Korean language

The Korean language is spoken primarily and officially in Korea (South Korea and North Korea), also in the People's Republic of China (Yanbian). Worldwide, there are around 78 million Korean speakers, including large groups in the former Soviet Union, the United States, Canada, and Japan. Korean is considered by many to be a member of the Altaic family, but its proper classification is not universally agreed on.

The native Korean writing system, the Hangul is alphabetic and phonetic. Along with Sino-Korean characters (Hanja), well over 50% of the Korean vocabulary comes directly or indirectly from from Chinese.

Spoken in:Korea
Total speakers: 78 Million
Language isolate
Official status
Official language of:North Korea
South Korea
ISO 639-1: ko
ISO 639-2: kor

Table of contents
1 Names
2 History
3 Classification and related languages
4 Geographic distribution
5 Dialects
6 Sounds
7 Grammar
8 Speech Levels and Honorifics
9 Vocabulary
10 Writing system
11 External links


"Korean" is not the name used by Korean speakers as the name of their language. The Korean names for Korean are:


Classification and related languages

Korean is often classified as being a separate language in a family of its own (a
language isolate). In addition, most Korean and some Western linguists recognize Korean's kinship to the Altaic languages. On the other hand, traditional Western (since the 18th century) and many Japanese linguists believe that Korea has genetic relationship with Japanese.

In Korea, the possibility of Korean-Japanese linguistic relationship has been ignored mostly. However, the Korean relationship with 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, and some linguistics believe that Altaic itself forms part of a larger Ural-Altaic language family.

Korean's seemingly similarities, especially vocabulary and certain prounciations, to Chinese (of the Sino-Tibetan family) is superificial and not genetic. They occurred because of close and frequent contacts during the time of recorded history.

Geographic distribution


Korean has several
dialects (called mal, bangeon, or 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 Pyeongyang. 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 some Korean linguists. One of the most notable differences between dialects is the use of stress: speakers of Seoul Dialect use stress very little, and standard South Korean has a very flat intonation; on the other hand, speakers of Gyeongsang Dialect have a very pronounced intonation that makes their dialect sound more like a European language to western ears.

Although the naming and grouping of dialects is always changing as the study of dialects develops, here is a list of traditional dialect names and locations:

DialectWhere Used
SeoulmalSeoul, Incheon, Gaeseong Cities, Gyeonggi, Gangweon, North/South Hwanghae Provinces
PyeonganmalPyeongyang, Nampo Cities, North/South Pyeongan, Jagang Provinces
ChungcheongmalDaejeon City, North/South Chungcheong Provinces
JeollamalGwangju City, North/South Jeolla Provinces
GyeongsangmalBusan, Daegu, Ulsan Cities, North/South Gyeongsang Provinces
JejumalJeju Island/Province
HamgyeongmalCheongjin, Najin-Seonbong Cities, North/South Hamgyeong, Yanggang Provinces


Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop plain p t c k  
tensed p’ t’ c’ k’  
aspirated ph th ch kh  
Fricative plain   s     h
tensed   s’      
Nasal m n   ŋ  
Lateral approximant   l      

Example words for consonants:

phoneme IPA Romanized English
p pal bal 'foot'
p’ p’al ppal 'sucking'
ph phal pal 'arm'
m mal mal 'horse'
t tal dal 'moon'
t’ t’al ttal 'daughter'
th thal tal 'riding'
n nal nal 'day'
c cal jal 'well'
c’ c’al jjal 'squeezing'
ch chal chal 'kicking'
k kal gal 'goin'
k’ k’al kkal 'spreading'
kh khal kal 'knife'
ŋ baŋ bang 'room'
s sal sal 'flesh'
s’ s’al ssal 'rice'
l balam baram 'wind'
h hal hal 'doing'
[c], [cʰ], and [c'] have more frication than the other stops and are sometimes described as affricates.

