Declan Software

The Korean Language


The Origins of the Korean Language

Korean Word of the Day




A Short History of Hangul

Topics in Korean Grammar

Korean Language Software

Korean Language Sites

Online Korean Dictionaries

Other Korean Resources

Reading Korean/Hangul on the Web

Declan's Guide to Installing Microsoft's Korean IME

Origins of the Korean Language

There is a consensus among linguists that Korean is a member of the Altaic family of languages, which originated in northern Asia and includes the Mongol, Turkic, Finnish, Hungarian, and Tungusic (Manchu) languages. Although a historical relationship between Korean and Japanese has not been established, the two languages have strikingly similar grammatical structures.

Some have hypothesized that Korea and Japan stood at the end of two routes of large-scale migration in ancient times: a northern route from Inner Asia and southern route from southern China or Southeast Asia where the differences in the two languages are in part a reflection of disparate "northern" and "southern" influences, with Korean showing more influence from the northern, Inner Asian strain.

Both Korean and Japanese possess what is sometimes called "polite" or "honorific" language, the use of different levels of speech in addressing persons of superior, inferior, or equal rank. These distinctions depend both on the use of different vocabulary and upon basic structural differences in the words employed. For example, in Korean the imperative "go" can be rendered kara when speaking to an inferior or a child, kage when speaking to an adult inferior, kaseyo when speaking to a superior, and kasipsio when speaking to a person of still higher rank. The proper use of polite language, or levels of polite speech, is an extremely complex and subtle matter. The Korean language, like Japanese, is extremely sensitive to the nuances of hierarchical human relationships. Two persons who meet for the first time are expected to use the more distant or formal terms, but they will shift to more informal or "equal" terms if they become friends. Younger people invariably use formal language in addressing elders; the latter will use "inferior" terms in "talking down" to those who are younger. Additionally both employ particles after nouns to indicate case (the particle used to indicate "of" as in "the wife of Mr. Li" is no in Japanese and ui in Korean).

The Korean language may be written using a mixture of Chinese ideograms (hancha) and a native Korean alphabet known as hangul, or in hangul alone, much as in a more limited way Indo-European languages sometimes write numbers using Arabic symbols and at other times spell numbers out in their own alphabets or in some combination of the two forms. See the section on this page for a further discussion of the orginal of hangul.

Because of its greater variety of sounds, Korean does not have the problem of the Japanese written language, which some experts have argued needs to retain a sizable inventory of Chinese characters to distinguish a large number of potentially ambiguous homophones. Since 1948 the continued use of Chinese characters in South Korea has been criticized by linguistic nationalists and some educators and defended by cultural conservatives, who fear that the loss of character literacy could cut younger generations off from a major part of their cultural heritage.

Although the Korean and Chinese languages are not related in terms of grammatical structure, more than 50 percent of all Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese loanwords, a reflection of the cultural dominance of China over 2 millennia. In many cases there are two words--a Chinese loanword and an indigenous Korean word -- meaning the same thing. The Chinese-based word in Korean sometimes has a bookish or formal flavor. Koreans select one or the other variant to achieve the proper register in speech or in writing, and to make subtle distinctions of meaning in accordance with established usage.

Large numbers of Chinese character compounds coined in Japan in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries to translate modern Western scientific, technical, and political vocabulary came into use in Korea during the colonial period. Post-1945 United States influence has been reflected in a number of English words that have been absorbed into Korean.

Unlike Chinese, Korean does not encompass dialects that are mutually unintelligible (with the notable exception of the variant spoken on Cheju Island). There are, however, regional variations both in vocabulary and pronunciation. Despite several decades of universal education, similar variations also have been heard between highly educated and professional speakers and Koreans of working class or rural backgrounds. The "Standard Language" (p'yojuno) of South Korea is derived from the language spoken in and around Seoul. More than forty years of division has meant that there are also some divergences in the development of the Korean language north and south of the DMZ.

The North-South Divide

It is unclear to what extent the honorific language and its grammatical forms have been retained in the north. However, according to a South Korean scholar, Kim Il Sung "requested people to use a special, very honorific deference system toward himself and his family and, in a 1976 publication, Our Party's Language Policy, rules formulated on the basis of Kim Il Sung's style of speech and writing were advocated as the norm."

The North Korean regime has a policy that has attempted to eliminate as many foreign loanwords as possible, as well as older terms of Chinese origin; Western loanwords are also being dropped.

P'yongyang regards hancha, or Chinese characters, as symbols of "flunkeyism" and has systematically eliminated them from all publications. Klloja (The Worker), the monthly KWP journal of the Central Committee, has been printed exclusively in hangul since 1949. An attempt has also been made to create new words of exclusively Korean origin. Parents are encouraged to give their children Korean rather than Chinese-type names. Nonetheless, approximately 300 Chinese characters are still taught in North Korean schools.

North Koreans refer to their language as "Cultured Language" (munhwa), which uses the regional dialect of P'yongyang as its standard. North Korean sources vilify the Standard Language language of the South as "coquettish" and "decadent," corrupted by English and Japanese loanwords, and full of nasal twangs.


