Korean (South Korean: , hangugeo; North Korean: , chosŏnmal) is the native language for about 80 million people, mostly of Korean descent. It is the official and national language of both North Korea and South Korea (geographically Korea), but over the past years of political division, the two Koreas have developed some noticeable vocabulary differences. +more Beyond Korea, the language is recognised as a minority language in parts of China, namely Jilin Province, and specifically Yanbian Prefecture and Changbai County. It is also spoken by Sakhalin Koreans in parts of Sakhalin, the Russian island just north of Japan, and by the Koryo-saram in parts of Central Asia. The language has a few extinct relatives which-along with the Jeju language (Jejuan) of Jeju Island and Korean itself-form the compact Koreanic language family. Even so, Jejuan and Korean are not mutually intelligible with each other. The linguistic homeland of Korean is suggested to be somewhere in contemporary Northeast China. The hierarchy of the society from which the language originates deeply influences the language, leading to a system of speech levels and honorifics indicative of the formality of any given situation.

Modern Korean is written in the Korean script ( in South Korea, in North Korea), a system developed during the 15th century for that purpose, although it did not become the primary script until the 20th century. The script uses 24 basic letters (jamo) and 27 complex letters formed from the basic ones. +more When first recorded in historical texts, Korean was only a spoken language; all written records were maintained in Classical Chinese, which, even when spoken, is not intelligible to someone who speaks only Korean. Later, Chinese characters adapted to the Korean language, Hanja , were used to write the language for most of Korea's history and are still used to a limited extent in South Korea, most prominently in the humanities and the study of historical texts.

Since the turn of the 21st century, aspects of Korean culture have spread to other countries through globalization and cultural exports. As such, interest in Korean language acquisition (as a foreign language) is also generated by longstanding alliances, military involvement, and diplomacy, such as between South Korea-United States, China-North Korea and North Korea-Russia since the end of World War II and the Korean War. +more Along with other languages such as Chinese and Arabic, Korean is ranked at the top difficulty level for English speakers by the U. S. Department of Defense.

Join Group About Korean language
1.725 Members
764 Posts


Modern Korean descends from Middle Korean, which in turn descends from Old Korean, which descends from the Proto-Koreanic language which is generally suggested to have its linguistic homeland. Whitman (2012) suggests that the proto-Koreans, already present in northern Korea, expanded into the southern part of the Korean Peninsula at around 300 BC and coexisted with the descendants of the Japonic Mumun cultivators (or assimilated them). +more Both had influence on each other and a later founder effect diminished the internal variety of both language families.

Since the Korean War, through 70 years of separation, North-South differences have developed in standard Korean, including variations in pronunciation and vocabulary chosen, but these minor differences can be found in any of the Korean dialects, which are still largely mutually intelligible.

Writing systems

Chinese characters arrived in Korea (see Sino-Xenic pronunciations for further information) together with Buddhism during the Proto-Three Kingdoms era in the 1st century BC. They were adapted for Korean and became known as Hanja, and remained as the main script for writing Korean for over a millennium alongside various phonetic scripts that were later invented such as Idu, Gugyeol and Hyangchal. +more Mainly privileged elites were educated to read and write in Hanja. However, most of the population was illiterate.

In the 15th century, King Sejong the Great personally developed an alphabetic featural writing system known today as Hangul. He felt that Hanja was inadequate to write Korean and that this was the cause of its very restricted use; Hangul was designed to either aid in reading Hanja or replace Hanja entirely. +more Introduced in the document Hunminjeongeum, it was called eonmun (colloquial script) and quickly spread nationwide to increase literacy in Korea. Hangul was widely used by all the Korean classes, but often treated as amkeul ("script for women") and disregarded by privileged elites, whereas Hanja was regarded as jinseo ("true text"). Consequently, official documents were always written in Hanja during the Joseon era. Since most people couldn't understand Hanja, Korean kings sometimes released public notices entirely written in Hangul as early as the 16th century for all Korean classes, including uneducated peasants and slaves. By the 17th century, the elite class of Yangban exchanged Hangul letters with their slaves, suggesting a high literacy rate of Hangul during the Joseon era.

