The Korean language, called hanguk-eo (한국어) in South Korea and joseon-eo (조선어) in North Korea, is a language of uncertain origin. Some scholars define it as an isolated language, meaning that it does not belong to any linguistic strain; others believe that it belongs to the strain of the Altaic languages, i.e. the same strain to which Japanese, Turkish and Mongolian also belong, due to some similarities in grammatical structure.
But what are the main characteristics of the Korean language? Let’s take a look at them in this article.
The Korean hangul alphabet
The Korean alphabet, called hangul (한글), is a writing system specific to the Korean language. It was invented in 1443 by a group of scholars under the orders of King Sejong the Great (세종대왕, Sejong-dae-wang), so that the Korean people could learn to read and write using an easy-to-use writing system. Prior to the invention of hangeul, Chinese ideograms were used and a high level of education was required to learn them.
The Hangul alphabet currently consists of 40 letters (jamo, 자모), of which 19 are consonants and 21 are vowels. The shape of the various consonants is designed to imitate the shape of the mouth or lips when pronounced, while the shape of the vowels recalls a philosophical ideology. Korean vowels are in fact made up of three signs: ㅡ, ㅣ and ∙. The horizontal line represents the earth, the vertical line and the dot symbolizes the sky. According to Eastern philosophy, these are the three main elements that make up the cosmos. They combine to form vowels, which are consequently given a philosophical value.
As a result, vowels and consonants combine to form syllable groups. Each syllable consists of a minimum of two and a maximum of four letters, strictly in the consonant-vowel-consonant-consonant order. If a word begins phonetically with a vowel, it will be preceded graphically by a mute consonant (ㅇ), since it must begin with a consonant. Moreover, the last two consonants do not follow the first two letters along the same line, but are positioned below them and take the name 받침 (batchim). We can also see an example of this in this word: ㄷ and ㅁ are the final consonants of the two syllables that they form and are located below the first two letters (consonant + vowel).
To learn more about this topic, we recommend that you also read our article on the Korean alphabet.
The grammatical structure of the Korean language
A big difference from most Western languages is that Korean uses a different grammatical structure: it no longer uses SVO (subject-verb-object), but SOV (subject-object-verb). The verb is in fact always the last element to be inserted in a sentence and is therefore preceded by the subject and all the complements. It is not too difficult to put into practice when it comes to simple sentences (e.g. “I eat the apple” will be rendered in Korean as “I apple eat”, that is 저는 사과를 먹어요, jeoneun sagwareul meogeoyo), but it is a little more complex when we want to express more articulated concepts, maybe even inserting some subordinates. We say it’s “complex” because we are used to thinking about what we want to say in the same order as we speak, and so to speak Korean you will need to “think in a different order”. It will seem impossible at first, but with a little practice, you will be able to play out the mental gymnastics in switching to this new grammar order.
Finally, let’s not forget that Korean society puts a lot of emphasis on hierarchy, and this mentality is reflected in the language itself. Korean is made up of various linguistic levels of speech and we can distinguish between informal (반말, banmal), formal (존댓말, jondaetmal) and honorific (높인말, nopinmal). Depending on the level of speech, verb endings change, honorific particles may be added and there are sometimes lexical variations.