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A Short History of Hangul
Prior to the middle of the 15th Century, the Korean language had, for over one thousand years, been written using Chinese ideograms.  Korean sounds were represented using Chinese characters with similar pronunciations.  This was however unsatisfactory on two counts.  Firstly, the types of sounds used in both languages are considerably different - a reflection in part of the different origins of the two languages. The result was that it was difficult to represent in writing many "pure Korean" sounds.(1) Secondly, the Chinese writing system is not phonetic, making it somewhat difficult to learn.  As a result, literacy in Korea was limited to the upper classes and the aristocracy.

In the early 1440s, King Sejong (세종대왕 - r.1418-1450) of the Yi (or Choson - 조선시대) Dynasty (1392-1910) commissioned a group of Korean scholars to formulate a writing system that was suitable for the Korean language and that was relatively easy to learn.  The system they invented was called HunMinChongUm (훈민정음 - "Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People").  Originally the system comprised 28 letters but modern Hangul now contains 24 letters - 14 consonants and 10 vowels.

Hangul is an extremely easy writing system to learn. Syllables are based on 2,3 or 4 letters grouped into a character. A word comprises one or more syllables.  Each syllable begins with a consonant (which may be silent) and is followed by a vowel.  Syllables may end in one or two consonants.  Diphthongs are also able to be constructed using a combination of two vowels.

Chinese characters (HanCha - 한자) were still used widely until after the Korean War.  Confucian scholarship imbued HanCha with a prestige which it still enjoys in some circles of modern Korea.  During the Japanese Colonial period, the use of Hangul was seen as nationalistic and was suppressed by the Japanese.  After the Korean War nationalist movements promoted the exclusive use of Hangul. With some further development, including a slightly more sophisticated spelling convention, Hangul was adopted as the official national script.

However, up until the early 1980s school children continued to learn Chinese characters (a minimum of 1000 called the ChonChaMun - 천자문) because they continued to be used in some newspapers and in academic manuscripts. President Chon Du Hwan's administration removed HanCha from school curricula although many schools have reintroduced the study of HanCha.

As a result of a long history of using the Chinese script and close cultural, religious and commercial links between Korea and China, over half of the modern Korean vocabulary came to be made up of Sino-Korean words, the pronunciation of which derive directly from Chinese.  As a consequence of Chinese being a tonal language and Korean not being tonal, there are many Sino-Korean words with identical Korean pronunciations. This can result in confusion and HanCha is often required to overcome this.  When Mr Kim Dae Jung (김대중대통령), was President of the Republic of Korean (ROK - South Korea) he pushed for a reintroduction of Chinese characters into school curricula and this engendered considerable debate in South Korea. Since then the ROK Ministry of Education declared that high school students are no longer legally required to learn Chinese characters in order to graduate. Most students weren't really studying Chinese characters anyway, so the law basically caught up with reality. (Hat Tip: Brian Hobbs)

(1) This could explain the fact that vocabulary of modern Korean is now one half Chinese derived and one half "Altaic" pure Korean.


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Topics in Korean Grammar 
(Click here if your browser does not display the Hangul in the sections below)
Word Order

The word order of Korean sentences generally follows the pattern


For example:  

은경이가 김치를 먹어요 
(Eungyung kimchi eats)

This contrasts with the English pattern:


For example:

(Eungyung eats kimchi)

Lack of the Definite and Indefinite Article ("the" and "a")

The Korean language lacks both the definite article ("the") and indefinite article ("a"). Korean generally relies on context and other devices to communicate whether a noun is definite or indefinite.

For example:  

개가  밥을 먹어요 

Could mean "The dog eats rice" {we know which dog}; or
"A dog eats rice" {some dog that is unspecified or new to the conversation}.

Subject and Object Markers

The subjects and objects of Korean sentences are often marked with a post-fix that is attached to the end of the noun.

The subject marker is 이/가 (when the noun ends with a consonant and when it ends with a vowel).

The object marker is /(when the noun ends with a vowel and when it ends with a consonant).

For example:  

  고기 먹어요 
([The] dog<subject marker > meat<object marker > eats) 

Korean Verbs - the infinitive form

If you look up a Korean verb (such as to eat) in a English-Korean dictionary you will find it in the infinitive form - that is with a ending. This is much the same as the to at the start of the infinitive form of English verbs (eg. to eat). So the verb to eat is 먹다.

To actually use 먹다 in conversation, the is dropped to leave the verb stem () and then another ending is attached to the verb stem to convey meaning like for example past tense (았/었) or future tense (ㄹ/을 거예요) etc.... 

 To and From -  & 에서

The propositions & 에서 are used for to and from places respectively (NOT for to and from people, time etc. - just places).

For example:

그사람이 서울 갈거예요.
(That person will go to Seoul).

미국에서 왔어요.
([I] come {came} from the United States.)

More topics to come soon....

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Korean Language Software
ReadWrite Korean
  ReadWrite Korean teaches the Korean alphabet ("Hangul"). Lessons include a structured introduction to each letter with examples of its pronunciation.

