Korean (한국어/조선말, 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. There are about 78 million Korean speakers, with large groups in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, the United States, CIS (post-Soviet states), and more recently the Philippines. It was formerly written using Hanja, borrowed Chinese characters pronounced in the Korean way. In the 15th century a national writing system was developed by Sejong the Great, nowadays called Hangul.
The genealogical classification of the Korean language is debated. Some linguists place it in the Altaic language family, while others consider it to be a language isolate. It is agglutinative in its morphology and SOV in its syntax.
The Korean names for the language are based on the names for Korea used in North and South Korea.
In South Korea, the language is most often called Hangungmal (한국말; 韓國말), or more formally, Hangugeo (한국어; 韓國語) or Gugeo (국어; 國語; literally "national language"). It is sometimes colloquially called urimal ("our language"; 우리말 in one word in South Korea, 우리 말 with a space in North Korea).
In mainland China, following the establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, the term Cháoxiǎnyǔ (朝鲜语 or short form: Cháoyǔ (朝语)) has normally been used to refer to the language spoken in North Korea and Yanbian, while Hánguóyǔ (韩国语 or short form: Hányǔ (韩语)) is used to refer to the language spoken in South Korea.
Some older English sources also used the name "Corean" to refer to the language, country, and people.
On the other hand, since the publication of the article of Ramstedt in 1926, many linguists support the hypothesis that Korean can be classified as an Altaic language, or as a relative of proto-Altaic. Korean is similar to Altaic languages in that they both lack certain grammatical elements, including number, gender, articles, fusional morphology, voice, and relative pronouns (Kim Namkil). Korean especially bears some morphological resemblance to some languages of the Eastern Turkic group, namely Sakha (Yakut). Vinokurova, a scholar of the Sakha language, noted that like in Korean, and unlike in other Turkic languages or a variety of other languages surveyed, adverbs in Sakha are derived from verbs with the help of derivational morphology; however, she did not suggest this implied any relation between the two languages.
It is also considered likely that Korean is related in some way to Japanese, since the two languages have a similar grammatical structure, and share a number of possible phonological cognates, as noted by such researchers as Samuel E. Martin and Roy Andrew Miller in the late 1960s. Sergei Starostin (1991) found about 25% of potential cognates in the Japanese-Korean 100-word Swadesh list, which places these two languages closer together than other possible members of the Altaic family.
Genetic relationships have been postulated both directly and indirectly, the latter either through placing both languages in the Altaic family, or by arguing for a relationship between Japanese and the Buyeo languages of Goguryeo and Baekje (see below); the proposed Baekje relationship is supported by cognates such as Baekje mir, Japanese mi- "three".
The possible relationship between Korean and Japanese can be exemplified by such basic vocabularly items as J. 水 mizu (Old J. midu) : K. 물 mul (Middle K. mirh) "water", mot "lake"; J. 来る ku-ru "come" (Old J. ku, also cf. irregular root changes as in past tense 来た ki-ta, negative 来ない ko-nai in Modern J.) : K. 가다 ka-da ("go"); J. 硬い kata-i "hard" (whence 刀 kata-na "knife, sword") : K. kud-yn (hard); J. いる i-ru "to be" (past tense いた i-ta) : K. 이다 i-da "to be"; J. na, -en : K. anh "not", J. minna (Old J. mynna) "all, everyone" : K. manh- "many" (predicate mana-da), etc. . The same possible cognates are often observed in other members of the potential Altaic family, esp. in the Tungusic languages. Cf. Nanay mue "water", giagda- "to walk", anaa, anna "not".
Others argue, however, that the similarities are not due to any genetic relationship, but rather to a sprachbund effect. See East Asian languages for morphological features shared among languages of the East Asian sprachbund, and Japanese language classification for further details on the possible relationship.
It is presumed that modern Korean may be more closely related to the languages of Samhan and Silla than the Buyeo languages; many Korean scholars believe they were mutually intelligible, and the collective basis of what in the Goryeo period would merge to become Middle Korean (the language before the changes that the Seven-Year War brought) and eventually Modern Korean. The Jeju dialect preserves some archaic features that can also be found in Middle Korean, whose arae a is retained in the dialect as a distinct vowel.
There are also more marginal hypotheses proposing various other relationships; for example, a few scholars, such as Homer B. Hulbert (1905), have tried to relate Korean to the Dravidian languages through the similar syntax in both.
Though not related to Chinese, it has borrowed heavily; see the Vocabulary section below.
Korean has several dialects (called mal [literally "speech"], saturi, or bang-eon 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. These dialects are similar, and are in fact all mutually intelligible, perhaps with the exception of the dialect of Jeju Island (see Jeju Dialect). 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 use very little stress, and standard South Korean has a very flat intonation; on the other hand, speakers of the Gyeongsang dialect have a very pronounced intonation.