The symbol [’] is used to denote the tensed consonants ([p’], [t’], [c’], [k’], and [s’]) but its official IPA usage is for ejective consonants, which the tensed stops in Korean are not. The tensed stops are produced with a partially constricted glottis and additional subglottal pressure.

[s] becomes [ʃ] or [ɕ] before [j] or [i].

[h] becomes [ɸ] before [u] and [ç] before [i] or [j]

[p], [t], [c], and [k] become voiced [b], [d], [ɟ], and [ɡ] between sonorant segments.



Korean has 8 different vowel qualities and a length distinction. The close-mid front rounded vowel [ø] can still be heard in the speech of some older speakers, but it has largely been replaced by the diphthong [we]. Similarly, the length distinction for all vowels can still be heard from older speakers, but it is no longer made by most younger speakers.

i siˈɟaŋ zijang 'hunger' ˈsiːɟaŋ zijang 'market'
e beˈɡɛ begae 'pillow' ˈbeːda beda 'to cut'
ɛ tʰɛˈjaŋ taeyang 'sun' ɛː ˈtʰɛːdo taedo 'attitude'
a ˈmal mal 'horse' ˈmaːl mal 'speech'
o poˈli bori 'barley' ˈpoːsu bozu 'salary'
u kuˈli guri 'bronze' ˈsuːbak zubak 'bronze'
ʌ ˈpʌl beol 'punishment' ʌː ˈpʌːl beol 'bee'
ɯ ˈʌːlɯn eoreun 'seniors' ɯː ˈɯːmzik eumzik 'food'

Diphthongs and glides

[j] and [w] are considered to be components of diphthongs rather than separate consonant phonemes.

     widwidwi'back' ɯi'ˈɯisauiza'doctor'
jeˈjeːs’aŋyessang'budget' wekwegwe'box'     
ˈjɛːkiyaegi'story' wae'why'     
jaˈjaːguyagu'baseball' wakwaːˈilkwa-il'fruits'     
jʌːgiyeogi'here' mwʌmwo'what'     

Source: Handbook of the International Phonetic Association


Phonetic rules, mostly assimilation, transform the pronunciation of some words. For example,
  • Jonglo is pronounced as Jongno
  • Hankukmal as Hang-gungmal

Stop consonants are generally voiceless, but lightly aspirated stops become voiced and unaspirated in intervocalic position. For example,
  • p -> b
  • t -> d
  • k -> g

Stops are nasalized before a nasal. For example,
  • p -> m (before m, n, or ng)
  • t -> n (before m, n, or ng)
  • k -> ng (before m, n, or ng)

Hangeul spelling does not reflect these assimilatory pronunciation rules, but rather maintains the underlying morphology.


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. Accordingly, whereas in English, one would say, "I'm going to the store to buy some food", in Korean it would be: *"I food to-buy in-order-to store-to going-am."

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

H: "가게에 가세요?"
G: "예."

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

which in English would translate to:
H: "Are you going to the store?"
G: "Yes."

Unlike Romance 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.

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 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 to use special nouns or verb endings to indicate the subject's superiority. Generally, someone is superior in status if he/she is an older distant relative (grandparent's sibling, older sibling's spouse, etc.), 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 close relative (grandparent, parent, spouse, or sibling), younger stranger, student, employee, or the like. On rare occasions (like when someone wants to pick a fight), a speaker might speak to a superior or stranger in a way normally only used for, say, animals, but no one would do this without seriously considering the consequences to their physical safety first!

One way of using honorifics is to use special nouns in place of regular nouns with "honorific" ones. A common example is using jinji instead of bap for "food." More often, special nouns are used when speaking about relatives. Thus, the speaker/writer may address his own grandmother as halmeoni but refer to someone else's grandmother as halmeonim. (The m comes from the honorific suffix -nim (님), which is affixed to many kinship terms to make them honorific; thus, hyeong (older sibling of the same sex) becomes hyeongnim.)

