Characteristics of the Korean language

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1 Characteristics of the Korean language

In this chapter, we will provide an overview of the Korean language and briefly discuss its main characteristics. In 1.1, we will discuss the origin, history and distribution of the Korean language; in 1.2, the Korean alphabet and its romanisation will be discussed; 1.3 focuses on the characteristics of the Korean lexicon; in 1.4, the structural characteristics of Korean will be explored; and in 1.5, the socio-pragmatic characteristics of Korean will be discussed.
1.1 Origin, history and distribution 1.1.1 The Korean language in East Asian history
It is impossible to think about the history of Korea without considering the history of Northeast Asia. In the same vein, the history of the Korean language cannot be considered without reference to the influence of Korea’s neighbours; namely, China, Japan and Mongolia. Figure 1.1 shows how the Korean language has evolved from Old Korean into Contemporary Korean within the bigger picture of East Asian history. The classification is based on K.-M. Lee (1998).
As seen in Figure 1.1, social and political changes at home and abroad became the crucial factor in shaping the Korean language. For instance: the unification of the Three Kingdoms (676) resulted in the Silla language, the first unified language on the Korean peninsula; later on, the establishment of the Koryo dynasty (918) gave rise to the central dialect of Korean, which became the basis of modern Korean; the Imjin War (1592–8) marks the division between late Middle Korean and Modern Korean; and lastly, the Korean War (1950–3) yielded the language division between North and South Korea.

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Characteristics of the Korean language

5000 BC 300 BC

0 AD 100 AD 200 AD

600 AD 700 AD 800 AD 900 AD 1000 AD 1100 AD 1200 AD 1300 AD 1400 AD 1500 AD 1600 AD 1700 AD 1800 AD 1900 AD 2000 AD


5000 BC Proto-Altaic

0 AD Old Korean

935 AD Middle Korean

1592 AD Modern Korean

Contemporary Korean

18 AD Paekche

37 AD Koguryo

57 AD Silla

676 AD United Silla

918 AD Koryo

1392 AD Choson

China Japan

206 BC Han Dynasty
221 BC Qin Dynasty

618 AD Tang Dynasty

960 AD Song Dynasty

1368 AD Ming Dynasty

1644 AD Qing Dynasty

250 AD Yamamoto

710 AD Nara Period

794 AD Heian Period

1336 AD Muromachi Period

1185 AD Kamakura Period

1603 AD Edo Period

Figure 1.1

The Korean language in the East Asian history

1.1.2 Where is the Korean language from?
The origin of the Korean language is still not clearly known. Although there were some predecessors, it was the Finnish linguist Ramstedt (1873–1959) who first proposed the genetic affinity between Korean and Altaic languages such as Manchu, Mongolian, Tungus and Turkish, through a systematic comparison. These languages share grammatical properties with Korean such as agglutinative morphology; that is, grammatical relations such as a subject or an object are mainly realised by attaching (or ‘gluing’) particles to nominal expressions. Nevertheless, it is hard to prove this genetic affinity with Altaic languages due to the lack of reliable evidence.
1.1.3 Korean vs. Chinese and Korean vs. Japanese: are they related, and if so, how?
Korea and Japan, under the umbrella of the Chinese cultural sphere, have not only shared socio-cultural heritages, but also a shared linguistic heritage. This is represented in the lexicons of the Korean and Japanese languages. As we will see in 1.3, roughly 57 per cent of the Korean vocabulary is Sino-Korean and derived from Chinese. Yet structurally, the two languages are completely unrelated.

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1.1 Origin, history and distribution