It is also worth noting that there is substantial evidence for a history of extensive dialect levelling, or even convergent evolution 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 Korean 입 /ip/ "mouth" or Gyeongsang dialect /ʨʌŋ.gu.ʥi/ vs. Standard Korean /puːʨʰu/ "garlic chives." 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 languages hypothesis.
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:
|Standard dialect||Where used|
|Seoul||Seoul (서울), Incheon (인천/仁川), most of Gyeonggi (경기/京畿)|
|P'yŏngan (평안/平壤)||P'yŏngyang, P'yŏngan region, Chagang (North Korea)|
|Regional dialect||Where used|
|Gyeonggi||limited areas of the Gyeonggi region (South Korea)|
|Chungcheong||Daejeon, Chungcheong region (South Korea)|
|Gangwon||Gangwon-do (South Korea)/Kangwŏn (North Korea)|
|Gyeongsang||Busan, Daegu, Ulsan, Gyeongsang region (South Korea)|
|Hamgyŏng||Rasŏn, Hamgyŏng region, Ryanggang (North Korea)|
|Hwanghae||Hwanghae region (North Korea)|
|Jeju||Jeju Island/Province (South Korea)|
|Jeolla||Gwangju, Jeolla region (South Korea)|
|Nasal||ㅁ /m/||ㄴ /n/||ㅇ /ŋ/ (syllable-final)|
|plain||ㅂ /p/||ㄷ /t/||ㅈ /ʧ/||ㄱ /k/|
|tense||ㅃ /p͈/||ㄸ /t͈/||ㅉ /ʧ͈/||ㄲ /k͈/|
|aspirated||ㅍ /pʰ/||ㅌ /tʰ/||ㅊ /ʧʰ/||ㅋ /kʰ/|
|Fricative||plain||ㅅ /s/||ㅎ /h/|
The IPA symbol <◌͈> (a 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 the IPA is for 'strong' articulation, but is used in the literature for faucalized voice. The Korean consonants also have elements of stiff voice, but 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.
|Monophthongs||/i/ ㅣ, /e/ ㅔ, /ɛ/ ㅐ, /a/ ㅏ, /o/ ㅗ, /u/ ㅜ, /ʌ/ ㅓ, /ɯ/ ㅡ, /ø/ ㅚ|
|Vowels preceded by intermediaries,|
|/je/ ㅖ, /jɛ/ ㅒ, /ja/ ㅑ, /wi/ ㅟ, /we/ ㅞ, /wɛ/ ㅙ, /wa/ ㅘ, /ɯi/ ㅢ, /jo/ ㅛ, /ju/ ㅠ, /jʌ/ ㅕ, /wʌ/ ㅝ|
/l/ becomes alveolar flap [ɾ] between vowels, and [l] or [ɭ] at the end of a syllable or next to another /l/. 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 [ɾ].
Traditionally, /l/ was disallowed at the beginning of a word. It disappeared before [j], and otherwise became /n/. However, the inflow of western loanword changed the trend, and now word-initial /l/ (mostly from English loanwords) are pronounced as a free variation of either [ɾ] or [l]. The traditional prohibition of word-initial /l/ became a morphological rule called "initial law" (두음법칙) in South Korea, which pertains to Sino-Korean vocabulary. Such words retain their word-initial /l/ in North Korea.
Plosive stops become nasal stops before nasal stops.
One difference between the pronunciation standards of North and South Korea is the treatment of initial [r], and initial [n]. For example,
|After a consonant||After a rieul||After a vowel|
Some verbs may also change shape morphophonemically.
|store + at,to||went + [polite interrogative marker]|
Unlike most 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 distinction of most Indo-European languages. For example, different endings are used based on whether the subjects and listeners are friends, parents, or honoured persons.
English does not have an identical grammatical category, so the English translation of Korean adjectives may misleadingly suggest that they are verbs. For example, 붉다 (bukda) translates literally as "to be red" and 아쉽다 (aswipda) often best translates as "to lack" or "to want for", but both are 형용사 (hyeong-yongsa, "adjectives"). For a larger list of Korean adjectives, see .
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 speech level.
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 no fewer than 7 verb paradigms or speech levels 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 7 levels are derived from the non-honorific imperative form of the verb 하다 (hada, "do") in each level, plus the suffix 체 ('che', hanja: 體), which means "style."
The highest 6 levels are generally grouped together as jondaenmal (존댓말), while the lowest level (haeche, 해체) is called banmal (반말) in Korean.
in a similar way European languages borrow from Latin and Greek. Korean has two number systems: one native, and one borrowed from Chinese.
To a much lesser extent, words have also occasionally been borrowed from Mongolian, Sanskrit, and other languages. Conversely, the Korean language itself has also contributed some loanwords to other languages, most notably the Tsushima dialect of Japanese.
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 from Japanese and Western languages such as German (アルバイト ‘part-time job’, allereugi ‘allergy’). Some Western words were borrowed indirectly via Japanese, taking a Japanese sound pattern, for example ‘dozen’ > ダース dāsu > 다스 daseu. 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 [ˈd̥ɔɪ̯ʧʷ.la̠ntʰ] the Japanese approximated using the kanji 獨逸 doitsu that were then accepted into the Korean language by their Sino-Korean pronunciation: 獨 dok + 逸 il = 독일. 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.
