The Korean Language

Korean Language

Although long overshadowed by its large Asian neighbors, South Korea blossomed in the second half of the 20th century to become a top economic and technological powerhouse. The Korean language has, at the same time, risen in importance in response to Korea emerging as a trillion dollar marketplace. Despite the cultural and literal imperialisms of China and Japan, Korea and its language are more independent and stronger than ever. Some interesting facts about the Korean language include:

  • Over 72 million people speak Korean, most of them in North and South Korea.
  • Over 37 million Koreans surf the web, making their language the tenth most common among Internet users.
  • Standard Korean is based on the dialect of Seoul in South Korea and on the dialect of Pyongyang in North Korea. The dialects are mutually intelligible despite some differences caused by the division.

The Foreign Service Institute at the US State Department classifies Korean as a Category III language, meaning it is an exceptionally difficult language for English-speakers. Any translation job may have to contend with such issues as choosing the proper level of formality, knowing which numeral system to use or deciding whether Chinese characters need to be incorporated. Here is some background on the Korean language to help guide you when first considering a Korean translation project:

Writing in Korean

Korean was originally written using Chinese characters, known as Hanja. It was too difficult for commoners to learn, confining literacy to the aristocracy. This changed in the fifteenth century during the reign of King Sejong the Great. A group of scholars invented an alphabet named Hangul specifically designed for the Korean language in 1444. King Sejong promoted it specifically to expand literacy. The traditional cultural elite looked down upon the new alphabet but couldn’t stop its use. Hangul gradually became more common over the centuries. Since World War II, Hanja is rarely used in commercial writing in South Korea and its use has been banned entirely in North Korea.

There are 24 letters (jamo) in the Korean alphabet: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Letters that have similar sounds share similar shapes. These letters are combined into syllable blocks instead of being placed in a line like in English words. There are 27 of these syllable blocks that each contain two or three of these letters, but some are no longer used in Modern Korean. Words are formed with groups of syllable blocks. For example, the word Hangul contains two syllable blocks. The first block contains the letters for h, a, and n, while the second contains the letters for g, u, and l.

Korean is traditionally written top to bottom, right to left. In modern times writing in the Western style - with horizontal lines and from left to right - has become prevalent. Korean also adopted many punctuation marks from English, but its comma and period come from Chinese. Modern Korean is written with spaces between words.

Korean Romanization

Romanization is the process of transcribing a language in the Latin alphabet. Multiple systems exist for converting Korean phonetically into Latin letters, but two of the most important are:

  • McCune-Reischauer: Created in 1937 by two American graduate students, this system writes words more or less how they sound to the American ear. McCune-Reischauer is widely used by Western publications.
  • Revised Romanization of Korean: This is the official South Korean transliteration system. It was introduced in July 2000.

Korean Language Characteristics

Besides its unique alphabet, what else sets Korean apart from other languages?

  • Many times the singular form of the noun is used even when the plural is intended.
  • There are two numeral sets: one native to Korea and one adopted from Chinese. Either one is acceptable, but they cannot be used together.
  • The meaning of a verb depends on its intonation. Depending on how it is said, anja can mean “I sit,” “Will you sit?”, “Sit!”, or “Let’s sit!”
  • Koreans generally avoid using second person singular pronouns (“you”).
  • In Korean, the subject and object are “unnecessary” words. They can be left out of a sentence as long as they are clear from the context.
  • Korean has a highly developed system of polite language. Special terms and word endings are used to express deference to those with superior status.
  • There are seven speech levels from which to choose when addressing an audience. Each speech level indicates a different level of formality.
  • Most technical terms and about 10 percent of basic nouns come from Classical Chinese.

The South Korean Market

Several decades ago, South Korea was a war-torn, poverty-stricken third-world country. It emerged from beneath the thumb of the Japanese Empire only to be divided in half by the Cold War and ruled by a military dictatorship. After years of stunning economic growth, South Korea has developed one of the largest and most advanced economies in the world. Here are some facts to consider about the South Korean market:

  • The South Korean GDP is over $1 trillion, making it the fourteenth largest economy in the world.
  • The South Korean GDP per capita is about $26,000, which is similar to New Zealand and the Czech Republic.
  • Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is the ninth best financial and commercial city in the world according to a 2008 MasterCard survey.

Learn more about the Korean Language, Travel and Korean Business Etiquette

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