Chinese has a strict subject–verb–object word order and does not have grammatical particles like those found in Korean. Korean and Japanese, however, share a great deal of structural similarity. For instance, Japanese and Korean share an almost identical particle system. Nevertheless, it is still debatable whether Korean and Japanese belong to the same language family. Vovin (2008) recently argued that there is no genetic relation between the two languages. Once again, however, a lack of reliable evidence makes it difficult to prove any linguistic affinity.
1.1.4 Korean as a global language: is the Korean language for the Korean peninsula only?
Korean is no longer simply the language of the Korean peninsula, nor simply the language of Terra Incognita. This is due to the increase of the Korean ‘diaspora’, now consisting of roughly 7 million people. They include both descendants of early emigrants from the Korean peninsula, as well as more recent emigrants. Most of them live in China (2.34 million), the United States (2.1 million) and Japan (0.9 million). As a result, Korean is increasingly more widely spoken. With 79 million people speaking it across the globe (48.6 million in South Korea, 23.8 million in North Korea, 7 million overseas according to Statistics Korea), Korean is now the seventeenth most widely used amongst all the world languages (Ethnologue, 2008, Figure 1.2 shows the distribution of the Korean language outside Korea as of 2010.
Education in the Korean language overseas has also been expanded over the last few decades. For instance, the number of students in the USA choosing Korean as their SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) foreign language has been steadily on the rise in recent years. In 2007, the Korean Embassy in the USA reported that Korean was the fourth most popular foreign language chosen by SAT students.
Economic development, cultural exchange and trade also provide motives for foreigners to learn Korean. From the late 1990s, there has been a rapid increase in the influx of foreign labour into Korea, particularly from South Asia, as well as an increase in international marriages between Korean men and South Asian women. According to a recent survey by Statistics Korea, the number of students (of primary to high-school level) with foreign mothers was about 18,778 in 2009. Korean pop culture, or Hallyu, has also played an important role in raising interest in the Korean language and culture, particularly in China, Japan and Southeast Asia.

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Characteristics of the Korean language

Europe 118 thousand
Central and West Asia 327 thousand

Russia 222 thousand
China 2,337 thousand

Japan 592 thousand

Southeast Asia 304 thousand

Oceania 157 thousand

North America
2,325 thousand
Central and South America 107 thousand

Figure 1.2

Distribution of the Korean language outside Korea

1.2 Korean alphabet and romanisation
1.2.1 Hangeul: the Korean alphabet
Hangeul G䞲⁖, invented in 1443, is the unique alphabet used to write the Korean language. Hangeul 䞲G⁖ is a phonemic alphabet; in other words, there is one-to-one correspondence between a phoneme and a letter.
Consonants and vowels are given in alphabetic order in (1). There are twenty-four basic letters and sixteen complex letters. Among the twenty-four basic letters, fourteen are consonants and ten are vowels.
(1) Korean alphabet a. Basic letters for consonants (14) ඝ, ච, ඣ, ඥ, ත, ථ, න, ඳ, ප, බ, භ, ම, ඹ, ය b. Basic letters for vowels (10) ර, ල, ඿, ශ, ස, ෇, ෈, ෌, ෍, ා c. Complex letters for consonants (5) ඞ, ඤ, ද, ඲, ඵ d. Complex letters for vowels (11) ඼, ඾, ව, ෂ, හ, ළ, ෆ, ෉, ්, ෋, ෎
Systematic correspondence is observed between letters. For instance, an addition of a stroke makes a lax sound into an aspirated sound (e.g., ථ → ඹ, ඣ → ම, ඝ →භ), whilst consonant doubling results in the tensing of sounds

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1.2 Korean alphabet and romanisation

Table 1.1 Comparison of three romanisation methods

Word 䘟Ṗ 㰚Ⰲ 䟝⼫ 㼁㌂⧧ 䡧䣢 䞯䣢 ゚オ⹻
▪㤇 㡂▵ 䞻┺ ⳾✶ 㨂⹎ 㡂₆ ㍲㤎 ㎎₆ ゾⰂ 㧦㭒 ὌṦ


Revised ROK Yale


p’yŏngga pyeongga



haetpyŏt haetbyeot

ch’ŏtsarang cheotsarang

hyŏphoe hyeopheo

hakhoe hakheo

pibimpap bibimbap

tŏuk yŏdŏl halta modŭn chaemi yŏgi Sŏul segi ppalli chaju kotkam

deouk yeodeol halda modeun jaemi yeogi Seoul segi ppalli jaju gotgam

phyengka valuation, rating


truth, fact

hayspyet sunlight

chessalang a first love

hyephoy a society, association, league

hakhoy an institute, academy


common Korean dish (rice topped with vegetables, usually with an egg and mincemeat)

tewuk still more

yetelp eight

halthta lick

motun all, whole, every, each

caymi interest


here; a hobby

Sewul Seoul (Korea’s capital)


