Korean language


Hwanyeonghamnida- Welcome

Korean (Hankukmal 한국어/조선말) is the language of the Korean peninsula in northeast Asia. It is believed that the ancestors of the Korean people arrived in the Korean peninsula and in Manchuria around 4,000 BC. They displaced, or assimilated the earlier Paleosiberian-speaking settlers. Many small Korean tribal states were established in these locations between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD.

There are many theories about the origin and affiliation of the Korean language. What makes Korean linguistic affiliation very difficult to establish is its long history of contact with Chinese and Japanese. According to the so-called Southern theory, Korean belongs to the Austronesian language family. However, according to the Northern theory, supported by a number of linguists, Korean is a member of the Altaic language family. At the same time, some linguists point to some similarities between Korean and Japanese, suggesting that it might belong in the Japonic group of languages. With the issue of the affiliation of Korean being unresolved, many sources classify it as a language isolate.

There are 48.5 million speakers of Korean in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and another 23.3 million in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). In addition, Korean is spoken by some 2.7 million people in Chinese provinces bordering North Korea. Korean speakers are also found in large numbers in Japan and Russia, the U.S., Singapore, Thailand, and many other countries throughout the world. The total number of Korean speakers worldwide is estimated to be around 77.2 million (Ethnologue).

Click on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where Korean is spoken in the US.



During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Japanese was declared the official language of Korea, and the use of Korean was officially banned. Koreans were even forced to change their family names to Japanese ones. With the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945, despite national division and civil war, Korean was once again established as the official language of the both Koreas. After the division of the country in 1945, each Korea developed its own national standard and language policy. Today, Modern Korean is used in all spheres of life in both Koreas.



The ancient Korean language was divided into two dialects: Puyo and Han. Puyo was spoken in Manchuria and northern Korea, while Han was spoken in southern Korea. Korea mapWhen the Korean peninsula was unified in the 7th century AD, the Han dialect became dominant. At the end of the 14th century, a Han-speaking group unified the peninsula, leading to the spread of its dialect throughout the entire peninsula. As a result, Modern Korean is based on the Han dialect. There are two standard varieties of modern Korean:

  • The standard in South Korea is based on the Seoul dialect.
  • The standard in North Korea is based on the P’yŏngyang dialect.

Despite the small size of the Korean peninsula, there are numerous regional dialects within these two major divisions, all of which are mutually intelligible.



Sound system



Korean has ten vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. A distinguishing feature of Korean vowels is that some front vowels can be rounded and back vowels can be unrounded. Korean vowels can undergo many alternations depending on their position in the word.

  • /æ/ = a in cat
  • /y/ is similar to second vowel in statue
  • /ø/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ə/ = a in about
  • /ɯ/ has no equivalent in English



Korean has 21 consonant phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. A distinguishing feature of Korean phonology is a three-way contrast among the unaspirated (lax), aspirated (tense), and glottalized consonants. Aspiration is a burst of air that accompanies the release of a consonant. Glottalization is the production of consonants with a partially constricted glottis. Consonant clusters occur only in the middle, never at the beginning or at the end of words.

Stops Voiceless unaspirated
Affricates Voiceless unaspirated
Fricatives Voiceless unaspirated
  • /c/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /l/ is pronounced as [l] at the end of words and before another consonant; it is pronounced as a flapped [r] at the beginning of words and between vowels
  • /j/ = y in yet
  • /w/ and /j/ occur only before, never after vowels.



Korean grammar is fairly complex, especially in its verb system. In general, Korean has two classes of words: inflected and uninflected. Inflected words include all classes of verbs. Uninflected words include nouns, adjectives, pronouns, particles, and interjections. Syntactic relations are mostly expressed by particles.


Nouns and pronouns

  • Nouns are not marked for gender and number.
  • There are no articles.
  • Post-positional particles are used to mark the seven cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and comitative).
  • There is a rich system of classifiers that are attached to numerals. Each classifier is related to a class of nouns. Numeral+classifier can follow the noun, e.g., cʰæk han kwən ‘book one [classifier]’. It can also follow the noun if the post-position ŭi is used, e.g., han kwən ŭi cʰæk ‘one [classifier] of book’.
  • Korean has a triple system of demonstratives, i ‘this’, ‘that’, and ‘over there’.



