Understanding Korea materials - Hangeul: 1. Korean Language and Hangeul in East Asia

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Understanding Korea Series No.1
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Acknowledgments 1. Korean Language and Hangeul in East Asia Appendix: Korean and the Altaic Family

1. Korean Language and Hangeul in East Asia

There are three countries in East Asia: Korea (South Korea and North Korea), China and Japan. Historically, these three neighboring countries have maintained an extremely close relationship, and that intimacy extends to the present, encompassing politics, economics and culture.

However, each one of these three countries possesses distinctive, native language and writing systems. The official spoken languages for Korea, China and Japan are Korean, Mandarin and Japanese, respectively.[1] As described in , these three languages belong to different linguistic families and genuses and use different alphabets.[2] <Figure 2>, <Figure 3-1>, <Figure 3-2>, and <Figure 4> attest to this fact.
[Table 1] Languages and Writing Systems of Korea, China and Japan
Country Language Family/Genus Writing System
Korea Korean language Korean/Korean Hangeul
China Mandarin Sino-Tibetan/Chinese Hanzi
Japan Japanese language Japanese/Japanese Hiragana, Katakana

Comparing language characteristics,[3] Korean is similar to Japanese but considerably different from Chinese. From a morphological point of view, these languages are categorized as follows: Korean and Japanese are agglutinative languages, since most of the words are created by combining morphemes, whereas Chinese is an isolating language, in which each word is composed of a single morpheme.

isolating language  : Chinese
synthetic language polysynthetic language
fusional language
agglutinative language  : Korean, Japanese

Korean and Japanese have a subject-object-verb (SOV) word order while Chinese uses a subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. However, Korean lacks a tone system, while Chinese has a complex tone system, and the Japanese system is simpler than Chinese.

The most prominent differences among Korean, Chinese and Japanese appear in their writing systems. As indicated in <Table 1>, Korea uses Hangeul, China uses Hanzi, and Japan uses Hiragana/Katakana. A writing system can be classified as segmental, logographic or syllabic, according to certain features of each system’s alphabets. In the segmental writing systems, each character represents a phoneme, either a consonant or a vowel. In the logographic writing systems, each character represents either a word or morpheme. In the syllabic writing systems, each character refers to a syllable. According to these criteria, Korea’s Hangeul is a segmental writing system, China’s Hanzi is logographic and Japan’s Hiragana/Katakana is syllabic.[4]

For example, a single syllable [ta] consists of an English consonant [t] and vowel [a] and can be transcribed as follows.

Hangeul 다[ta]
Hanzi 它[tā], 她[tā]
Hiragana/Katakana た/タ[ta]

The consonant [t] and vowel [a] are transcribed using two different characters ‘ㄷ’ and ‘ㅏ’ in Hangeul. In Hanzi, [tā] can be transcribed as ‘它’ or ‘她’. Both are separate words with this usage. One single syllable [ta], which consists of the consonant [t] and vowel [a], can be transcribed using one character ‘た/タ’ in Hiragana/Katakana.

Although Korea, China and Japan have different native languages and writing systems, they share one thing in common: Hanzi or Chinese Characters. This is because these three countries share the common cultural background of Hanzi. As is widely known, Hanzi is one of the oldest written characters in the world. Historically, Korea and Japan cultivated their own linguistic cultures under the influence of Hanzi. Korea and Japan accepted it as a symbol and used it as an independent phonetic with an inherent sound. In addition, they sometimes use different forms of Hanzi for a word with the same definition. There are also differences in the adaptation of the changed form of Hanzi. The simplified version of traditional Hanzi is used in China, whereas the traditional form is still used in Korea. Japan uses the traditional form in most cases but sometimes the simplified version instead.

The form of Chinese Hanzi currently used in Korea is called Hanja, while in Japan it is called Kanji. Hanja is used with the native Korean writing system, Hangeul, but its usage is limited to Sino-Korean derived vocabulary only. During the past several decades, denoting the latter vocabularies in Hangeul instead of Hanja became customary in Korea. The situation is somewhat different in Japan. Kanji is used with its native writing system, Hiragana/Katakana. Kanji and Hiragana/Katakana are still used concurrently in writing, unlike Korea where Hanja is rarely used in writing. Nevertheless, the pronunciation of Hanzi in Japanese is different from Mandarin.

Therefore, the Chinese character exists as a common symbol used in Korea, China and Japan, but it is not the current official writing system of Korea and Japan, and there are different degrees of importance of Hanzi within the writing systems of Korea and Japan.