Today, Hanja is largely unused in everyday life due to its inconvenience, but it is still important for historical and linguistic studies. Neither South Korea nor North Korea opposes the learning of Hanja, though they are not officially used in North Korea anymore, and their usage in South Korea is mainly reserved for specific circumstances, such as newspapers, scholarly papers, and disambiguation.


The Korean names for the language are based on the names for Korea used in both South Korea and North Korea. The English word "Korean" is derived from Goryeo, which is thought to be the first Korean dynasty known to Western nations. +more Korean people in the former USSR refer to themselves as Koryo-saram and/or Koryo-in (literally, "Koryo/Goryeo person(s)"), and call the language Koryo-mal. Some older English sources also use the spelling "Corea" to refer to the nation, and its inflected form for the language, culture and people, "Korea" becoming more popular in the late 1800s.

In South Korea, the Korean language is referred to by many names including hanguk-eo ("Korean language"), hanguk-mal ("Korean speech") and uri-mal ("our language"); "hanguk" is taken from the name of the Korean Empire . The "han" (韓) in Hanguk and Daehan Jeguk is derived from Samhan, in reference to the Three Kingdoms of Korea (not the ancient confederacies in the southern Korean Peninsula), while "-eo" and "-mal" mean "language" and "speech", respectively. +more Korean is also simply referred to as guk-eo, literally "national language". This name is based on the same Han characters (國語 "nation" + "language") that are also used in Taiwan and Japan to refer to their respective national languages.

In North Korea and China, the language is most often called Joseon-mal, or more formally, Joseon-o. This is taken from the North Korean name for Korea (Joseon), a name retained from the Joseon dynasty until the proclamation of the Korean Empire, which in turn was annexed by the Empire of Japan.

In mainland China, following the establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, the term Cháoxiǎnyǔ or the short form Cháoyǔ has normally been used to refer to the standard language of North Korea and Yanbian, whereas Hánguóyǔ or the short form Hányǔ is used to refer to the standard language of South Korea.


Korean is a member of the Koreanic family along with the Jeju language. Some linguists have included it in the Altaic family, but the core Altaic proposal itself has lost most of its prior support. +more The Khitan language has several vocabulary items similar to Korean that are not found in other Mongolian or Tungusic languages, suggesting a Korean influence on Khitan.

The hypothesis that Korean could be related to Japanese has had some supporters due to some overlap in vocabulary and similar grammatical features that have been elaborated upon by such researchers as Samuel E. Martin and Roy Andrew Miller. +more Sergei Anatolyevich Starostin (1991) found about 25% of potential cognates in the Japanese-Korean 100-word Swadesh list. Some linguists concerned with the issue between Japanese and Korean, including Alexander Vovin, have argued that the indicated similarities are not due to any genetic relationship, but rather to a sprachbund effect and heavy borrowing, especially from Ancient Korean into Western Old Japanese. A good example might be Middle Korean sàm and Japanese asá, meaning "hemp". This word seems to be a cognate, but although it is well attested in Western Old Japanese and Northern Ryukyuan languages, in Eastern Old Japanese it only occurs in compounds, and it is only present in three dialects of the Southern Ryukyuan language group. Also, the doublet wo meaning "hemp" is attested in Western Old Japanese and Southern Ryukyuan languages. It is thus plausible to assume a borrowed term. (See Classification of the Japonic languages or Comparison of Japanese and Korean for further details on a possible relationship. ).

Hudson & Robbeets (2020) suggested that there are traces of a pre-Nivkh substratum in Korean. According to the hypothesis, ancestral varieties of Nivkh (also known as Amuric) were once distributed on the Korean peninsula before the arrival of Koreanic speakers.


[[File:Ko-구매자는 판매자에게 제품 대금으로 20달러를 지급하여야 한다. ogg|thumb|right|Spoken Korean (adult man): 구매자는 판매자에게 제품 대금으로 20달러를 지급하여야 한다. +more gumaejaneun panmaejaege jepum daegeumeuro isip dalleoreul ($20) jigeuphayeoya handa. "The buyer must pay the seller $20 for the product. "lit. [the buyer] [to the seller] [the product] [in payment] [twenty dollars] [have to pay] [do]]] Korean syllable structure is (C)(G)V(C), consisting of an optional onset consonant, glide and final coda surrounding a core vowel.


