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Shawn Ford
LING 344
Term Project
Fall 2000

note: The following paper is a brief language sketch done as the term paper for Linguistics 344: Languages of the World under the instruction of Professor Anatole Lyovin. It is by no means meant to be comprehensive. Pardon any erros or omissions.

A Sketch of the Korean Language


In the following paper, I will present a short sketch of the Korean language. As Korean is an ancient and well-developed language, a complete description of all of its features would take up more space than this paper allows. Therefore, I will limit the discussion in certain sections and focus more attention on areas that I found most interesting: Korean's genetic relationship, its orthography, and some aspects of its morphology and syntax.

Genetic Relationship and General Background

The Korean language is a language spoken by approximately 72 million people worldwide. The vast majority of these speakers reside on the Korean Peninsula in either North or South Korea; however, an estimated 7% of the Korean population lives outside of Korea in different countries throughout the world. In a ranking of the world's languages according to number of speakers, Korean is eleventh.

The genetic affiliation of the Korean language is a subject that has created much controversy in the field of linguistics and has yet to be determined. Various hypotheses have been developed over the course of attempting to determine the relationship of Korean to other languages. Among these hypotheses are the Altaic hypothesis, the Austronesian hypothesis, the Altaic/ Austronesian hypothesis, the Dravidian hypothesis, and the Nostratic hypothesis.

The Altaic connection is the hypothesis that has received the most attention by serious linguists. This hypothesis relates Korean to the Altaic language family which includes Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic languages. According to this hypothesis, at some point in Korea's prehistory, dominant Altaic peoples migrated southward into Korea from the north, imposing their language and culture upon the native peoples who inhabited the Korean Peninsula at that time. The result was a blending of proto-Altaic and the language spoken in Korea at the time of the Altaic migrations.

Although disputed by some scholars, the genetic classification of Korean into the Altaic language family appears to have a somewhat convincing linguistic base. Following the accepted method in the field, linguists have established a list of recurring sound correspondences while attempting to show the relation of Korean to Altaic.

Researchers have also shown that Korean shares many other linguistic similarities with Altaic languages. These similarities include phonological correspondences in both vowels and consonants, and lexical and morphological items that appear closely related.

In addition, quite a number of typological similarities between Korean and Altaic languages have been cited to show their connection. Korean and Altaic languages share SOV word order as well as a large number of other syntactic features. As is common with many SOV languages, modifiers and clauses generally precede the things they modify. These languages also have postpositions instead of prepositions. Furthermore, in these languages, sentences can be formed that contain only a verb, with the subject and the object understood in the given context. Lastly, Korean and Altaic languages exhibit vowel harmony as phonological features.

According to the Austronesian hypothesis, Korean is related to the family that includes the Indonesian, Melanesian, Polynesian, and Micronesian language groups. At some point in Korea's past, an Austronesian group was to have entered the Korean Peninsula from the south and influenced the native language after gaining control of the peninsula. However, the relationship between Korean and Austronesian languages is not based on a convincing sample of recurring sound correspondences. The genetic affiliation is based primarily on typological similarities and anthropological and archeological findings. Therefore, this hypothesis seems to be rather weak as compared to the Altaic hypothesis.

With regards to the remaining three hypotheses, they also are based primarily on similar typological features rather than recurring sound correspondences. These hypotheses are widely unaccepted by the linguistic profession. However, they have not been completely discredited, and scholars continue to work with these hypotheses searching for evidence of the genetic relative of the Korean language.

After analyzing the different conjectures, the blended Altaic/ Austronesian hypothesis is the most intriguing from an anthropological, archeological, and historical viewpoint. This hypothesis argues that an Altaic group entered Korea from the north while and Austronesian group entered Korea from the south, resulting in a language clash on the peninsula between the two language families that produced the Korean language. A great deal of anthropological and archeological evidence supports this historical scenario. Even so, without accepted linguistic data, this hypothesis is probably best reserved for historians.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle cited to ever determining the genetic affiliation of the Korean language is the lack of authentic historical data. The earliest language samples are not yet 1000 years old, and many of these were written using Chinese characters. In addition to the lack of data, the Korean language has been overwhelmingly influenced by a plethora of Chinese loan words, making analysis of original vocabulary items even more difficult. Unfortunately, it is quite possible that the Korean language will never find its genetic relatives.