All verbs can be converted into an honorific form by adding the infix -shi- (시) after the stem and before the verb ending. Thus, gada ("go") becomes gashida. A few verbs have special honorific equivalents. So gyeshida is the honorific form of itda ("exist"); japsushida is the honorific form of meokda ("eat"); and jumushida is the honorific form of jada ("sleep").

A few verbs have special humble forms, used when the speaker is referring to him/herself in polite situations. These include deurida and ollida for juda ("give"). Deurida is substituted for juda when the latter is used as an auxiliary verb, while ollida--which literally means "raise up"--is used for juda in the sense of "offer." Derived from ollida is the noun ollim, which is the humble form of seonmul ("gift").

Pronouns in Korean have their own set of polite equivalents: thus, jeo is the humble form of na ("I"); jeoheui is the humble form of uri ("we"); and dangshin ("friend," but only used as a form of address and more polite than "chingu," the usual word for "friend) is the honorific form of neo ("you" (singular)).

Speech Levels

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 a subject--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 hada ("do") in each level, plus the suffix che, which means "body."

The highest 5 levels use final verb endings, while the lowest 2 levels (haeyoche) and (haeche) use non-final endings and are called banmal ("half-words") in Korean. (The haeyoche in turn is formed by simply adding the non-final ending yo (요) to the haeche form of the verb.)

Taken together, honorifics and speech levels form a cartesian product of 14 basic verb stems. Here is a table giving the 7 levels, the present indicative form of the verb hada (하다; "do" in English) in each level in both its honorific and non-honorific forms, and the situations in which each level is used.

Speech LevelNon-Honorific Present Indicative of "hada"Honorific Present Indicative of "hada"Level of FormalityWhen Used
Extremely formal and politeTraditionally used when addressing a king, queen, or high official; now only used in historical dramas and the Bible
Formal and politeUsed commonly between strangers, among male co-workers, by TV announcers, and to customers
Formal, of neutral politenessOnly used nowadays among some older people; Samuel E. Martin's 1954 book Korean in a Hurry states that it was the form used by police officers when giving out traffic tickets!
Informal, of neutral politenessGenerally only used by some older people when addressing younger people, friends, or relatives
Formal, of neutral politenessUsed to close friends, relatives of similar age, or younger people; also used almost universally in books, newspapapers, and magazines; also used in reported speech ("She said that...")
(하세요) (common),
(하셔요) (rare)
Informal and politeUsed mainly between strangers, especially those older or of equal age. Traditionally used more by women than men, though in Seoul many men prefer this form to the Hapshoche (see above).
hae (해)
(in speech),
hayeo (하여)
(in writing)
Informal, of neutral politeness or impoliteUsed most often between close friends and relatives, and when addressing younger people. It is never used between strangers unless the speaker wants to pick a fight.


The core of the Korean vocabulary is made up of native Korean words. Roughly 70% of the vocabulary, however, is made up of Sino-Korean words, which are derived from Chinese characters. Many of these words were borrowed from Chinese, although many modern-day scientific terms come from Japanese. To a much lesser extent, words have also been borrowed from Mongolian, Sanskrit, and other languages. In modern times, many words have also been borrowed from Western languages such as German and, more recently, English.

Writing system

Main article: Hangul

The Korean language was originally written using "Hanja", or Chinese characters; it is now mainly written in Hangul, the Korean alphabet, optionally mixing in Hanja to write Sino-Korean words. Hangeul consists of 24 letters -- 14 consonants and 10 vowels that are written in blocks 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 five 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  

(See also: Hangul consonant tables)

Modern Korean is written with spacess between words, a feature not found in the other CJK languages (Chinese and Japanese). Korean punctuation marks are almost identical to Western ones. Traditionally, Korean was written in columns from top to bottom, right to left, much as in other East Asian cultures. Korean is often still written in columns (especially in newspapers and poetry), but is now more usually now written in rows from left to right, top to bottom.

See also

External links

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