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Learn about Korean Language and Culture

Overview of the Korean Language

Korean is spoken throughout the Korean peninsula. It is the official language of both South Korea and North Korea, although there are slight differences in spelling, alphabetization, and vocabulary between the two regions. Outside of the Korean peninsula, there are millions of other people who either speak Korean as their first language or have chosen to learn Korean as a second language.

The Korean language has five major dialects in South Korea and one in North Korea. Despite the geographical and socio-political dialect differences, Korean is relatively homogeneous, being mutually intelligible among speakers from different areas. The Korean elementary school system plays an important role in proliferating standard Korean.

The Korean Alphabet

Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, was created in 1443 by Sejong, the fourth king of the Yi Dynasty. The Korean alphabet consists of 40 letters, including compounds: 10 pure vowels, 11 compound vowels, 14 basic consonants, and 5 double consonants. The basic Korean alphabet, though, consists of only 10 vowels and 14 consonants.

The individual consonant and vowel letters of Hangeul are combined into syllabic blocks to create Korean words and sentences. This syllabic writing system is highly systematic and relatively easy to learn. It was not, however, used by scholars or the upper classes until after 1945, due to the influence of Confucianism and Chinese culture. After the emancipation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II, Chinese characters yielded their status, and Hangeul has been predominantly used in modern Korean.

Korean Vocabulary

Korean has imported many words from Classical Chinese. These Sino-Korean words constitute about 55% of Korean vocabulary. Words such as san (mountain) and kang (river) were written in Chinese characters until recently. Korean also has more than 10,000 loanwords that it has borrowed from English.

One Korean word that you may know is tae-kwon-do. The Chinese character for tae means "leg," kwon means "to raise," and do means "way of life." (The latter is the Korean equivalent of the Chinese tao.)

Beware of some Korean words that look like English words but do not have the same meaning. Take the word pool for example. When it is pronounced short like "pull", it actually means weed, but when pronounced long like "pool" it means glue. Watch out, because it never refers to a swimming pool! Another example is the word check, which means "book". What if they say book, then? Does that mean "check"? No, it means drum!

Formal and Informal Address in the Korean Language

Korean has many forms of address and reference terms that are sensitive to degrees of social stratification and to the relationship between the speaker and the person being spoken to or spoken about. Koreans tend to use people's titles, such as "Director" or "President," in business situations, and to use the names of relationships, such as "Brother" or "Sister," when addressing each other in a family setting.

Korean culture is characterized by a seniority system, resulting in many variations of written and spoken styles. Sentences can hardly be uttered without the speaker's knowledge of the social relationship between the speaker and the addressee in terms or age, social status, and kinship.

Korean Grammar

Unlike the Subject-Verb-Object order used in English sentences (e.g. "I speak Korean"), the basic Korean sentence order is Subject-Object-Verb ("I Korean speak"). The verb usually comes at the end of a sentence or a clause. Because there are no relative pronouns in Korean, sentences tend to be longer and more complicated than they are in English.

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