A Brief History of the Korean Language

Terry Forsyth
Brigham Young University
LING 450
Professor Cynthia Hallen

The Korean language is the common median of approximately 70 million people living on the Korean peninsula. The language is also widely used by the Korean communities that are found in Manchuria and Japan. Cultural contact, war and expansion have dramatically changed the Korean language throughout its history. Although the history of the language is long and complex, it can be broken down into three main stages: Ancient Korean, Middle Korean and Modern Korean.

Geographical, historical and linguistic evidence supports the view that Korean belongs to the Altaic language group. The Altaic language group includes Turkish, Mongolian and Tungusic. Ancient Korean can be classified into the Puyo language in the north and the Han language in south. Tribes that settled in the region of Manchuria and northern Korea spoke the Puyo language. These tribes sustained life by hunting and spoke in various Tungusic dialects. The four main tribes in the north were Puyo, Koguryo, Okcho and Yemaek. The Koguryo tribe was the most predominant of the four and eventually conquered the other tribes. Tribes in the south combined into the three main states of Chinhan, Mahan and Pyouhan and spoke the Han language. The Korean language was primarily developed in this southern half of the country where agriculture was the main staple of life. Unlike the like their northern counterparts, the people in the south were related and thus spoke the same language (Lee 148).

The forming of Middle Korean began with the unification of the Korean peninsula. In the 7th century, Chinhan, the strongest of the three states in southern Korea pushed the northern states now unified under the Koguryo tribe further north and established the Shilla Dynasty. It was during the unification of Korea under the Shilla Dynasty that one provincial dialect took precedence over all others. The process of unifying the Korean language was accelerated in the 10th century when the Koryo Dynasty replaced the Shilla and moved the capital from Kyoungju, the Shilla capital in the south, to Kaesong, a more centrally located capital. Although the Korean language was becoming the dominant medium in the country, Tungusic, which an aggressive Koguryo tribe had previously carried down to mid-Korea, was influencing the Korean language. Meanwhile, other Manchurian languages were affecting Koguryo's Tungusic dialect. During the Koryo kingdom that lasted four hundred years, the Korean language was continually influenced by these Tungusic languages of the north (Kim 56).

During the development of middle Korean, Chinese severely influenced both written and spoken Korean. The Chinese system of writing became systematic in the Shilla dynasty. Throughout subsequent dynasties, the elite yangban nobility and scholars maintained the Chinese written language. Two systems of writing were derived from Chinese ideographs, idu and hyangch'a (Lee 209). Both systems were efforts to weld the fundamentally different Korean grammar to the structure of the Chinese language and serve as Korean grammatical particles. These systems continued to be used in Korea until the end of the Yi Dynasty (1910). During this time period, a substantial portion of the Korean vocabulary was borrowed from the Chinese language, especially from Confucian classics.

It was not until the middle of the 15th century that the Korean language was fitted with its own writing system. In 1446, King Sejong promulgated hangul, a phonetic alphabet suited to the Korean language. However, hangul could not immediately budge the strong hold that Chinese held on Korean and Korean culture. The yangban, or upper class rejected the new writing system and it became a despised system used only by working women.

Although Korean was uniform in the peninsula by 1446, it was a highly standardized language only used by the aristocratic class. Commoners continued to use other mediums of speech like Tungusic in the north. These stratifications were broken down when Hideyoshi invaded from Japan in the closing years of the16th century. Government and aristocracy tumbled and the Korean language poured down to lower ranks in society. This started the development of modern Korean. In 1894 when western influences were introduced into Korea, sweeping reforms further standardized the Korean language and popularized hangul. But with western influence came western style imperialism. Japan, interested in building an empire, annexed Korea and brought in a forty year policy designed to force Koreans to become more like Japanese. Efforts to destroy the Korean language led to bans and suppression of books, magazines and newspapers. The Korean language was outlawed in schools and was discouraged in the home producing a group of Koreans far better at Japanese than Korean. Fortunately, after the liberation of Korea forty years later, Koreans' pride for its language and its own writing system hangul flourished. Today, Chinese is slowly being phased out of Korean and is used sparingly in newspapers and government documents.

Cultural contact, war and expansion have molded the Korean language into what it is today. From its ancient beginnings as a dialect of a small tribe of people, Korean has developed with the influence of surrounding countries. Slowly, the Korean language has stood the test of time and now stands proudly with its own identity and direction.

Works Cited

Kim, Chin-U. The Making of the Korean Language. Tide Avenue: Pace International Research, Inc., 1983

Lee, Ki-baik. Korea Old and New: A History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990

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Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999