BilabialAlveolarAlveolo- palatalVelarGlottal
Plosive/ Affricateplainor

Assimilation and allophony

The IPA symbol (a subscript double straight quotation mark, shown here with a placeholder circle) is used to denote the Tensed consonants . Its official use in the Extensions to the IPA is for 'strong' articulation, but is used in the literature for faucalized voice. +more The Korean consonants also have elements of stiff voice, but it is not yet known how typical this is of faucalized consonants. They are produced with a partially constricted glottis and additional subglottal pressure in addition to tense vocal tract walls, laryngeal lowering, or other expansion of the larynx.

is aspirated and becomes an alveolo-palatal before or for most speakers (but see North-South differences in the Korean language). This occurs with the tense fricative and all the affricates as well. +more At the end of a syllable, changes to (example: beoseot 'mushroom').

may become a bilabial before or , a palatal before or , a velar before , a voiced between voiced sounds, and a elsewhere.

become voiced between voiced sounds.

frequently denasalize at the beginnings of words.

becomes alveolar flap between vowels, and or at the end of a syllable or next to another . Note that a written syllable-final , when followed by a vowel or a glide (i. +moree. , when the next character starts with ), migrates to the next syllable and thus becomes .

Traditionally, was disallowed at the beginning of a word. It disappeared before , and otherwise became . +more However, the inflow of western loanwords changed the trend, and now word-initial (mostly from English loanwords) are pronounced as a free variation of either or . The traditional prohibition of word-initial became a morphological rule called "initial law" in South Korea, which pertains to Sino-Korean vocabulary. Such words retain their word-initial in North Korea.

All obstruents (plosives, affricates, fricatives) at the end of a word are pronounced with no audible release, .

Plosive sounds become nasals before nasal sounds.

Hangul spelling does not reflect these assimilatory pronunciation rules, but rather maintains the underlying, partly historical morphology. Given this, it is sometimes hard to tell which actual phonemes are present in a certain word.

One difference between the pronunciation standards of North and South Korea is the treatment of initial , and initial . For example, * "labor" - north: r'odong , south: nodong * "history" - north: ry'eoksa , south: yeoksa * "female" - north: nyeoja , south: yeoja


Vowels preceded by intermediaries, or diphthongs,
is closer to a near-open central vowel , though is still used for tradition.


Grammatical morphemes may change shape depending on the preceding sounds. Examples include -eun/-neun and -i/-ga .

Sometimes sounds may be inserted instead. Examples include -eul/-reul , -euro/-ro , -eseo/-seo , -ideunji/-deunji and -iya/-ya .

* However, -euro/-ro is somewhat irregular, since it will behave differently after a (rieul consonant).

-ui ({{lang|ko|-
-eun ({{lang|ko|--eun ({{lang|ko|-
-i ({{lang|ko|--i ({{lang|ko|-
-eul ({{lang|ko|--eul ({{lang|ko|-
-gwa ({{lang|ko|--gwa ({{lang|ko|-
-euro ({{lang|ko

Some verbs may also change shape morphophonemically.


Korean is an agglutinative language. The Korean language is traditionally considered to have nine parts of speech. +more Modifiers generally precede the modified words, and in the case of verb modifiers, can be serially appended. The sentence structure or basic form of a Korean sentence is subject-object-verb (SOV), but the verb is the only required and immovable element and word order is highly flexible, as in many other agglutinative languages.

{| |Question: | colspan="4" |"Did [you] go to the store?" ("you" implied in conversation) |- | || |||| || |- | || ||gage-e|| ||ga-syeo-sseo-yo |- | || ||store + [location marker ]|| ||[go (verb root) ] + [

In the North, similar pronunciation is used whenever the hanja "" is attached to a Sino-Korean word ending in , or .

In the South, this rule only applies when it is attached to any single-character Sino-Korean word.


Some words are spelled differently by the North and the South, but the pronunciations are the same.

