Everything About the Korean Language

By OptiLingo • 13 minute read

Learn everything about the Korean language

Discover Everything About the Korean Language Here

Korean is a beautiful language with a rich history. How it is today is a product of thousands of years of culture and traditions. So, what influenced the changes in the Korean language? We’ll look at all the important historical periods and changes that made Korean into the language it is today. And to learn more about Korean, we’ll also take a look at key facts and current grammatical rules that make it unique.

Here’s truly everything about the Korean language. Perhaps this will be your motivation to start learning Korean.

Basic Facts About the Korean Language

Korean is the official language of North Korean and South Korea. In the North, they call it “cho-seon-mal”, and in South Korea it’s “han-gug-mal”. 

There are around 80 million native Korean speakers worldwide. 50 million come from South Korea, 25 million from North Korea, and 2.5 million from China. There are also sizable Korean speaking communities in Japan, Russia, and the United States.

Regional Korean Dialects and Accents

There are at least six regional accents and dialects in Korean. But, the two most distinct ones are North Korean from South Korean. In South Korea, the most prominent dialect comes from Seoul. Meanwhile, the North Korean accent is a variation of that mixed with the Pyongyang accent.

A long time ago, Korean dialects were very distinct. But, nowadays, they’re just regional accents. Each region has its own way of pronouncing vowels. But, the general language of modern standard Korean is shared across the country.

Korean is spoken in North Korea and South Korea

What Language Family Is Korean In?

The roots of the Korean language are a little bit unclear. That’s because its relationship with other languages is hard to determine. There aren’t a lot of written texts from Old Korean to compare them.

Most would categorize Korean as an Altaic language. However, this theory is often disputed. Altaic languages are Turkish and Mongolian. Although most websites and resources will tell you Korean is part of the Altaic language family, some linguists disagree.

Others think Korean has connections to Dravidian languages of India or it’s part of the Austronesian language family.

However, none of the above theories have any hard proof. Due to the lack of evidence, Korean is a language isolate. This means that the language can’t be connected to another one. So, Korean is the sole member of the Koreanic language family.

The History of the Korean Language

The history of a language is tied to the changes in cultures and trends. So, throughout the history of the Korean language, you can notice a great Chinese influence. This is thanks to the geographical and cultural proximity between China and the Korean peninsula. Two nations shared a common history. So, it’s no wonder that they share a language history too.

Old Korean (1st to 10th century)

Since the roots of Korean are unclear, it’s only speculation of how the language looked at its beginning. In South Korea, it’s widely believed that Korean originated from the “han”. Meanwhile, North Koreans believe that the ancestor of modern Korean is “buyeo”. These were two languages of the three kingdoms that divided the Korean peninsula at this time.

Middle Korean (10th to 16th century)

Old written Korean

As the Goryeo Dynasty took power over Korea, the capital of the country changed to Gaesong. The Gaesong accent became the most prominent one of this era. 

The first written evidence of Korean exists from this time period. Dated back to 1103, the “Jilin leishi” includes a few hundred Korean words written in Chinese characters phonetically.

The first writing system of Korean originated from Chinese. Using Chinese characters to write Korean phonetically was the most common practice in Korea. This writing system is called “hanja”.

Interestingly, in this writing, there’s evidence of 4 tones in Korean during the Middle Korean period. You can notice tiny dots next to some letters. These help intonation when reading aloud. Much like modern Chinese, tonal differences signaled different meanings. However, this doesn’t exist anymore today. Modern Korean isn’t a tonal language.

The Introduction of the Hangul Alphabet

Chinese characters can describe Korean words phonetically. But, this writing system wasn’t accurate enough. It didn’t match Korean well. Plus, it was also difficult and expensive to learn Chinese characters. Only the rich and privileged could afford this education.

So, King Sejong the Great of the Sojeon Dynasty devised a plan. In 1444, he announced a new Korean writing system: the Hangul. This alphabet was specifically designed for the Korean language. It’s often quoted as the most logical and intelligently designed writing systems in the world.

King Sejong introduced the Hangul alphabet and revolutionized the Korean writing system.