a century

ppalli fast, rapidly, quickly

cacwu often, repeatedly

kockam dry persimmons

(e.g., ථ → ද, ඣ → ඤ, ඝ →ඞ). Lastly, the sounds that are pronounced in the same place of articulation show visual similarity (e.g. (ථ ද ඹ), (ඣ ඤ ම), (ඝ ඞ භ), (න ඲, ප ඵ බ)).
In 1933, the Korean Language Council (Joseoneohakhoe 㫆㍶㠊䞯䣢) decid-
ed that words should be spelled as they sound, but should also conform to gram-
matical principles. They also decided that there should be a space between each
word in the sentence and the particles attached to the previous word. These two
rules became the basis of orthography in Contemporary Korean. This means that although the noun ㌂⧢ saram ‘person’ plus a subject particle -㧊 -i is pronounced ㌂⧒⹎ [sɑ.ɾa.mi], the written form remains ㌂⧢㧊, respecting the morphological combination of noun plus particle. This is in contrast to Middle
Korean orthography, where Korean is written as it is pronounced.

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Characteristics of the Korean language

1.2.2 Romanisation: how many styles and how different is each option?
There are three ways to romanise the Korean language: the McCune-Reischauer (M-R) system, the Revised Republic of Korean (ROK) system, and the Yale system. Inside Korea, the Revised ROK system is invariably used. (See www. for the Revised ROK Romanisation system.) Outside Korea, the McCune-Reischauer system and Yale system are mainly used. Whilst the McCune-Reischauer system respects the actual pronunciation of Korean, the Yale system follows the original morphological form. The former system is used by most Koreanologists and Korean studies authorities including the Library of Congress. The latter system is mainly used by linguists. The following table shows how the three systems romanise each sample word.
1.3 Lexicon 1.3.1 What is the proportional ratio between Sino-Korean and pure Korean words?
In terms of vocabulary, the Korean language has been heavily influenced by the Chinese language. (This is also true for Japanese.) Most conceptual or professional terms are Sino-Korean. The more basic terms, however, tend to be pure Korean. According to the Standard Korean Dictionary edited by the National Institute of Korean Language (NIKL, 2000), and containing some 440,000 words, the ratio of (i) pure Korean (PK) words; (ii) Sino-Korean (SK) words; (iii) other foreign loanwords is 25.28 : 57.12 : 17.6.
1.3.2 Increase of English loanwords
The proportion of loanwords is closely related to a nation’s socio-cultural and political situation. As western influence grows rapidly in South Korea, the number of English loanwords has risen dramatically in the last fifty years. The number of loanwords became one of the main causes of discrepancy between the North and South Korean languages. Whilst the South has adopted English loanwords, the North has replaced them with PK words wherever possible.
1.3.3 New words in the twenty-first century
A language’s lexicon vividly reflects the socio-cultural change of a particular society. This is also the case in the Korean lexicon. Korea University’s Korean Language Dictionary, published in 2009, contains words such as those presented in (2)–(4). The words in (2) are information technology-related terms that have appeared in the last ten years. The vocabulary in (3) reflects the

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1.3 Lexicon

socio-cultural aspects of present-day Korean society. For instance, gireogiappa ₆⩂₆㞚ザ ‘Wild Goose Father’ in (3) means a father who sends his wife and children abroad to further the children’s early foreign-language education, whilst he himself remains in Korea to earn money to send to the family. As shown in (4), some terms are English in origin, but are only used in Korea.
(2) 㞛䝢 ak-peul ‘internet bullying’, ⎍ⱏ net-maeng ‘internet-illiterate’, 㓺䖎Ⲫ㧒 spam-mail ‘e-mail spam or junk email’, 㞛㎇䆪✲ akseong-kodeu ‘malignant-code’, 䝚⪲Ợ㧊Ⲏ pro-gamer ‘professional gamer’
(3) ₆⩂₆㞚ザgireogiappa ‘wild goose father’, ↙⹎⋾ kkonminam ‘pretty-boy’, ㌳㠒 saengeol ‘makeupfree face’, ゚䢎Ṧ bihogam ‘muddied reputation’
(4) 㤦㍍ one-shot ‘bottoms up!’, 㓺䋾㕃 skin-ship ‘physical contact’, 䄺┳ cunning ‘cheating’
How many blues and blacks?
Colour terms are well developed in Korean. Consider (5)–(6). All words in (5) refer to the colour blue and (6) refer to the colour black.
(5) Blue ㌞䕢⧭┺, 䕢⧭┺, 䕢⯊㓺⯚䞮┺, 䕢⯝䕢⯝䞮┺, 䗒⩝┺, 䛎⯊┺, 䛎⯊◛◛䞮┺, 䛎⯊㓺⯚䞮┺, 䛎⯊㭓㭓䞮┺, 䛎⯝䛎⯝䞮┺, 㔲 䗒 ⩝ ┺
(6) Black Ṗⰹ┺, Ệⲩ┺, Ệⶊ㓺⩞䞮┺, Ệⶊ㓺⯚䞮┺, Ệⶊ㭓㭓䞮┺, Ệⶊ䓖䓖䞮┺, Ỗ┺, Ỗ⿟┺, Ỗ䗒⩝┺, ₢ⰹ┺, ₢ⶊ㧷㧷䞮┺, ㌞䃊ⰹ┺, ㌞₢ⰹ┺, 㔲䄺ⲩ┺, 㔲ℒⲩ┺