Click here to download a free demo (2MB)
Korean HakGyo
  Korean HakGyo is a step-by-step introduction to Korean Grammar. In fifteen lessons the basics of Korean grammar are introduced with numerous exercises and comprehensive assistance with grammatical terms and concepts. A vocabulary of over 700 of the most commonly used words are introduced including examples of the pronunciation of each word.

 Click here to download a free demo (5 MB)

Declan's Korean FlashCards (Win2000 and WinXP only)
  Declan's Korean FlashCards is a fully configurable Korean vocabulary flash-card program.  The program has been designed to help students learn a large number of Korean words as quickly as possible in a systematic but simple way.

A large number of free Korean word lists are available for download.

 Click here to download a free demo (2MB)

Declan's Korean Dictionary (Win2000 and WinXP only)

Declan's Korean Dictionary is a fully searchable 23,000 word Korean-English dictionary. The database also includes thousands of examples and hanja (Chinese characters) for all sino-korean words. Features include the ability to construct custom word lists which can be exported to Declan's Korean FlashCards XFL format files. Word components can also be copied into the Window clipboard for integration with other applications.

 Click here to download a free demo (1.5MB)


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Korean Language Sites
Korean Language Learning Software by Declan Software;
  Declan Software offers three excellent shareware programs that assist in learning Korean. ReadWrite Korean teaches the Korean alphabet (Hangul), Korean HakGyo introduces the basics of Korean grammar and vocabulary, and Declan's Korean FlashCards.
Basic Korean Phrases
  A collection of useful introductory Korean phrases.
Mr Oh's
  An excellent site that teaches "Korean for Dummies".
An Introduction to Korean by J. David Eisenberg;
  One of the first Korean language lessons sites on the web. Includes a brief introduction to both Hangul and some basic grammar and vocabulary.
Life in Korea
A comprehensive site on all things Korean that includes a rudimentary section on reading Hangul and a basic Korean phrases section.
Talking to Koreans by Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
  Comprehensive web-based lessons that cover beginner and intermediate level grammar.
Benjamin Barrett's Learning Korean: a mailing list
  A email-based discussion list focusing on learning Korean and contacting others learning the language.
Korean English Learners Bulletin Board
  Daily English vocabulary posts which are also useful for students of Korean.
Let's Learn Korean by KBS;
  A series of lessons introducing Korean conversation by the Korean TV network KBS..
University of Bridgeport Korean Language Institute
  An online Korean course.
Learning Hangul by Soyongdori;
  A web-based multimedia introduction to Hangul - a bit difficult to follow.
Jeff's Korean-English English-Korean Dictionaries Page
The title explains itself....
Please send any site suggestions or recommendations
so that they can be added to this list.

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Online Korean Dictionaries
Yahoo's Korean-English Dictionary
BlueDic English-to-Korean dictionary
Korean-English-Korean dictionary
Declan's Korean Dictionary

Declan Software offers Korean Dictionary software for Windows XP/2000.
Click here for details.
If anybody knows of any other online Korean dictionaries can you please let me know.

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Korean-related Resources
What's In a Korean Name?
An excellent short essay on the mysteries of Korean names.

An Essay on Korean History by Soon-Yong Choi

An interesting no-nonsense essay on Korean history.
A Korean Studies Site
The UCLA Language Materials Project - Korea Profile
  An introductory academic profile of the Korean language - interesting if not a little technical.
Korean Studies Discussion List by The Intercultural Institute of California
  The IIC host two email-based discussion lists that focus on politics and history of Korea.
Centre for Korean Studies (Uni. of Hawaii) Korean Links Page
  A good list of Korean language and general Korea-related links.
Berkeley's Korean History Page
The Korean History Project
TV and Radio Webcasts in Korean and English:
  Seoul Broadcasting Service (SBS)
Moohwa Bang Soong (MBS)
Korean Broadcasting Service (KBS)
Please send any site suggestions or recommendations
so that they can be added to this list.

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Reading Korean/Hangul on the Web
Here is my new Guide to Installing and Using Microsoft's Korean IME for Windows XP, 2000 and Windows 98/95/ME. And now Windows VISTA.
One of the most frequently asked questions asked on Korean chat sites and web-boards is how to get Korean language sites to display HanGul correctly in web browsers running on English language operating systems.

Here is a test of whether our machine is already setup to read Hangul:


If the text on the left does not match the picture on the right then you are not set up correctly and need to explore one of the solutions listed below.....

There are a number of solutions listed below:

Windows 95/98/ME: Install Microsoft's free Korean Language IME. (or upgrade to Windows 2000 ;-)

Simply download it from here (2 MB - you should download the version with the "language pack" that includes a unicode HanGul font).

Then simply run the executable (called "komodo.exe" when I last downloaded it) to install it. This will install the IME and give you a blue IME icon in your taskbar - like this:

You should be able to use the IME to type Hangul in applications that are IME-enabled like Microsoft Outlook (email program) and some internet sites.

Windows 2000 & XP: Win2000 and XP support Korean internally - all you need to do is go to the Keyboard properties in the Control Panel (Start >> Setting >> Control Panel), select the Input Locales tab and add Korean as an input language.
(See here for full Win2000 and WinXP instructions)

Copious further discussion on this topic at the Hangul and Internet in Korea FAQ

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