Modern Korean (16th century onwards)

At first, the nobles didn’t like Hangul. But, the literacy rate skyrocketed in Korea. Everyone could read Hangul easily. Yet, it took a couple hundred years for Hangul to fully take over the Korean writing.

In the beginning, Hangul and hanja (Korean written with Chinese characters) was written in a mixed script. Hanja was mainly used for content words, while grammar words were written in Hangul.

Between 1910 and 1945, Korea was under Japanese occupation. The Japanese had long term plans to make the Japanese language dominant in Korea. They enforced Japanese in schools and banned Korean newspapers. But, Korean survived. After the occupation ended, Hangul became the dominant writing system, and that’s still true today. Basically, everything you read in Korean will be in Hangul. That’s why Hangul is the base of everyone’s Korean studies.

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The Hangul Writing System in the Korean Language

There’s no denying Hangul’s genius. This writing system is one of the most logical ways to write, so it’s fairly easy to learn. There are 14 consonants and 10 vowels in Hangul. Each symbol was designed to show you how your mouth or tongue looks as you’re pronouncing it. 

Hangul symbols are arranged to form compact syllables. Two to four Hangul symbols make up a syllable. You can learn how to read and write in Hangul very quickly with the help of this guide.

As a language learner, your first step of learning Korean should always be learning Hangul. The Korean writing system can help you read, write, and connect to the language on a deeper level.

Hangul is a very important part of the Korean language. It unifies and connects every Korean across the globe. So, North and South Korean both dedicate a day to commemorate its importance. In South Korea, Hangul Day is celebrated in the 9th of October. In North Korea, Choseongeul Day on the 15th of January marks the same custom.

Hangul is a great writing system

Korean Vocabulary

Korean words can be divided into three distinct groups: Native Korean, Sino Korean, and other foreign loanwords. Native Korean words are those that originated from old Koreanic roots.

Sino Korean words come from Chinese. Interestingly, 60% of modern Korean has Sino-Korean origins. You can easily tell which words and Native Korean and Sino-Korean when you’re reading a mixed Hanja and Hangul script.

There are also a number of loanwords in the Korean vocabulary. Nowadays, most of these come from English. Here are a couple of examples of English loanwords in the Korean language:

  • 컵 (keop) – cup
  •  포크 (pokeu) – fork
  •  초콜릿 (chokollit) – chocolate
  •  샌드위치 (saendeuwichi) – sandwich

The Sentence Structure of the Korean Language

Of course, everyday Korean people don’t just speak in word. They put them together to create sentences. That’s where Korean grammar comes to play.

Korean is an SOV (subject-object-verb) language. That means that every sentence in Korean has to end in a verb (or an adjective, more on that later). Here’s an easy example:

  • I have a bicycle. – 나는 자전거를 가지고있다 (naneun jajeongeoleul gajigoissda) 

In Korean, this sentence is literally translated to “I bike have”. As you can see, “have”, which is the word, is at the very end of the sentence.

The Korean languages has fascinating grammar

Apart from the SOV structure, there are other grammatical rules in Korean when it comes to forming sentences. Modifiers always come before the word they modify. So, if you attach an adjective to a noun, make sure the adjective precedes the noun. 

Korean also doesn’t have definite or indefinite articles. You can find out the definiteness of a word from the context. Prepositions also become postpositions in Korean, since they’re added to the end of the word they relate to.

But, there’s a lot more to adding syllables to the end of words in Korean than meets the eye.

Korean Particles in Grammar

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of learning Korean grammar is understanding the particle system. This is a completely foreign concept to English native learners.

There are roughly 20 particles in the Korean language. These are syllables that tell you what role a word will within the sentence. So, depending on what your topic or emphasis is, you need to attach different particles to the end of the words to show that. Here are some of the most common particles every Korean learner needs to know:

Common Korean Particles

  • 는 [neun] or 은 [eun]: These are the topic or subject markers. Whichever word is the topic or main focus of the sentence needs to have this particle on the end. (the only exception is if the topic is already established or clear from context). If the word ends in a vowel, you add 는 [neun], if it ends in a consonant, you add 은 [eun].
  • 를 [leul] or 을 [eul]: These two signify the object of the sentence. Use 를 [leul] if the word ends in a vowel, and 을 [eul] if it ends in a consonant.
  • 에[e]: You attach “e” to a verb to indicate something is done in a specific time or place. This is kind of like an English preposition.

