Search for resources by:

Definitions of materials Definitions of levels
Exclude Websites
Advanced Search
Please note: Due to project funding termination in summer 2014, this database is no longer actively being maintained. We cannot guarantee the accuracy of the listings.


Korean Citations   Korean Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: Approximately 72 million

Key Dialects: Seoul (South Korea), Phyong'yang (North Korea)

Geographical Center: Korean peninsula

Korean, known in the language itself as Kugo, is the language of the Korean Peninsula in northeast Asia. In the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) there are 20 million speakers and in the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) there are 42 million speakers. Korean is also spoken by almost 2 million people in China, mainly in provinces bordering North Korea. There are approximately half a million speakers in Japan and Russia, as well as significant numbers in the United States (over 600,000) with large communities on the west coast and in New York. Other communities are found in Singapore, Thailand, Guam, and Paraguay. The total number of speakers is 72 million (Grimes 1992).

There are no sizable language minorities in either North or South Korea. The Korean Peninsula is, and traditionally has been, an essentially monolingual region, although there is a history of Japanese domination and linguistic imposition.

Although classified as a language isolate, many theories have been proposed to explain the origin of Korean. The most prominent of these link Korean to the Altaic languages of central Asia, a family that includes Turkish, Mongolian, and the Tungusic (for example, Manchu) languages of Siberia. Others would argue for the inclusion of Uralic languages (Hungarian and Finnish) and Japanese in this macro family. Although not definitively proven, this affiliation is accepted by most Korean linguists and deemed likely by Western linguists as well. The competing theory associates Korean with the Dravidian languages of southern India, or to Austronesian languages.

Determining Korean's linguistic affiliation is complicated by a long history of contact with the Japanese and Chinese languages. Not surprisingly, Korean shares certain linguistic features with each of these languages.

Officially, there are two standard varieties of Korean in Korea: the Seoul dialect in South Korea and the Phyong'yang dialect in North Korea. The dialects are distinguished and regulated by each country's national language policy.

Regional dialects roughly correspond to province boundaries. Thus, South Korean regional dialects are Kyonsang, Chungchong, Cholla, and Cheju Island. The North Korean regional dialects are Hamkyong, Pyongan, Hwanghae. Some of the dialects are not easily mutually intelligible.

Korean uses a writing system called Hangul that has twenty four basic symbols representing the sounds of Korean (see Kim 1992). Words of Chinese origin have traditionally been written with Chinese characters, called Hanja, instead of being spelled out in Hangul. This practice is discouraged in North Korea, but is quite common in South Korean writing.

The symbols of Hangul are units reflecting Korean syllable structure. These syllables are sometimes referred to by Koreans as the actual "letters" of Hangul. Instructional material often presents Hangul in syllabary tables that graph the possible consonant and vowel combinations of the Korean language rather than citing the phonemic symbols individually. Hangul is generally written horizontally from left to right, although it has been written in earlier times like Chinese, vertically, from right to left.

South Korea has an official Roman orthography (referred to as the McCune Reischauer system); it is mainly used on signs and maps (Grimes 1992). Other Romanization systems are also in use today.

Korean is a morphologically rich language in which many grammatical functions are marked by inflection and affixes; but similar to Altaic languages, gender and number are not marked, and the language lacks articles, fusional morphology, relative pronouns, conjunctions and agglutination. Nouns are not inflected as such; rather, there is a class of postpositional particles or suffixes which may be used to mark 7 cases (nominative, genitive, accusative, dative, locative, instrumental, and comitative). Grammatical gender and number are not marked.

Verbs are formed by suffixing morphemes denoting tense, aspect, modality, formality, and social status of interlocutors, with a potential of hundreds of forms. Person and number of the subject or object are not marked on the verb. Pronouns and verb forms are marked to reflect the social status of the interlocutors, Broadly speaking, there are four levels: plain, informal polite, formal polite, and honorific.