1.3.4 Motion- and sound-symbolic words
Mimetic words (i.e., motion-symbolic words) and onomatopoeic words (sound-symbolic words) are also well developed in Korean. According to NIKL, the Korean language contains some 2,900 motion- or sound-symbolic words. Consider (7) and (8).
(7) 㰖⋮Ṗ 䂾㦚 ∖ℓ ㌒䆆┺. (sound-symbolic) Jina-subj spit-obj kkulkkeok swallowed. ‘Jina swallowed with a gulp.’

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Characteristics of the Korean language

Table 1.2 Lexical differences between South and North Korea

English loanwords

Sino-Korean vocabulary

South (EL) ⏎䋂 ⩞䆪✲ 㓺䝚⩞㧊 㔲⩓

North (PK) ㏦₆㻯 ㏢Ⰲ䕦 ㏪㏪㧊 ┾ⶒ

English gloss
knock record spray syrup

㩺Ⰲ 䃊㓺䎪⧒ 䄺䔒 䆪⍞䋻 䤛

┾ⶋ ㍺₆ὒ㧦 㺓ⶎ⽊ ⳾㍲Ⰲ㆞ ⰴ┾㿪SGở┾㿪

jelly sponge cake curtain corner kick hook

South (SK) ὖ㩞 ᾦ⳿ ⓻⩻ Ⳏ‶
㌊‶ 㤪☯ 㧎⩻ 㿪㑮 䢣㑮

North (PK) ㅞⰞ❪ 䋺⋮ⶊ 㧒⽎㌞ ‶₷⁎Ⰲ㭓㧊₆
‶㭓㧊₆ Ỿ㤎⋮㧊 ⊢䧮 Ṗ㦚ọ㧊 䋆ⶒ

English gloss
joint (bone) a tall tree ability sterilisation (pasteurisation) sterilisation wintering labour force harvest deluge, flood

(8) 㰖⋮Ṗ ⋮⁡⋮⁡ ⹎㏢⯒ 㰖㠞┺. (motion-symbolic) Jina-subj nageunnageut (tenderly) smile-obj made. ‘Jina smiled tenderly.’
1.3.5 Can South Koreans and North Koreans understand each other?
The answer to this question is yes. However, it is not easy for South and North Koreans to understand each other one hundred per cent. This is due to the difference in vocabulary. As mentioned above, whilst the South has adopted English loanwords (EL) as they are, the North has invented corresponding PK words instead. In the North, not only EL, but also many SK words were replaced with PK words as shown in Table 1.2.
1.4 Structural properties of Korean 1.4.1 How are words and sentences composed?
The smallest meaning-bearing unit in Korean is called a morpheme. Morphemes are divided into free and bound morphemes according to whether the morpheme can be used independently of any other host category or not. At the same time, a morpheme is classified according to whether it has lexical meaning, or whether it only represents grammatical meaning. For instance, the verbal suffix -㠞- cannot be used on its own (i.e., it is a bound morpheme),

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1.4 Structural properties of Korean

Table 1.3 Examples of compound and derivational words

Pure Korean

Simple words


Derived words Suffix

‘hand’ ㌂⧧
ṫ(笹) ‘river’ ㌆(芄) ‘mountain’

ⰾ- + ㏦ → ⰾ㏦ ‘bare hands’ 㼁- + ㌂⧧ → 㼁㌂⧧ ‘first love’
╖(繗)- + ㍶⺆(苺脽) → ╖㍶⺆
‘great senior’ ⹎(肼)- + 㢚㎇(藶茶) → ⹎㢚㎇

