are largely mutually intelligible. The dialect spoken there is classified as a different language by many Korean linguists. Jeju Dialect has a structure similar to Japanese, so it is suspected as evidence of a relationship between Korean and Japanese.

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