Korean Language

Chapter 1: Introduction to Korean Writing and Pronunciation

There are between 3,000 and 10,000 languages spoken throughout the world.  Of these, only 138 are used by over one million people.  In today’s age of globalization, it is becoming increasingly widespread (and necessary) to learn at least one foreign language.  Korea is no exception; not only have its schools taught English and other languages to its youth for decades, Korean is also gaining popularity as an important language for Westerners to learn as well.  Thus, while the 1994 Korean population was 67,000,000 (44,000,000 in South Korea and 23,000,000 in North Korea), there are 4,790,000 speakers of the Korean language outside of the Korean peninsula (1,660,000 in the United States; 690,000 in Japan; 1,940,000 in China; and 500,000 in Russia).  Not only are there Korean newspapers and shops with Korean signs in these foreign countries, but there are Korean radio stations as well.  Also, many native Korean speakers live in central South America and Canada.

So compared to lesser known languages, the Korean language is used by a considerable number of people.  The population of Korean speakers is comparable with that of Italian; both are ranked between the 13th and 15th most spoken language in the world.   In addition, Korea is a monolingual society.  All citizens learn Korean as their mother tongue, and continue to speak and use Korean until college.

•Modern Korean has six dialects (Northwest, Northeast, Central, Southwest, Southeast, and Cheju), but most of these are similar enough to each other that speakers of different dialects can still understand each other.  Only the Cheju dialect differs significantly from the others.  The Korean spoken today was standardized based on what was spoken in Seoul, the capital, in 1936.

Just as half the vocabulary in the English language finds its roots in Latin, the majority of Korean vocabulary are Sino-Korean, that is, of Chinese origin.  There are still significant numbers of indigenous words, however, and often both a Sino-Korean and Korean word exists referring to the same thing.  A good example is in the number system (S-K: il, I, sam…; K: hana, dul, set…): sometimes either version is acceptable, while in other contexts only one system is appropriate.  Western words (particularly English) are also beginning to pervade the Korean language.  These new words usually have to do with science and technology.

Unlike English, Korean sentences always end with the verb.  Sentences are usually ordered subject-object-verb.  Modifying words like adjectives and adverbs always come before the noun or verb they are modifying.  The same is true for modifying phrases and clauses, also.  It is the honorific system, however, that is the most significant and differentiating aspect of the Korean language.  It includes honorific suffixes such as “-시-“ (“-shi-“) and “습니다” (“supnida”), which serve to respectfully lift up the subject of the sentence, or the person being spoken to.

For the most part, the origins of the various writing systems throughout the world are now unknown because of the long passage of time since their invention, and also because each system has gradually been changed and developed over time.  However, the origins of the Korean writing system are clear.  Han-gŭl was invented by King Sejong in 1443, with the aid of several scholars, in order to give the people a much-needed ownership of their language.  Prior to this, writing of the Korean language could only be done using Chinese characters, which only those in the upper class had access to.  Sejong called the new system Hunmin chon-um, which means “proper sounds to instruct the people,” and made it public in 1446 in a document of the same name.  The Korean alphabet has now replaced Chinese characters as the official writing system of the nation. Comprised of 14 consonants (originally 16) and 10 vowels (originally 11), Korean can be characterized as simple, scientific and logical, and easily learned.

In fact, Han-gŭl was called Ach’imgul (morning script) because it could be learned in just one morning, which scholars of the complicated Chinese language considered unworthy of learning.  It was also nicknamed Amk’ul (women’s script) because even women with no academic training or background could easily learn it.

The most significant aspect of the new writing system was the grouping of letters into syllabic units.  Each written syllable was divided into three parts: initial, medial and final (as opposed to the two parts of Chinese phonology). 

Attempts have been made to Romanize the Korean writing system since the 1800s.  Despite the fact that the system is logical and easy to use in and of itself, the existence of phonemes differing from those in Latin-based languages, and the many different rules of how to pronounce different written combinations have made Korean difficult to Romanize.  The most popular and widely used system in Western nations has been the McCune-Reischauer System (1939).  The Korean system, based on the Ministry of Education System (1959), was also revised in 1984 to more closely resemble the McCune-Reischauer System as well.  Han-gŭl has been called “the world’s best alphabet” (Vos [1964], from Sampson [1985: 120]).

For reference, the following are the languages spoken more than Korean: 1) Chinese (1 billion); 2) English (350 million); 3) Spanish (250 million); 4) Hindi (200 million); 5) Arabian, Bengalese and Russian (each with 150 million); 8) Portugese (130 million); 9) Japanese (120 million); 10) German (100 million); 11) French (70 million).  These figures were calculated based on native speakers of these languages; when calculated on the basis of official oanguages of countries, then the order changes as follows: 1) English (1.4 billion); 2) Chinese (1 billion); and 3) Hindi (700 million).



Written by 정인숙

Published on Wednesday, 29 February 2012 12:00