Here are some examples of concrete words and sentences constructed with those words.

[Table 2] Comparison of Hanzi in Korea, China and Japan
English Korean Chinese Japanese
Transcription Pronunciation Transcription Pronunciation Transcription Pronunciation
Hanzi 한자/漢字 [han 汉字 [Hànzì] かんじ/漢字 [kanzi]
diary 일기/日記 [ilgi] 日记 [rìjì] にっき/日記 [nitki]
name card 명함/名銜 [myəŋham] 名片 [míngpiàn] めいし/名刺 [meisi]
doctor 의사/醫師 [iysa] 医生 [yīshēng] いしゃ/医者 [isha]

As the following examples show, the words introduced in <Table 2> can be used in practical sentences. (a) is generally used in Korea and, in recent years, it has become extremely rare to find Hanja mid-sentence as shown in (b). (b) can only be written or understood by the highly-educated older generation; the younger generation finds it harder and harder to understand or write Hanja.

  • [Hanzi] I can write Hanzi.
    • Korean: a.나는 한자를 쓸 수 있다. b.나는 漢字를 쓸 수 있다.
    • Chinese: 我可以写汉字。
    • Japanese: 私は漢字を書くことができる。
  • [diary] In the evening, I write my diary.
    • Korean: a.나는 저녁에 일기를 쓴다. b.나는 저녁에 日記를 쓴다.
    • Chinese: 在晚上, 我把一本日记。
    • Japanese: 私は夕方に日記を書く。
  • [name card] I received his name card.
    • Korean: a.나는 그의 명함을 받았다. b.나는 그의 名銜을 받았다.
    • Chinese: 我得到了他的名片。
    • Japanese: 私は彼の名刺をもらった。
  • [doctor] He became a doctor.
    • Korean: a.그는 의사가 되었다. b.그는 醫師가 되었다.
    • Chinese: 他成为一名医生。
    • Japanese: 彼は医者になった。

Understanding Korea Series No.1 Hangeul

Foreword · Acknowledgments

1. Korean Language and Hangeul in East Asia · Appendix: Korean and the Altaic Family

2. Transcription of Korean Using Chinese Characters

3. The Creation of Hunminjeongeum · 3.1 King Sejong and Hunminjeongeum · Appendix: King Sejong and Jiphyeonjeon(The Academy of Worthies) · 3.2 The Design Principles of Hunminjeongeum Letters · Appendix: Various Hypotheses on the Creation of Hunminjeongeum · Appendix: Special Features of the Korean Alphabet(called Hunminjeoneum or Hangeul) · 3.3 The Phonological Features of the 28 Letters of Hunminjeongeum · Appendix: The Philosophical Background of Hunminjeongeum · 3.4 Letter Usage

4. Changes of Hangeul · 4.1 Changes in the Name: From Hunminjeongeum to Hangeul · 4.2 Changes of Letters

5. History of Hangeul Usage · 5.1 Records Written in Hangeul · 5.2 Establishment of Korean Orthography · Appendix: Korean Romanization · 5.3 The Script Reform: Mixed Script to Hangeul-only Script

6. Hangeul Now

Reference · Glossary · Sources · About the Author


  1. [Table 1] has been arranged mainly based on the official or standard languages that are used in Korea, China and Japan. It is well known that there are minority languages spoken in China and Japan, unlike in Korea. Korea refers to both South and North Korea in [Table 1]. South Korea and North Korea are two different countries politically, yet they use identical language and writing systems, Korean and Hangeul.
  2. More detailed information regarding these languages is available at the website of the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), http://wals.info/ and Ethnologue: Languages of the World’s website, http://www.ethnologue.com/web.asp.
  3. More detailed linguistic features of Korean, Mandarin and Japanese can be found in WALS, which explains the main characteristics of world languages. WALS introduces 149 features in 10 areas for Korean, 153 features in nine areas for Chinese, and 151 features in 10 areas for Japanese.
  4. Korean consonants have a distinctive feature: as the sound becomes stronger, more strokes are added. This is rooted in the principle of gahoek, or ‘adding strokes’ to basic characters to create new consonants, which originates from the invention of Hunminjeongeum. For example, when one stroke is added to ‘ㄱ[k]’, ‘ㅋ[kh]’ is created, and if one stroke is added to ‘ㄷ[t]’, ‘ㅌ[th]’ is created. Hangeul is classified as a featural writing system when this specific characteristic of its consonants is highlighted. Refer to Appendix 2 of Section 3.2 for more details on featural writing systems and Hangeul.