Articles > Let’s discover the Korean language

by Alexis Ulrich  LinkedIn

The Korean language has intrigued me for a long time, and first of all by its writing system that I find aesthetically pleasing, although completely abstract before I seriously looked into it. It is through this particular entry point that I started to discover this language and its particularities.

Its writing: the Hangul

The history of Hangul, the Korean writing system, is interesting in many ways, especially because it is artificial. It was invented by King Sejong the Great in 1443 to replace several systems of writing and transcription in Chinese characters, and to allow the whole population to access reading and writing.

It is also both an alphabet and a syllabary that is written in grid form, which makes it easy to learn thanks to its regularity.

Sejong the Great
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The verb is placed at the end of the sentence

Korean has a Subject-Object-Verb structure, which means that the verb is always placed at the end of the sentence (or of the grammatical clause). In short, you have to let the other person speak without interrupting if you want to know what is going on.

I’m eating an apple is thus said I an apple am eating, or 제가 사과를 먹어요 (jega sagwaleul meog-eoyo).

Cab lane in Korea
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The levels of language

Language levels are expressed through particles that are added to the end of verbs. For example, the informal polite style uses the suffix (-yo), as in the previous apple example, 먹어요, while inthe formal polite style uses the suffix 니다 (-nida).

There are seven main levels according to the respect given to the person being addressed, and as many verbal suffixes. These are then combined with honorific particles depending on who is being addressed, such as the honorific (-ssi) attached to a name of a person on the same level as the speaker.

Neon signs in Seoul
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Korean numbers

Two types of numbers co-exist: those of Korean origin and those of Chinese origin. Up to 99, the first ones are used, and beyond that the second ones, even if the first ones can still be used for the tens and the units. The hours use the former (Korean) up to 12, and one or the other beyond, while the minutes are expressed exclusively with the latter (Chinese-Korean).

The days use in practice a digital counter: 하루 haru (one day), 이틀 iteul (two days), 사흘 saheul (three days), 나흘 naheul (four days), 닷새 datsae (five days)…

In summary, it is a bit complicated to count in Korean.

Sculpture and totems at Cheongpung-myeon, Jecheon-si
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Vocabulary and linguistic borrowings

The Korean language counts between 60% and 70% of words of Chinese origin. We can mention for example 부모 (bumo, from the Mandarin 父母, father/mother, for parents), or 학생 (haksaeng, from the Mandarin 學生, studies/student, for student). They are then written either in the hangeul alphabet or in hanjas characters (Chinese characters).

In South Korea, the words originating from English form what is called Konglish, a porte-manteau word formed on Korean and English, either directly readapted borrowings, or words that first passed through Japanese.

In the first group, we have for example 아이쇼핑 (ai-syoping, for eye shopping instead of window shopping), or 셀카 (selka, from self and camera, or selfie).

In the second, we can mention 헬스클럽 (helseu-keulleop, from health club, via the Japanese ヘルスクラブ or herusu-kurabu), and 백미러 (baegmireo, or rear-view mirror, from the English back and mirror, via the Japanese バックミラー or bakku-mirā).

As you can see, Konglish promises hours of etymological research through the twists and turns of linguistic borrowing.

Some words also come from French, even if they are a minority (there are about fifty): 바게트 (bageteu, from baguette, the bread), 크레용 (keureyong, from crayon, pencil), 시네마 (sinema, from cinéma, cinema), 트롱프뢰유 (teurongpeuroeyu, from trompe-l’œil), 쿠데타 (kudeta, from coup d’État, otherthrown), 레지스탕스 (rejiseutangseu, from résistance, resistance), 멜랑꼴리 (melangkkoli, from mélancolie, melancholy), 랑데 부 (rangde bu, from rendez-vous amoureux, date)…

Kim Dae Jung Nobel Peace Prize Memorial Hall
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