The Korean language is the official language of both North and South Korea. The language is also spoken widely in neighbouring Yanbian, China. Worldwide, there are around 78 million Korean speakers, including large groups in the former Soviet Union, Australia, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Japan, and more recently the Philippines.
Origins and Development
Korean is generally said to belong to the Altaic language group of central Asia, Siberia, and Mongolia. Some linguists maintain that Korean also belongs to the larger Ural-Altaic family, which includes Hungarian and Finnish. Archaeological and anthropological evidence, as shown in similarities in shamanism, language, and archaeological remains, supports the theory that Korean civilization is linked to that of its neighbors in central Asia and Siberia.
People on the Korean peninsula spoke different languages through the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE–667 CE) until 668 when Shilla unified the lower two-thirds of the peninsula. When the Later Three Kingdoms arose and Shilla fell in 935 to Koryo (918–1392), the northern dialect of Kaesong (also called Kaegyong; the capital of Koryo) became dominant. The language of the Choson dynasty (1392–1910) was similar to the dominant language of Kaesong.
In the early 2000s, there are two official dialects of the capitals of Seoul, South Korea, and P'yongyang, North Korea. South Koreans call their official dialect p'yojuno (standard language), while North Koreans call theirs munhwao (cultured language). The two dialects are very similar and show only minor differences, as in the use of foreign loanwords. There are also numerous regional and provincial dialects, but they are also mutually understandable.
The genealogical classification of Korean is debated. It is sometimes placed by several linguists in the Altaic language family, though others considered it to be a language isolate. Korean is agglutinative in its morphology and Subject Object Verb in its syntax. Like Japanese, the Korean language is also heavily influenced by the Chinese lingual system. Much vocabulary has been imported from Chinese, or created on Chinese models.
Korean has numerous loanwords in its vocabulary, most of which are derived from Chinese. Chinese loanwords have corresponding Chinese characters, but in many cases there are also native Korean counterparts. In recent years, there have also been many loanwords from Japanese and English as well as some European languages. Japanese and English loanwords have become common because of the economic and cultural ties among Korea, Japan, and the United States. The loanword, however, may not retain the exact meaning it had in its original language.
Prior to the 1446 promulgation of the hunmin chongum (proper sounds to instruct the people), there was no native writing system. Official documents were translated into and written in classical or literary Chinese. Because of the difficulty of learning Chinese characters, literacy in Korea was generally limited to males of the upper class.
Korean has fourteen consonants (five of which can be doubled) and ten vowels (with eleven additional vowel combinations or diphthongs). A morpheme is the smallest distinct unit of the Korean language, similar to an English syllable. A Korean morpheme must be formed of least one consonant and one vowel, but may have one or two additional consonants at the end. Below is a chart of the Korean alphabet's symbols and their canonical IPA values:
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