Korean Language

Korean is among the world’s most misunderstood and misrepresented languages because its origins are obscure and the subject of ongoing scholarly debate. Evidence suggests that Korean and Japanese belong to the Altaic language family, which also includes Turkish and Mongolian. Chinese, although it belongs to a completely different language family, influenced Korean greatly. Many believe that the language emerged from a single cultural source. But just as the Korean people of today did not descend from a single homogeneous race, the Korean language of today did not evolve from a single language. Various groups who populated the Korean peninsula in ancient times merged into a homogeneous people with a single language during the unifications of the sixth to the fourteenth century. By the fifteenth century, Korean had emerged as the language we now know. 

Linguistic Affiliation

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.

Language Variation

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.

The Korean language is part of a northern Asian language known as Altaic, that includes Turkish, Mongolian and Japanese, suggesting early Northern migrations and trade. Korean was also heavily influenced by Chinese, but have adopted its own writing system in the 16th century.