WordMeaningPronunciation (RR/MR)Remarks
North spellingSouth spelling
sunshinehaeppit (haepit)The "sai siot" ( used for indicating sound change) is almost never written out in the North. +more
cherry blossombeotkkot (pŏtkkot)
cannot readmodikda (modikta)Spacing.
Hallasanhallasan (hallasan)When a combination is pronounced as ll, the original Hangul spelling is kept in the North, whereas the Hangul is changed in the South.
rulesgyuyul (kyuyul)In words where the original hanja is spelt "" or "" and follows a vowel, the initial is not pronounced in the North, making the pronunciation identical with that in the South where the is dropped in the spelling.

Spelling and pronunciation

Some words have different spellings and pronunciations in the North and the South. Most of the official languages of North Korea are from the northwest (Pyeongan dialect), and the standard language of South Korea is the standard language (Seoul language close to Gyeonggi dialect). +more some of which were given in the "Phonology" section above:.

North spellingNorth pronun. South spellingSouth pronun. +more
ryeongryang (ryŏngryang)yeongnyang (yŏngnyang)strengthInitial r's are dropped if followed by i or y in the South Korean version of Korean.
rodong (rodong)nodong (nodong)workInitial r's are demoted to an n if not followed by i or y in the South Korean version of Korean.
wonssu (wŏnssu)wonsu (wŏnsu)mortal enemy"Mortal enemy" and "field marshal" are homophones in the South. Possibly to avoid referring to Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un as the enemy, the second syllable of "enemy" is written and pronounced in the North.
rajio (rajio)radio (radio)radio
u (u)wi (wi)on; above
anhae (anhae)anae (anae)wife
kkuba (kkuba)kuba (k'uba)CubaWhen transcribing foreign words from languages that do not have contrasts between aspirated and unaspirated stops, North Koreans generally use tensed stops for the unaspirated ones while South Koreans use aspirated stops in both cases.
pe (p'e)pye (p'ye), pe (p'e)lungsIn the case where ye comes after a consonant, such as in hye and pye, it is pronounced without the palatal approximate. North Korean orthography reflects this pronunciation nuance.

In general, when transcribing place names, North Korea tends to use the pronunciation in the original language more than South Korea, which often uses the pronunciation in English. For example:

Original nameNorth Korea transliterationEnglish nameSouth Korea transliteration
Ulaanbaatarullanbattareu (ullanbattarŭ)Ulan Batorullanbatoreu (ullanbat'orŭ)
Københavnkoeppenhabeun (k'oeppenhabŭn)Copenhagenkopenhagen (k'op'enhagen)
al-Qāhirahkkahira (kkahira)Cairokairo (k'airo)


Some grammatical constructions are also different:

North spellingNorth pronun. South spellingSouth pronun. +more
doeyeotda (toeyŏtta)doeeotda (toeŏtta)past tense of (doeda/toeda), "to become"All similar grammar forms of verbs or adjectives that end in in the stem (i. e. , and ) in the North use instead of the South's .
gomawayo (komawayo)gomawoyo (komawŏyo)thanks-irregular verbs in the North use (wa) for all those with a positive ending vowel; this only happens in the South if the verb stem has only one syllable.
halgayo (halkayo)halkkayo (halkkayo)Shall we do?Although the Hangul differ, the pronunciations are the same (i. e. with the tensed sound).


In the North, guillemets ( and ) are the symbols used for quotes; in the South, quotation marks equivalent to the English ones ( and ) are standard (although and are also used).


Some vocabulary is different between the North and the South:

North wordNorth pronun. South wordSouth pronun. +more
munhwajutaek (munhwajut'aek)apateu (ap'at'ŭ)Apartment(appateu/appat'ŭ) is also used in the North.
joseonmal (chosŏnmal)han-guk'eo (han-guk'ŏ)Korean languageThe Japanese pronunciation of 조선말 was used throughout Korea and Manchuria during Japanese Imperial Rule, but after liberation, the government chose the name 대한민국 (Daehanminguk) which was derived from the name immediately prior to Japanese Imperial Rule. The syllable 한 (Han) was drawn from the same source as that name (in reference to the Han people). Read more.
gwakbap (kwakpap)dosirak (tosirak)lunch box
dongmu (tongmu)chin-gu (ch'in-gu)Friendwas originally a non-ideological word for "friend" used all over the Korean peninsula, but North Koreans later adopted it as the equivalent of the Communist term of address "comrade". As a result, to South Koreans today the word has a heavy political tinge, and so they have shifted to using other words for friend like chingu or beot . South Koreans use chingu more often than beot . Such changes were made after the Korean War and the ideological battle between the anti-Communist government in the South and North Korea's communism.