Korean is a Subject-Object-Verb language, but as long as the verb occurs in sentence-final position the order of other constituents can vary.

Korean has eight vowel phonemes and 22 consonants. Salient among the consonant inventory are contrasts between unaspirated, aspirated, and glottalized voiceless stops. The morphophonemics of Korean are complex, involving vowel harmony, glide formation, vowel contraction and deletion, and several types of consonant assimilation.

Along with a large body of Chinese loan words, more than half of Korean vocabulary, there is also a small percentage of Western loan words in Korean, borrowed mostly from English. Japanese borrowings are also found, but are largely limited to colloquial speech.

After the division of the country in 1945, each nation developed its own language policy. In North Korea, Hangul was adopted as the sole system for writing Korean; Chinese characters are never used and are replaced with their phonetic equivalent in Hangul. In South Korea, the abolition of Chinese characters from written Korean has been attempted with government support more than once but never maintained beyond a few years. Since 1972, the Ministry of Education of South Korea has required public schools to teach students 1,800 "basic characters", and then incrementally add characters in middle and high schools for a total of 3,600. Both countries have introduced campaigns to discontinue use of any words of foreign origin in everyday speech, especially words of Chinese origin. They encourage the use of words of Korean origin, even if it means translating them with new words composed of native roots. The North Korean government uses newspapers and magazines to propagate the use of the new lexical terms. In South Korea, purification is most intense among scholars who advocate a revised vocabulary through the media and academic journals. The South Korean government, however, has never officially supported this policy. Literacy rates are high in both countries (over 90 percent in the late 1980s [Grimes 1992]).

The earliest forms of Korean can be divided into two dialects. In northern parts of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria, Puyo was spoken. Han, the progenitor of Modern Korean, was spoken in small kingdoms in the southern part of the peninsula. In the seventh century, the Silla kingdom, a Han-speaking group, unified the peninsula, leading to the spread of Han throughout the Korean Peninsula.

In the fifteenth century, King Sejong of the Yi Dynasty commissioned the development of a phonetically based script for Korean. Until that time, Korean had been written with Chinese characters, and literacy was restricted to a small, educated elite. Scholars and the elite opposed the new script, however, and Hangul did not manage to displace the Chinese script among the educated elite until the nationalistic democratization movement at the end of the nineteenth century. This movement led to the printing of the first Hangul newspaper in 1894. Soon after, books and government documents were also published in Hangul.

The modern effort to establish Hangul as the writing system of the Korean language was ended in 1910 by Japan, which formally annexed the peninsula as a colony of its empire. During the colonial occupation, Japanese was the official language of Korea; Korean was suppressed by laws forbidding its use. Japanese became the language of instruction in the schools and by 1938 the Korean language had been completely eradicated from the curriculum. In 1940, Koreans were forced to change their family names and use Japanese surnames instead.

In 1945, the Japanese occupation ended and, in spite of national division and civil war, this enabled the re establishment of Korean as the dominant language of the Korean Peninsula and Hangul as its dominant written medium.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 2. London: Routledge.

Choi, T. S. 1990. The Development of the Korean Language from 1945 to the Present. M.A. thesis, UCLA.

Crystal, D. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Grant, B. K. 1982. A Guide to Korean Characters: Reading and Writing Hangul and Hanja. Elizabeth, New Jersey: Hollym Corporation.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Kim, N. K. 1987. "Korean" in The World's Major Languages, edited by B. Comrie, 881 898. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kim, N.-K. 1992. "Korean" in International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vols. 1 4, edited by W. Bright, 282 286. New York: Oxford University Press.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC: Linguistic Society of America.

Voegelin, C. F. and F. M. Voegelin. 1977. Classification and Index of the World's Languages. New York: Elsevier North Holland.

Return to the list of language portals


 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

  • You may use and modify the material for any non-commercial purpose.
  • You must credit the UCLA Language Materials Project as the source.
  • If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.

Creative Commons License