The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Korean language

(한국말 — Hangukmal)
(조선말 — Chosŏnmal)
Spoken in: Korea
Region: East Asia
Total speakers: 78 million
Ranking: 13
Genetic classification: Disputed, considered variously as a language isolate or as an Altaic language
Official status
Official language of: North Korea;
South Korea
Regulated by:
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ko
ISO 639-2 kor

The Korean language is the most widely used language in Korea, and is the official language of both North and South Korea. The language is also spoken widely in neighbouring Yanbian, China. Worldwide, there are around 78 million Korean speakers, including large groups in the former Soviet Union, the United States, Canada, Brazil and Japan. Proper classification of Korean is not universally agreed on, but it is often considered by many to be a language isolate. Some linguists instead group it in the hypothetical Altaic language family.

The native Korean writing system—called Hangul—is syllabic and phonetic. Sino-Korean characters (Hanja) are also used in writing. While the most commonly used words in the language are of native Korean origin, well over 50% of the language's vocabulary consists of words composed from Hanja. Korean is agglutinative in its word formation and SOV in its syntax.



"Korean" is not the name used by Korean speakers as the name of their language. The Korean names for the language are based on the names for Korea used in North and South Korea.

In North Korea, Korea is called "Chosŏn" (조선), and the language is most often called "Chosŏnmal" (조선말) or more formally, "Chosŏnŏ" (조선어).

In South Korea, Korea is called "Hanguk" (In Hangul: 한국). There and outside of Korea, the language is most often called "Hangungmal" (한국말), or more formally, "Hangugeo" (한국어). The language is also sometimes referred to colloquially as "Urimal" (우리말; "our language"). The standard language taught in schools is often referred to as "Gugeo" (국어; "national language").

Korea was also called "Chosŏn" ("Chosen" in Japanese) during the Japanese Colonial Period (1910-1945), and so many important linguistic works written during that period also refer to the language by the names "Chosŏnŏ" or "Chosŏnmal."

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 Korean has a linguistic relationship with Japanese.

In Korea, the possibility of Korean-Japanese linguistic relationship has been ignored mostly; partly because the often strained relations between the two countries throughout history tend to make any discussion of a relationship between their languages a controversial one, and partly due to the lack of cognates. However, the Korean relationship with Altaic and proto-Altaic also have been much argued as of late. It does bear some morphological resemblance to some languages of the Eastern Turkic group, namely, Yakut and some of its variants, and a few linguists believe that Altaic itself forms part of a larger Ural-Altaic language family. The opponents of this view believe that much of the Altaic influences in the language was infused later in Korean history during the Mongol rule over Korea during the Goryeo dynasty. Proponents of this theory cite old Korean cognates to Mongolian to support their claim.

Korean is similar to Altaic language in that they both have: the absence of grammatical elements such as number, genders, articles, fusional morphology, voice, relative pronouns, conjunctions, vowel harmony, and agglutination (Kim Namkil).

In the late 19th century, Homer B. Hulbert, an English linguist, theorised that Korean is related to the Dravidian languages of India. His argument was based on syntatic similarities between Dravidian languages and Korean. Dravidian and Korean are similar syntatically in that they both have: the word order subject-object-verb, postpositions instead of prepositions, no relative pronouns, modifiers in front of the head noun, copula and existential as two distinct grammatical parts of speech etc (Kim Namkil).

Geographic distribution

Most of the speakers of the Korean language live in North and South Korea. However, there are some ethnic Koreans in China, the former Soviet Union, and the United States.


Korean has several dialects (called mal (literally speech), bang-eon, 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 P'yŏngyang. These dialects are similar, and in fact all dialects except that of Jeju 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.

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, Incheon, Gyeonggi (South Korea); Kaesŏng (North Korea)
P'yŏngan P'yŏngyang, P'yŏngan region, Chagang (North Korea)
Regional Dialect Where Used
Chungcheong Daejeon, Chungcheong region (South Korea)
Gangwon Gangwon (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)



Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop plain p t c k
aspirated ph th ch kh
Fricative plain s h
Nasal m n ŋ
Lateral approximant l

Example words for consonants:

phoneme IPA Romanized English
p pal bal 'foot'
pʼal ppal 'sucking'
ph phal pal 'arm'
m mal mal 'horse'
t tal dal 'moon'
tʼal ttal 'daughter'
th thal tal 'riding'
n nal nal 'day'
c cal jal 'well'
cʼal jjal 'squeezing'
ch chal chal 'kicking'
k kal gal 'going'
kʼal kkal 'spreading'
kh khal kal 'knife'
ŋ paŋ bang 'room'
s sal sal 'flesh'
sʼal ssal 'rice'
l palam baram 'wind'
h hal hal 'doing'

, [cʰ], and [cʼ] have more frication than the other stops and are sometimes described as affricates.