Ṗ㥚 + -㰞 → Ṗ㥚㰞 ‘scissoring’ ⲡ + -㨗㧊 → ⲡ㨗㧊 ‘dandy’
ᾦ㥷(粊蜉) + -Ἒ(篨) → ᾦ㥷Ἒ
‘the world of education’ Ṗ㩫(竖袕) + -㣿(虑) → Ṗ㩫㣿
‘home use’

Compound words
⹺ + ⋮ⶊ→ ⹺⋮ⶊ ‘chestnut tree’ ㌂⧧ + 㕎㤖 → ㌂⧧㕎㤖 ‘love quarrel’
㽞❇(誏绌) + 䞯ᾦ(谷粋) → 㽞❇䞯ᾦ
‘primary school’ 㩫䂮(袚謐) + 㫆㰗(裹 覟)→ 㩫䂮㫆㰗 ‘political structure’

but it contributes to the meaning of the past tense (i.e., it is a grammatical morpheme). Verbal stems contribute to the meaning of a word (i.e., they are lexical morphemes), but cannot be used on their own (i.e., they are bound morphemes).
The smallest free or independent grammatical unit is a word. Korean words can have one of the following structures:
(9) Types of words a. simple word: root (e.g., ⋮ⶊ ‘tree’) b. derived word: prefix + root (e.g., 㼁-+ ㌂⧧ ‘first-love’) c. root + suffix (e.g., Ṗ㥚 +-㰞 ‘scissoring’) d. compound word: root + root (e.g., ⹺ + ⋮ⶊ ‘chestnut tree’)
Table 1.3 shows examples of compound and derivational words. The next grammatical unit after a word is the eojeol 㠊㩞 ‘word-phrase’. Word phrases are separated by a space in Korean orthography, and each is composed of a lexical morpheme (e.g., a noun) and a grammatical morpheme (e.g., a particle). Simply speaking, a word phrase is a basic grammatical unit that can function as a subject or object within a sentence. Note that in (10) the word 㰖⋮ itself does not have any grammatical role, but with the case particle – Ṗ attached, it becomes the subject.
(10) 㰖⋮-Ṗ 㞚䂾-㠦 㤆㥶-⯒ Ⱎ㎾㠊㣪. Jina-subj morning-at milk-obj drank ‘Jina drank milk in the morning.’

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A nominal expression with a particle attached forms one word phrase, and a verb plus verbal suffixes also forms one word phrase, regardless of the number of suffixes attached. In Korean orthography, each word phrase is individually spaced. Consider (11). L stands for lexical morpheme, F stands for free morpheme, G stands for grammatical morpheme and B stands for bound morpheme. Therefore (11) consists of three word phrases and seven morphemes.
(11) Word phrase {㰖⋮TṖ} {⹻T㦚} {ⲏT⓪T┺} ‘Jina is having a meal.’ Subject Object Verb
Morpheme 㰖⋮TṖG ⹻T㦚 ⲏT⓪T┺ L/F-G/B L/F-G/B L/B-G/B G/B
It is still an unsettled issue whether to regard a particle as an independent word or not. In South Korean grammar it is considered an independent word, but in North Korean grammar it is not. However, we will not dwell on this issue in this book.
Word phrases whose host categories are nouns take particles, whereas word phrases whose host categories are verbs take inflectional suffixes. We will return shortly to discussion of particles and suffixes. Word phrases form a longer phrase such as a noun phrase or verb phrase, and these longer phrases then constitute a clause and finally a sentence.
1.4.2 Is the word order rigid or free?
The word order in Korean is freer than in English, the only general rule being that the verb tends to come at the end of a sentence. Yet there are cases where the word order is more rigid; for instance, a modifying expression will always precede the noun being modified. Consider (12). * denotes an ungrammatical sentence.
(12) a. 㥶⋮-Ṗ ㌞ ῂ⚦-⯒ 㔶㠞┺. Yuna-subj new shoes-obj put-on ‘Yuna put on new shoes.’
b. *㥶⋮-Ṗ ῂ⚦ ㌞-㦚 㔶㠞┺. Yuna-subj shoes new-obj put-on (modifiee precedes modifying expression)
1.4.3 If it is not through word order, how are grammatical roles and relations expressed?
Grammatical functions are realised by ‘attaching’ or ‘gluing’ particles to the content words. For instance, regardless of the location of 㰖⋮-Ṗ, the agent

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Characteristics of the Korean language