  • Korean predicates do not agree in number, person or gender with their subjects. Instead, they are governed by levels of politeness (see below).
  • Each inflected verb form consists of a base + ending.
  • There are different kinds of bases and endings. The numbers of endings that can be attached to a base may be as many as 400.
  • In finite verb forms, there are seven sequences where different endings can occur: honorific, tense, aspect, modal, formal, and mood.
  • The honorific marked si is attached to the verb base to show the speaker’s attitude toward the social status of the subject of the sentence (see below).
  • The formal form is used to express politeness towards the hearer.
  • Tense has both marked and unmarked forms: the unmarked form is present tense, the past marker represents a definite completed action or state.
  • There are two aspects.
  • Passive and causative forms are formed by adding suffixes to the verb base.
  • There is a large number of mood markers. The most typical moods are declarative, interrogative, imperative and cohortative. The mood markers occur in the final position of a finite verb form, e.g.,
ka-pni-ta ‘He is going.’
ka-pni-k´a? ‘Is he going?’
ka-la ‘Go!’
ka-ca ‘Let’s go.’


Levels of politeness (deference)

Speech levels in Korean are used to indicate level of respect towards the listener or the reader. Verb paradigms associated with speech levels have different sets of endings indicating level of formality or informality of the situation. The levels are divided into High, Middle, and Low. Each of these levels in further divided into sublevels. This results in seven different levels. However, in most everyday situations, only a few levels are normally used.


Word order

The normal word order in Korean is Subject-Object-Verb. There is some freedom in the order of all constituents of the sentence, except for the verb which must always be in final position. All modifiers precede the noun modified.



The use of Chinese characters brought a large number of loanwords into the Korean language with the result that more than half of Korean vocabulary is made up of borrowings from Chinese. Despite the Japanese occupation, there are surprisingly few Japanese borrowings, mostly limited to the spoken language. Korean has also borrowed from Western European languages, particularly from English.

Below are some basic words and phrases in Korean.

Hello annyong haseyo (informal) 안녕하세요
Goodbye annyonghi kasayo (to person leaving); annyonghi kyesayo (to person staying) 안녕히 가세요
Thank you kamsahamnida 감사합니다
I’m sorry mianhamnida 미안합니다
Yes ne
No aniyo 아니요
Man salam 사람
Woman eojia 여자

Korean regularly uses two sets of numerals: a native Korean system, and a Sino-Korean system. Below are the Korean numerals 1-10 in the two systems given in Hangul and in romanization.

Native Korean
Native Korean in Hangul 하나 다섯 여섯 일곱 여덟 아홉
yuk (ryuk)
Sino-Korean in Hangul



Korean is written with an alphabetic script called Han’gŭl (한글) that was in invented in 1444 and promulgated during the reign of King Sejong. Han () means ‘great’, while gŭl () means ‘script’. The name was coined by Ju Si-gyeong (1876-1914), one of the founders of Korean linguistics. The alphbet is called Chosŏn’gŭl in North Korea. Prior to the invention of Han’gŭl, Korean was written with Chinese characters. Words of Chinese origin have traditionally been written with Chinese characters, called Hanja, even after the invention of Han’gŭl. Hanja is still used in South Korea, but is officially discouraged in North Korea.

Letters of the Han’gŭl script (with their Romanization equivalents) are given below. Although the symbols look somewhat like Chinese characters, Han’gŭl, in fact, is an alphabetic writing system in which, instead of being written sequentially in horizontal lines like letters of the Latin alphabet, symbols are grouped into blocks, each of which represents a syllable. For example, although the syllable 한 han may look like a single character, it is actually composed of three letters: ㅎ h, ㅏ a, and ㄴ n, arranged in a square block.

Basic vowels ㅏ a, ㅓ eo, ㅗ o, ㅜ u, ㅡ eu, ㅣ i
Vowels with y ㅑ ya, ㅕ yeo, ㅛ yo, ㅠ yu
Diphthongs with y ㅐ ae, ㅒ yae, ㅔ e, ㅖ ye, ㅢ ui
Diphthongs with w ㅘ wa, ㅙ wae, ㅚ oe, ㅝ wo, ㅞ we, ㅟ wi
Consonants ㄱ g, ㄴ n, ㄷ d, ㄹ l/r, ㅁ m, ㅂ b, ㅅ s, ㅇ null/ng, ㅈ j, ㅊ ch, ㅋ k, ㅌ t, ㅍ p, ㅎ h
Double consonants ㄲ kk, ㄸ tt, ㅃ pp, ㅆ ss, ㅉ jj


Romanization of Korean

There are several romanization systems, of which the following two are the most widely used:

  • Revised Romanization of Korean (RR), approved in 2000, is the most commonly used and widely accepted system of romanization for Korean. South Korea uses this system officially. It includes rules both for transcription and for transliteration.
  • McCune–Reischauer (MR) was developed in the 1930s and used with some modifications as the official system in South Korea from 1984 to 2000. It is still the official system in North Korea, albeit with another set of modifications.


Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Han’gŭl .

모든 인간은 태어날 때부터 자유로우며 그 존엄과 권리에 있어 동등하다. 인간은 천부적으로 이성과 양심을 부여받았으며 서로 형제애의 정신으로 행동하여야 한다.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.



How difficult is it to learn Korean?
Korean is considered to be a Category III language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.