Geographic distribution

Korean is spoken by the Korean people in both South Korea and North Korea, and by the Korean diaspora in many countries including the People's Republic of China, the United States, Japan, and Russia. Currently, Korean is the fourth most popular foreign language in China, following English, Japanese, and Russian. +more Korean-speaking minorities exist in these states, but because of cultural assimilation into host countries, not all ethnic Koreans may speak it with native fluency.

Official status

Korean is the official language of South Korea and North Korea. It, along with Mandarin Chinese, is also one of the two official languages of China's Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture.

In North Korea, the regulatory body is the Language Institute of the Academy of Social Sciences ( Sahoe Gwahagweon Eohag Yeonguso). In South Korea, the regulatory body for Korean is the Seoul-based National Institute of the Korean Language, which was created by presidential decree on 23 January 1991.

King Sejong Institute

Established pursuant to Article 9, Section 2, of the Framework Act on the National Language, the King Sejong Institute is a public institution set up to coordinate the government's project of propagating Korean language and culture; it also supports the King Sejong Institute, which is the institution's overseas branch. The King Sejong Institute was established in response to:

* An increase in the demand for Korean language education; * a rapid increase in Korean language education thanks to the spread of the culture (hallyu), an increase in international marriage, the expansion of Korean enterprises into overseas markets, and enforcement of employment licensing system; * the need for a government-sanctioned Korean language educational institution; * the need for general support for overseas Korean language education based on a successful domestic language education program.

TOPIK Korea Institute

The TOPIK Korea Institute is a lifelong educational center affiliated with a variety of Korean universities in Seoul, South Korea, whose aim is to promote Korean language and culture, support local Korean teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges.

The institute is sometimes compared to language and culture promotion organizations such as the King Sejong Institute. Unlike that organization, however, the TOPIK Korea Institute operates within established universities and colleges around the world, providing educational materials. +more In countries around the world, Korean embassies and cultural centers (한국문화원) administer TOPIK examinations.

As a foreign language

For native English speakers, Korean is generally considered to be one of the most difficult foreign languages to master despite the relative ease of learning Hangul. For instance, the United States' Defense Language Institute places Korean in Category IV with Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), and Arabic, requiring 64 weeks of instruction (as compared to just 26 weeks for Category I languages like Italian, French, and Spanish) to bring an English-speaking student to a limited working level of proficiency in which they have "sufficient capability to meet routine social demands and limited job requirements" and "can deal with concrete topics in past, present, and future tense. +more" Similarly, the Foreign Service Institute's School of Language Studies places Korean in Category IV, the highest level of difficulty.

The study of the Korean language in the United States is dominated by Korean American heritage language students; in 2007 they were estimated to form over 80% of all students of the language at non-military universities. However, Sejong Institutes in the United States have noted a sharp rise in the number of people of other ethnic backgrounds studying Korean between 2009 and 2011; they attribute this to rising popularity of South Korean music and television shows. +more In 2018 it was reported that the rise in K-Pop was responsible for the increase in people learning the language in US universities.


There are two widely used tests of Korean as a foreign language: the Korean Language Proficiency Test (KLPT) and the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK). The Korean Language Proficiency Test, an examination aimed at assessing non-native speakers' competence in Korean, was instituted in 1997; 17,000 people applied for the 2005 sitting of the examination. +more The TOPIK was first administered in 1997 and was taken by 2,274 people. Since then the total number of people who have taken the TOPIK has surpassed 1 million, with more than 150,000 candidates taking the test in 2012. TOPIK is administered in 45 regions within South Korea and 72 nations outside of South Korea, with a significant portion being administered in Japan and North America, which would suggest the targeted audience for TOPIK is still primarily foreigners of Korean heritage. This is also evident in TOPIK's website, where the examination is introduced as intended for Korean heritage students.


Further reading

(Volume 4 of the London Oriental and African Language Library). * * * * * * * * * * * * In 3 volumes. * * * * * * Unpublished Harvard University PhD dissertation.