Conjugating Verbs and Adjectives in the Korean Language

As mentioned before, every sentence needs to end in a verb or an adjective. Interestingly, there are no adjectives in the Korean language.

Instead, Koreans conjugate verbs to describe a noun. So, the concept of adjectives exists, but the grammar behind them is more like a verb.

To explain this concept easily, let’s say we want to describe a red ubrella. Instead of saying “red umbrella”, Koreans would say “umbrella is red”. 

The dictionary forms of verbs in Korean all end in 다 (-da). To conjugate, simply remove the 다 (-da), and put the appropriate conjugated form to the verb. Just like most languages, you have to conjuagate Korean verbs according to the tense and person. But, there’s one major difference in Korean grammar that’s unique to this language. Korean doesn’t have a future tense.

You can conjugate verbs in the past tense and the non-past (present) tense. But, to talk about something that may or is likely to happen in the future, they use a “probable future” tense. The conjugation of this is fairly simple, just add “-eul keo-ye-yo” to the verb.

The final thing you have to know about conjugating Korean verbs is the level of politeness. You always have to know what level of politeness you use when you’re talking in Korean. These are different depending on who you’re talking to.

Honorifics and Levels of Politeness in Korean

Showing respect to your elders and bosses is very important in Korean culture. It’s no wonder the language reflects this too.

There are seven politeness levels in Korean. Luckily, you’ll only have to learn 3-4 of these for everyday speech. You need to change the level of politeness of your verb and adjective conjugation depending on who you’re talking to.

  • informal polite: You use this politeness level to talk to friends and acquaintances. You can also talk to colleagues of the same status as you.
  • formal polite: Use this when you’re talking to those of higher status than you. Older people, superiors, and people you’re meeting for the first time.
  • informal non-polite: This level is reserved for your closest friends, siblings, and those of lower status than you. If you want to be rude to someone on purpose, this is the level you’d use.
  • formal non-polite: This is a neutral level. You’ll see this when an author is talking to their readers. You can also use this for friends who are the same age as you.

Are There Genders in Korean?

No, Korean nouns don’t have genders. There are no masculine or feminine words, which makes learning Korean a lot easier. But, you always have to pay attention to the above-mentioned honorifics when you’re conjugating.

Is Korean a Tonal Language?

Also no. Although Korean was greatly influenced by Chinese, it’s not a tonal language. Whichever way you pronounce a word, the meaning will be the same.

This makes learning how to speak Korean a lot easier.

Korean Numbers

Numbers and counting in Korean are unique. That’s because Koreans actually use two counting systems: the Sino Korean and the Native Korean. 

Sino Korean numbers originate from China. You use them for addresses, dates, money/currency, numbers greater than 100, and telephone numbers.

Native Korean numbers on the other hand are mainly just used between 1-10. And they never go above 100. They are primarily used to identify the amount or quality of items.

One final thing about Korean numbers is the grammar behind them. Literally. After every number, you need to put a counter word. These signify what category the thing you’re counting is. There are a lot of different counter words in Korean, but the most common ones are:

English noun
Korean counter nouns
Examples with Native Korean numbers
Inanimate objects
개 (ge)
한개, 두개
People (general)
명 (myeon)
한 명, 두 명
People (respectful)
분 (boon)
한 분, 두 분
마리 (mari)
세 마리, 네 마리
권 (gwon)
세 권, 네 권
병 (byung)
다섯 병, 여섯 병
잔 (jan)
다섯 잔, 여섯 잔
살 (sal)
일곱 살, 여덟 살
Shoes & socks
켤레 (kyulrae)
일곱 켤레, 여덟 켤레

Learn Korean Easily

Korean is truly a wonderful language. And it’s not just rich in culture and history. It’s also very useful to speak Korean fluently. Speaking Korean could enhance your career opportunities, earn you higher pay, and improve your brain health. And, it’s not even that hard to learn it. With OptiLingo, you could make your dreams of learning Korean a reality.

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