Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Language Profile: Korean

This week we're taking a look at Korean, which has 66.3 million native speakers. It is the official language of South Korea, North Korea, and the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China. Korean is an interesting language partly because it is hard to tell whether it descended from any known language families or not. The majority of linguists believe it is a language isolate, a language with no relation to other languages. A few linguists have suggested it may be related to Japanese, but its genetic relationship to other languages is also quite a mystery.

Since the Korean War, many differences have developed between the dialects spoken in North and South Korea. Initial Rs in North Korea are often pronounced as Ns in South Korea. There are also differences in verb inflection and vocabulary. It is interesting to note that when transcribing place names, North Korea tends to use the pronunciation used in the original language, whereas South Korea often relies on English pronunciations. This is probably due to North Korea's tendency to isolate itself from the rest of the world. However, the standard used in both countries is based on the dialect of Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

Cheonjiyeon Waterfall on Jeju Island.
All Korean dialects are mutually intelligible, though there is one that is sometimes regarded to be a separate language. The Jeju dialect spoken on Jeju Island in South Korea contains archaic vocabulary which has generally been lost in other Korean dialects, and also has borrowed words not found in the standard dialect that have come from Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese. Formality and honorifics are also rarely used on Jeju Island, which is often surprising to visitors from the mainland. In 2011, UNESCO listed Jeju as a "critically endangered language", though we'll stick with the Ethnologue and consider it an endangered dialect instead.

Formality is important in the Korean language. Both honorifics and speech levels are used. There are several different speech levels used in Korean, each with their own verb endings that show the formality of the situation and the status of one person in relation to another. However, in recent years this use of formality has started to fade, as young people become increasingly informal with each other and their elder family members. 

The lexicon of Korean mainly contains Korean words, but it also contains words borrowed from written Chinese, which are often words used to express abstract ideas. Most other loanwords come from English, while others are adapted from English, such as heading meaning "header" (as used in soccer/football).

"Korean" written Hangugeo in
South Korea (left) and Chosonmal
in North Korea (right).
Since the mid-15th century, Korean has been written in the Hangul alphabet. It is the official script that contains 24 letters. Unlike the Latin alphabet, letters are grouped into blocks and written together, which transcribes to make a syllable. Unlike Chinese and Japanese, there are spaces found between the words. It was traditionally written in columns as you see in the photo, but is presently written from left to right in rows.

Korean is a tricky language for English native speakers to learn, the United States' Defense Language Institute has estimated that it takes over double the amount of instruction to learn limited working level Korean compared with Romance languages, but you shouldn't let that discourage you. It's always a challenge to learn a language but once you've grasped Korean you might be able to sing along with Gangnam Style. Unfortunately, it won't help you to master the dance...