Korean is now mainly written in Hangul, the Korean alphabet promulgated in 1446 by Sejong the Great; hanja may be mixed in to write Sino-Korean words. South Korea still teaches 1800 hanja characters in its schools, while the North abolished the use of hanja decades ago.
Below is a chart of the Korean alphabet's symbols and their canonical IPA values:
Modern Korean is written with spaces between words, 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.
Words that are written the same way may be pronounced differently, such as the examples below. The pronunciations below are given in Revised Romanization, McCune-Reischauer and Hangul, the last of which represents what the Hangul would be if one writes the word as pronounced.
|North (RR/MR)||North (Hangul)||South (RR/MR)||South (Hangul)|
|넓다||wide||neoptta (nŏpta)||넙따||neoltta (nŏlta)||널따|
|ilkko (ilko)||일꼬||ilkko (ilko)||일꼬|
|압록강||Amnok River||amrokgang (amrokkang)||암록깡||amnokkang (amnokkang)||암녹깡|
|독립||independence||dongrip (tongrip)||동립||dongnip (tongnip)||동닙|
|관념||idea / sense / conception||gwallyeom (kwallyŏm)||괄렴||gwannyeom (kwannyŏm)||관념|
|혁신적*||innovative||hyeoksinjjeok (hyŏksintchŏk)||혁씬쩍||hyeoksinjeok (hyŏksinjŏk)||혁씬적|
* 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.)
|Word spelling||Meaning||Pronunciation (RR/MR)||Remarks|
|해빛||햇빛||sunshine||haeppit (haepit)||The "sai siot" ('ㅅ' used for indicating sound change) is almost never written out in the North.|
|벗꽃||벚꽃||cherry blossom||beotkkot (pŏtkkot)|
|못읽다||못 읽다||cannot read||monnikda (monnikta)||Spacing.|
|한나산||한라산||Hallasan||hallasan (hallasan)||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.|
|규률||규율||rules||gyuyul (kyuyul)||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.|
|North spelling||North pronun.||South spelling||South pronun.|
|력량||ryeongryang (ryŏngryang)||역량||yeongnyang (yŏngnyang)||strength||Korean words originally starting in r or n have their r or n dropped in the South Korean version if the sound following it is an i or y sound.|
|로동||rodong (rodong)||노동||nodong (nodong)||work||Korean words originally starting in r have their r changed to n in the South Korean version if the sound following it is a sound other than i or y.|
|원쑤||wonssu (wŏnssu)||원수||wonsu (wŏnsu)||enemy||"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 North.|
|라지오||rajio (rajio)||라디오||radio (radio)||radio|
|우||u (u)||위||wi (wi)||on; above|
|안해||anhae (anhae)||아내||anae (anae)||wife|
|꾸바||kkuba (kkuba)||쿠바||kuba (k'uba)||Cuba||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.|
|페||pe (p'e)||폐||pye (p'ye), pe (p'e)||lungs||All hanja pronounced as pye (p'ye) or pe (p'e) in the South are pronounced as pe (p'e) in the North. The spelling is also accordingly different.|
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:
|Original name||North Korea transliteration||English name||South Korea transliteration|
|Ulaanbaatar||울란바따르||ullanbattareu (ullanbattarŭ)||Ulan Bator||울란바토르||ullanbatoreu (ullanbat'orŭ)|
|København||쾨뻰하븐||koeppenhabeun (k'oeppenhabŭn)||Copenhagen||코펜하겐||kopenhagen (k'op'enhagen)|
|al-Qāhirah||까히라||kkahira (kkahira)||Cairo||카이로||kairo (k'airo)|
|North spelling||North pronun.||South spelling||South pronun.|
|되였다||doeyeotda (toeyŏtta)||되었다||doeeotda (toeŏtta)||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.|
|고마와요||gomawayo (komawayo)||고마워요||gomawoyo (komawŏyo)||thanks||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.|
|할가요||halgayo (halkayo)||할까요||halkkayo (halkkayo)||Shall we do?||Although the Hangul differ, the pronunciations are the same (i.e. with the tensed ㄲ sound).|
|North spelling||North pronun.||South spelling||South pronun.|
|문화주택||munhwajutaek (munhwajut'aek)||아파트||apateu (ap'at'ŭ)||Apartment||아빠트 (appateu/appat'ŭ) is also used in the North.|
|조선말||joseonmal (chosŏnmal)||한국어||han-gugeo(han'gugeo)||Korean language|
|곽밥||gwakbap (kwakpap)||도시락||dosirak (tosirak)||lunch box|
However, Korean is considerably easier for speakers of certain other languages, such as Japanese, Mongolian and Turkic languages; in Japan, it is more widely studied by non-heritage learners. The Korean Language Proficiency Test, 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.