The symbol ʼ is used to denote the tensed consonants ( [pʼ], [tʼ], [cʼ], [kʼ], and [sʼ]) 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. However, it may be argued that such a manner of articulation can still be categorized as glottalization, justifying the use of ʼ.




Korean has 8 different vowel qualities and a length distinction. Two more vowels, the close-mid front rounded vowel [ø] and the close front rounded vowel [y], can still be heard in the speech of some older speakers, but they have been largely replaced by the diphthongs [we] and [wi] respectively. In a 2003 survey of 350 speakers from Seoul, nearly 90% pronounced the vowel 'ㅟ' as [wi]. Length distinction is also decreasing; length distinction for all vowels can still be heard from older speakers, but many younger speakers do not always distinguish lengths consistently.

i siˈɟaŋ sijang 'hunger' ˈsiːɟaŋ sijang 'market'
e peˈɡɛ begae 'pillow' ˈpeːda beda 'cut'
ɛ tʰɛˈjaŋ taeyang 'sun' ɛː ˈtʰɛːdo taedo 'attitude'
a ˈmal mal 'horse' ˈmaːl mal 'speech'
o poˈli bori 'barley' ˈpoːsu bosu 'salary'
u kuˈli guri 'copper' ˈsuːbak subak 'watermelon'
ʌ ˈpʌl beol 'punishment' ʌː ˈpʌːl beol 'bee'
ɯ ˈʌːlɯn eoreun 'seniors' ɯː ˈɯːmsik eumsik 'food'

Diphthongs and glides

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

        wi dwi dwi 'back' ɯi ˈɯisa uisa 'doctor'
je ˈjeːsan yesan 'budget' we kwe gwe 'box'        
ˈjɛːki yaegi 'story' wae 'why'        
ja ˈjaːgu yagu 'baseball' wa kwaːˈil kwa-il 'fruits'        
jo ˈkjoːs’a gyosa 'teacher'                
ju juˈli yuri 'glass'                
jʌːgi yeogi 'here' mwʌ mweo 'what'        

Source: Handbook of the International Phonetic Association


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

[h] becomes labialized [ɸ] before [o] and [u] and palatalized [ç] before [j] or [i].

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

[l] becomes alveolar flap [ɾ] between sonorant segments, such as between two vowels.

Phonetic rules, mostly assimilation, transform the pronunciation of some words. For example,

  • Jonglo is pronounced as Jongno
  • Hankukmal as Han-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)

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

One difference between the pronunciation standards of North and South Korea is the treatment of initial [r] (also the initial [n] before [i] or [y]). For example,

  • 勞動 north: rodong, south: nodong (labour)
  • 歷史 north: ryŏksa, south: yeoksa (history)
  • 女子 north: nyŏja, south: yeoja (lady)

Vowel harmony

Traditionally, the Korean language has had strong vowel harmony; that is, in pre-modern Korean, as in most Altaic languages, not only did the inflectional and derivational affixes (such as postpositions) change in accordance to the main root vowel, but native words also adhered to vowel harmony. It is not as prevalent in modern usage, although it remains strong in onomatopoeia, adjectives and adverbs, interjections, and conjugation. There are also other traces of vowel harmony in Korean.

Korean Vowel Harmony
Positive/Yang Vowels ㅏ (a) ㅑ (ya) ㅗ (o) ㅛ (yo)
ㅐ (ae) ㅘ (wa) ㅚ (oe) ㅙ (wae)
Negative/Yin Vowels ㅓ (eo) ㅕ (yeo) ㅜ (u) ㅠ (yu)
ㅔ (e) ㅝ (weo) ㅟ (wi) ㅞ (we)
Neutral/Centre Vowels ㅡ (eu) ㅣ (i) ㅢ (eui)

There are three classes of vowels in Korean: positive, negative, and neutral. The vowel ŭ is considered partially a neutral and negative vowel. The vowel classes loosely follow the mid (negative) and front (positive) vowels; they also follow orthography. Exchanging positive vowels with negative vowels usually creates different nuances of meaning.


