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. Both,
for example, 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).
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 on basic structural differences in the words
employed. For example, in Korean, the imperative "go" can be
rendered kara for speaking to an inferior or a child,
kage to an adult inferior, kao or kaseyo to
a superior, and kasipsio to a person of still higher rank.
The proper use of polite language, or of the levels of polite
language, is extremely complex and subtle. Like Japanese, Korean
is extremely sensitive to the nuances of hierarchical human
relationships. Two people 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 use "inferior" terms in "talking down" to
those who are younger.
The Korean language may be written using a mixture of Chinese
characters (hancha) and a native Korean alphabet known as
han'gl (see Glossary),
or in han'gl alone.
Han'gl was invented by scholars at the court of King
Sejong (1418-50), not solely to promote literacy among the common
people as was sometimes claimed, but also, as Professor Gari K.
Ledyard has noted, to assist in studies of Chinese historical
phonology. According to a statement by the king, an intelligent
man could learn han'gl in a morning's time, and even a
fool could master it in ten days. As a result, it was scorned and
relegated to women and merchants. Scholars of linguistics
consider the script one of the most scientific ever devised; it
reflects quite consistently the phonemes of the spoken Korean
Although the Chinese and Korean languages are not related in
terms of grammatical structure, a large percentage of the Korean
vocabulary has been derived from Chinese loanwords, a reflection
of China's long cultural dominance. In many cases, there are two
words--a Chinese loanword and an indigenous Korean word--that
mean the same thing. The Chinese-based word in Korean often has a
bookish or formal nuance. Koreans select one or the other variant
to achieve the proper register in speech or in writing, and to
make subtle distinctions in accordance with established usage.
There is considerable divergence in the Korean spoken north
and south of the DMZ. 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
During the colonial period, large numbers of Chinese
character compounds coined in Japan to translate modern Western
scientific, technical, social science, and philosophical concepts
came into use in Korea. The North Korean regime has attempted to
eliminate as many of these loanwords as possible, as well as
older terms of Chinese origin; Western loanwords are also being
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 han'gl 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. The "Standard Language" (p'yojuno) of South
Korea is based on the Seoul dialect. North Korean sources vilify
Standard Language as "coquettish" and "decadent," corrupted by
English and Japanese loanwords, and full of nasal twangs. Two
documents, or "instructions," by Kim Il Sung, "Some Problems
Related to the Development of the Korean Language," promulgated
in 1964, and "On the Development of the National Language:
Conversations with Linguists," published in 1966, define basic
policy concerning Cultured Language.
Data as of June 1993