The History of Korean Language, The Overview 

Ling 450 
Cynthia Hallen
Michelle Lee


What is Korean Language? I can answer this question using all the memories of the first college year back in 1997. I had a chance to go to monthly forums sponsored by the department of Korean language and literature. Professor Kim Hyungju, Kim Sung’gon, Park Su’chon and Kang Eunkyo gave something more likely to be a lecture than a regular introduction of “ Korean language.” This paper is a rough summary of those forums held in April, 1997. I translated my old notes found in my press center planner--my old attachment. It is such a nice opportunity to pave a road for Cynthia Hallen visiting Asian languages once in a while. Hope she will have a nice trip through my I-15. Bon voyage!

Professor Park started the forum recapping the long history of Korean as the following: 

Korean is one of the world's oldest living languages, and its origins are is as obscure as the origin of the Korean people. Nineteenth Century Western scholars proposed a number of theories that linked the Korean language with Ural-Altaic, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, Dravidian Ainu, Indo-European and other languages. Korean is most likely a distant relative of the Ural-Altaic family of languages which includes such diverse languages as Mongolian, Finnish, and Hungarian. Linguistically, Korean is unrelated to Chinese and is similar to, but distinct from Japanese. Early historical records indicate that at the dawn of the Christian era, two groups of languages were spoken in Manchuria and on the Korean Peninsula: the Northern or Puyo group and the southern or Han group. During the 7th Century, when the kingdom of Silla conquered the kingdoms of Paekche in southwest Korea and Koguryo in the north, the Silla dialect became the dominant language on the peninsula. 

Following the emergence of the Koryo Dynasty in the 10th Century, the national capitol was moved to the city of Kaesong and the Kaesong dialect became the national language standard. The Choson Dynasty, founded at the end of the 14th Century, had its capital moved to Seoul. The new capital's geographic proximity to Kaesong however, did not lead to any significant changes in the language. There are a number of regional dialects within Korea, defined mostly by the variations in stress placed on certain syllables and words from region to region. These dialects are loosely defined by provincial boundaries: Seoul (Kangwon and Kyonggi Provinces), Kyongsang Province, Cholla Province, Hamgyong Province, P'yong'an Province, Hwanghae Province, and Cheju Island. Except for the Cheju dialect, they are similar enough that Koreans have no trouble understanding each other. As Professor Park gave some grasps about Korean language history, he also catalyzed a question from everybody, “What is Korean Script?”

Professor Kang Eunkyo clarified the definition skillfully as he has taught freshmen classes considerately. He said that  Korea's written language exists in three parts:  Han'gul, Korea's modern alphabet, Han'ja, which is the body of Chinese characters that have been incorporated into Korean, and Mi-ahl'bhet-gul (there is no 'ph' sound in Korean), the Western alphabet used on road signs, train schedules, and even a few newspapers. The oldest writing system in Korea is Han'ja, a Korean adaptation of Chinese pictographs -- symbols that depict not sounds, but ideas -- for the language of government and business.  Although Han'ja evolved as a consequence of centuries of Chinese rule and cultural influence in Korea, it is not entirely Chinese.  Sometimes Koreans used the characters to represent their original meaning and sometimes simply to represent sounds.  Professor Kang simply skipped the historical background because he considered most of the forum audience as “well-educated college students with appropriate common nowledges. It was very ignorant for hom to make a such a mistake. Those who were at the forum got the very opportunity getting to know their mother tongue history “luckily.”  

Adding the hostorical background at the time back in the Yi Dynasty era, not everyone could manage this task, since only Korea's upper-class were educated to read, write, and publish in Chinese. King Sejong, 4th monarch of the Yi Dynasty (1418 - 1450), decided to devise a method of writing suitable for all Koreans, regardless of their class. This was unheard of in a time when Korea's literati spent most of their time trying to secure and enhance their own status over everyone else! In 1440, he commissioned scholars of the Royal Academy to create a unique, simple, easily learnable phonetic alphabet. I found the information below in the Junior Encyclopedia of Korean language published in Seoul, 1992.

I found the information below in the Junior Encyclopedia of Korean language published in Seoul, 1992. Three years later, after nearly 100 man-years of work, the scholars presented King Sejong with Hunmin-chongum, "The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People." This simple alphabet of 28 characters (17 consonants and 11 vowels) emerged from a careful study of the shape or form of the speech organs (i.e. the mouth, the tongue, the throat) and the shape they take during speaking. In 1446, the Royal Academy scholars presented Sejong with a second, much longer thesis that set down the principles behind the invention of the alphabet and its usage: Hunmin-chongum Haerae, "Example and Explanation for the Correct Sounds for the Instruction of People." Characters are stacked and combined into groups of two to five to create syllables. The syllables are grouped together from left to right to form words. The true artistry of their work lies in the fact that for about one-tenth of the language, the syllable closely resembles the Han'ja character for the same word. In October 1446, King Sejong presented the Korean people an alphabet of their very own, an alphabet invented by Koreans for Koreans. Because our language differs from the Chinese language, my poor people cannot express their thoughts in Chinese writing. In my pity for them I create 28 letters, which all can easily learn and use in their daily lives. Almost overnight, Hunmin-chongum erased any distinction among Koreans in the area of communication and brought the social status of the under class dangerously close to the aristocracy. King Sejong's simple act of benevolence shook the very foundations of class-conscious Korean society. Early critics dismissed the new writing because they thought that no one could learn to read horizontally. For the next few centuries scholars insisted on using Han'ja. The literati not only opposed the new script, they feared it, hated it, and wanted desperately to abolish the onmun, or “ vulgar script” (Junior Encyclopedia, Seoul: Kyemong, 1992) 

