Korean History Project
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The Korean Language

Speaking Korean

Hello. How are you? An-nyo'ng-ha-se-yo?
Thank you Kam-sa-ham-ni-da
Good-bye (to one who is leaving) An-nyo'ng-hi-ka-se-yo

Koreans do not refer to their language as "Korean." What it's called depends on where you are. In North Korea, the language is frequently called Joseonmal, or more formally, Joseoneo. In South Korea, it is known as Hangungmal, or more formally, Hangugeo. The language is sometimes colloquially called Urimal, "our language."

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, there is little variation in accent and pitch. The form and meaning of root words remains essentially unchanged regardless of the tone of speech.

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, while the Hangul ( ) script is easy to learn, the Korean language ranks among the world's three hardest languages to master.

There is more to learning Korean that simply memorizing words and phrases. This is a language deeply tied to Korean culture and, like the Japanese language, it is unique in the sense that it supports an extensive "honor system" through additional sets of letters that link verbs and nouns in accordance with the rank of the person you speak with. It is a way to reflect the status of the person to whom you are talking.

Cultural distinctions reflecting relative levels of superiority are so strong and the language is so honor sensitive that failing to use the proper honorific phrases can be very disturbing and lead to social conflict. Young Koreans learn to use the proper honorific phrases quickly, often by getting roughed up by an older friend or sibling for being disrespectful.

Because of this honor system, many Koreans are hesitant to teach you "just a few" Korean words. You cannot say the same thing to everyone. What you say - not the words, but the connecting phrases and endings - must change according to the person's relative rank or status. At one extreme, an adult would sound ridiculous using "superior phrases" to say "Hi" to a child. At the other extreme however, you could get thrown out of someone's home for not using superior honorific phrases to the elders living there.

The following guides to pronunciation are nontechnical in nature and ignore many fine points, but they are adequate to help you pronounce Korean words.

The 14 "normal" consonants in Hangul  are fairly easy to pronounce. In general, they are spoken much softer when in the middle of a word, particularly between two vowels. A silent "o" (ng) begins words that start with a vowel sound.

There are 5 double consonants  that can be described as "stopped" or "stressed" consonants. When pronouncing these consonants, pause to build up tension, but instead of "exploding" the consonant sound, stress the following vowel.

Korean consonants and the two semi-vowels "w" and "y" are generally pronounced as they are in English with the following exceptions:  an apostrophe following a consonant indicates that it is aspirated; accompanied by a marked exhalation of air. The aspirated consonants (ch', k', p', and t') closely approximate the corresponding English consonants. The unaspirated consonants (ch, k, p, and t) are closer to the corresponding French consonants. As an example, the "p" in P'yông'yang is pronounced much harder than the "p" in the word pyong. Note: Double consonants in the middle of a word are actually pronounced double.Except for apostrophes after the above consonants, an apostrophe mark is used to indicate a word division. For example, Tan'gun should be read like Tan gun, not Tang un.

Hangul contains 10 basic vowel sounds  , all of which are fairly easy to remember and pronounce. They are generally spelled (and pronouced) with the silent "o" (ng) as the intial consonant.

The biggest problem with Hangul's 11 dipthongs  , or double vowels, is that they can be quite difficult to distinguish. Confusing (or blending) the two sounds does not cause much confusion for the listener, but being able to generalize the sounds at the begining is key to learning these syllables. They are different and an effort to make some distinction is necessary.

Korean Vocabulary

The vocabulary of "pure" Korean words is rather small. A fairly large number of words are actually "loan words" adopted from other languages during Korea's long history of cultural contact with other nations. The majority of these loan-words are of Chinese origin, often called Sino-Korean words, a reflection of the Chinese cultural influence on Korea. As a result, the Korean language uses a dual system of native and Sino-Korean words, including two sets of numerals which are interchangeable in some cases, but mutually exclusive in others. Native Korean words are significantly outnumbered by Sino-Korean words, a situation by no means unique to Korea. About half the English language is said to have European origins.

Korean has also taken on a surprising number of words from the West which are called Oi-rae-eo, literally "words coming from abroad." As Korea adopted words from English, it changing the pronunciation only slightly to make the words easier to speak in Korean. The gradual process of modernization has resulted in a steady flow of Western words entering the Korean language. Although the majority of these "loan words" are technical or scientific, Western terms have been introduced into almost every aspect of Korean life. Some of the easily recognized adaptations are:  kola (cola), kopi (coffee), plaet-fom (platform) cham-pu (shampoo), ais-krim (ice cream), taeksi (taxi), wiski (whiskey), nait-klop (nightclub), and koktel pati (cocktail party).


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