  • Onomatopoeia:
    • 퐁당퐁당 (pong-dang-pong-dang)
    • 풍덩풍덩 (pung-deong-pung-deong) (Water splashing)
  • Adjectives/Adverbs:
    • 무럭무럭 (mureokmureok) and 모락모락 (morakmorak) can both be translated as "rapidly" or "densely", but each has different connotations:
      • 연기가 모락모락 나다 (yeonggiga morakmorak nada) Smoke rises up.
      • 나무가 무럭무럭 자란다 (Namuga mureokmureok jaranda) The tree grows well.
  • Emphasised Adjectives:
    • 노랗다 (noratta) means plain yellow, while its negative, 누렇다 (nureotta) means very yellow
    • 파랗다 (paratta) means plain blue, while its negative, 퍼렇다 (peoreota) means deep blue
  • Particles at the end of verbs:
    • 잡다 (Japda) (to catch) → 잡았다 (Jabatda) (caught)
    • 접다 (Jeopda) (to fold) → 접었다 (Jeobeotda) (folded)
  • Interjections:
    • 아이고 (Aigo) and 어이구 (Eoigu) meaning "oh my!"
    • 어허 (Eoheo) and 아하 (Aha) meaning "indeed" and "well" respectively


Korean is an agglutinative language. The basic form of a Korean sentence is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), and modifiers precede the modified word. As a side note, a sentence can break the SOV word order, however, it must end with the verb. In contrast to the Korean word order, 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?" (gage-e gaseyo?)
G: "예." (ye.)
H: *"store-to going?"
G: "yes."

which in English would translate to:

H: "Are you going to the store?"
G: "Yes."

Though it is worth noting that in colloquial English one might say 'Going to the store?', it is not considered standard, as it is in Korean.

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 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/honoured persons, another. This loosely echoes the T-V distinction of most Indo-European languages.

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, hyeongnim is the formal term for an older sibling of the same sex (derived from hyeong, the informal term for man's older brother; eonni is the informal term for a woman's older sister).

All verbs can be converted into an honorific form by adding the infix -si- (시, pronounced shi) after the stem and before the verb ending . Thus, gada ("go") becomes gasida. A few verbs have special honorific equivalents. Therefore gyesida is the honorific form of itda ("exist"); japsusida is the honorific form of meokda ("eat"); and jumusida 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".

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 dangsin ("friend," but only used as a form of address and more polite than "chingu", the usual word for "friend"; also, whereas uses of other humble forms are straightforward, "dangsin" must be used only in specific social contexts, such as between two married couple--"dangsin" can often be used in ironic sense when used between strangers) is the honorific form of neo ("you" (singular). Note: in general, Koreans avoid using second person singular pronoun, especially when using honorific forms, and either i) use the person's name or title in place of "you" in English, or ii) use plural "ieoreobun" where applicable).

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 "style."

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 Level Non-Honorific Present Indicative of "hada" Honorific Present Indicative of "hada" Level of Formality When Used
Extremely formal and polite Traditionally used when addressing a king, queen, or high official; now used only in historical dramas and the Bible
Formal and polite Used commonly between strangers, among male co-workers, by TV announcers, and to customers
Formal, of neutral politeness Only used nowadays among some older people
Formal, of neutral politeness Generally only used by some older people when addressing younger people, friends, or relatives
Formal, of neutral politeness or impolite Used to close friends, relatives of similar age, or younger people; also used almost universally in books, newspapers, and magazines; also used in reported speech ("She said that...")
(하세요) (common),
(하셔요) (rare)
Informal and polite Used 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 impolite Used 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. More than 50% of the vocabulary, however, is made up of Sino-Korean words, which are words borrowed from Chinese, and traditionally written using Hanja (Chinese characters). 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.

The numbers are a good example of borrowing. Like Japanese, Korean has two number systems—one native and one borrowed from the Chinese—so Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and some other languages such as Thai all appear to have similar words for numbers.

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. Hangul consists of 24 letters -- 14 consonants and 10 vowels that are written in blocks of 2 to 5 characters. Unlike the Chinese writing system (including Japanese Kanji), 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 IPA values:
































See also: Hangul consonant and vowel tables

Modern Korean is written with spaces 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 the same as in other East Asian cultures. Korean is still sometimes written in columns (especially in poetry), but is now usually written in rows from left to right, top to bottom.

See also

External links

Last updated: 10-10-2005 05:12:09
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