I still remember what I learned in my elementary Mother tongue classes. Most of my teachers bragged about the simplicity of Korean writing encouraging school kids to accelerate their writing skills. Summarizing what they said:

The bright can learn the “ Korean writing” system in a single morning, and even the not-so-bright can do so within ten days. In the 19th Century, when a wave of nationalistic pride swept through Korea, Hunmin-chongum was renamed kungmun, or“ national script.” Beginning in the 1880s, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic mission schools taught kungmun to Korean children (largely because it was easier for Americans and Europeans to learn than Han'ja). Here I put a little more of history of Korean language in early 20th century . When the Japanese occupied Korea in the early 1900s, they outlawed the use of kungmun as part of a program to erase the Korean culture. This dramatic move stimulated a renewed interest in kungmun, and in 1936, a dedicated group of diligent scholars from the Korean Language Research Society began working to preserve it. Their efforts paid off with the emergence of an alphabetic system called Han’gul, a term that means “ Korean writing.” It quickly became a tool of resistance against the Japanese and found use in the everyday written language of newspapers, magazines, bibles, and menus. By the end of World War II, the pendulum had swung so far toward Han'gul that Han'ja was relegated to academics. 

Built on King Sejong's simple alphabet, Han'gul has withstood the test of time, keeping the Korean language free of unintelligible dialects for nearly 600 years and making Koreans one of the most literate people on earth (over 98%). Han'gul is one of the world's greatest creations and the only alphabet with its own national holiday. Recognizing the limits of Han'gul as well as the advantages of retaining some Han'ja, modern written Korean uses a combination of the two scripts. As known to most Korean people , The Republic of Korea's Ministry of Education directed Yonsei University in Seoul to compile a list of 1,800 essential Han'ja to be taught in all middle schools and high schools (Junior Encyclopedia, Seoul: Kyemong, 1992). Today, the use of Han'ja is seen as a mark of education and refinement, since most Koreans don't learn much more than the 1,800 Han'ja characters unless they attend university. North Korea, which views Han'ja as a form of cultural imperialism, has completely rejected this form of writing. 

Over the centuries three consonants and one vowel dropped out of use, leaving modern Han'gul with just 24 characters that can be easily learned in just a few hours. Since Han'gul's vowels and consonants are combined to indicate a single sound (phoneme), the modern Korean alphabet is actually comprised of 40 characters: 

14 consonants

5 double consonants (stressed)

10 vowels, and

11 dipthongs, or double vowels

You can easily find the information above if you flip the beginning part of any elementary school mother tongue textbook. It is remarkable that Han'gul has changed very little from its introduction in 1446 to its current usage. It remains one of the most scientific phonetic alphabets in existence and represents a perfect tool for expressing the Korean language. The language spoken in Korea is called Hanguk-mal, literally "Korean speech." Although the Korean language has adopted many words from the Chinese over the centuries and it seems to resemble Japanese grammatically, its phonetic system differs completely. Korean is not a tonal language like Chinese and Vietnamese, where tonal inflection can change the meaning of words. In Korean the form and meaning of root words remains essentially unchanged regardless of the tone of speech. There is little variation in accent and pitch. When speaking Korean, the general rule is to evenly stress phrases and sentences. When reading or speaking questions, the inflection is upward at end of the sentence just as in English. While it can take a long time to achieve anything resembling fluency in Korean, you can take heart and credit for whatever linguistic skills you do acquire by considering that Han’gul ranks among the world's three hardest languages to master. Due to my lack of knowledge about speaking Korean, I simply put my analogy of it above. Writing about speaking Korean sound odd to me. If you want to hear the real phonetic features, let me know, I will show you as much as possible.


1. What is Korean language; its brief introduction to freshmen. Kim Hyungju, Kim Sung’gon, Park Su’chon and Kang Eunkyo. The monthly forum of Department of Korean literature and language, Dong-A University: 28 April 1997.

2. Talk on Transliteration. Baek Yonghak. The monthly forum of Department of Korean literature and language, Dong-A University: 28 April 1997.

3. Junior Encyclopedia, Seoul: Kyemong, 1992

4. Mother Tongue(guk’o) . Elementary school text book ROK Government approved.


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1998-1999 © Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen
Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999