The earliest writing system used in Korea dates to the second century B.C. when a primitive Korean state introduced Chinese script to the peninsula. For centuries, only Chinese characters were used to record events and write books. This posed a great problem for the average Korean citizen due to the dissimilarities between the Korean and Chinese languages and the difficulty of understanding the Chinese characters.

In 1443 A.D., the fourth king of Korea's Cosen dynasty, King Seycong, commissioned scholars to help him develop a writing system specifically for the Korean language. After intense study of Chinese linguistics and Korean phonology, the phonetic alphabet Hankul was developed to accurately express the Korean language in printed form. Hankul is considered by some to be the most scientific writing system ever created, and the Korean people are very proud of this achievement.

The three main vowel symbols of the alphabet represent heaven (a round dot: , later changed to a short horizontal or vertical stroke on a longer line), earth (a long horizontal line: æ), and man (a long vertical line: |). Combinations of these three symbols create all vowel sounds in the Korean inventory. Five main consonant shapes represent the shapes of the speech organs when forming the sounds. Velar consonants are represented by ( ÿ ), alveolar consonants by ( - ), dental consonants by ( Ÿ ), bilabial consonants by (  ) and glottal consonants by ( O ). Variations of these shapes reproduce all of consonants in the Korean language.

By combining consonants and vowels in a left-to-right and top-to-bottom fashion, syllable blocks are formed. Each separate block represents a separate syllable and, in some cases, a separate morpheme. Combining these syllable blocks appropriately forms morphemes and lexical items.

An interesting aspect of Hankul is that its writing system utilizes the principle of morphophonemics. In some cases, syllable blocks are not written as syllables, but rather as morphemes. Each morpheme is spelled in one standardized form regardless of its contextual sound variation. By following a series of phonological rules, the correct pronunciation of a combination of syllable block syllables and/or morphemes can be made.

Phonetics, and Phonology

An observation of the data appears to show that over the course of the recorded history of the Korean language, the sound inventory of the language has decreased somewhat. Several consonant phonemes have fallen out of use since the Hankul alphabet was created. In addition, an observable phenomenon is currently taking place within the sound system of the Korean language. Younger generation speakers no longer distinguish long vowels from short vowels. Thus, within the course of one generation, the Korean language may lose its phonemic distinction between long and short vowels.
Without regards to dialectal differences, the Korean sound system consists of nineteen consonants, ten vowels, and two semivowels. Table 1 shows the nineteen consonants arranged by manner and place of articulation. As can be noted in Table 1, Korean stop consonants contrast phonemically between lax, aspirate, and tense. I found this to be an interesting feature of the language.

Table 1: Korean consonants

Table 2 shows the ten Korean vowels arranged by place of articulation, shape, and height. All vowels are voiced monotone and very consistent regardless of their environments. Each of the basic ten vowels has a long counterpart; however, as stated earlier, the younger generation of speakers no longer makes this distinction. Korean also contains many double vowels that are never shortened in any situation. In addition, combining the ten basic vowels makes numerous diphthongs.

Table 2: Korean vowels

In addition to the nineteen consonants and the ten vowels, the Korean language also has the two semivowel glides /w/ and /j/. These semivowels are always on-glides, as the always occur before and never after a vowel. They are also always in the syllable-initial position. Another sound that deserves mention is similar to the sh sound in English. This voiceless palatal fricative is formed when /s/ or /s'/ occur before an /i/, /y/, or /j/.

Korean syllables are arranged in the structure (C) (G) V (C). Syllables may contain one optional consonant (C) and one optional glide (G) as onsets, and it may contain an optional (C) as the coda. The only required element of a Korean syllable is a vowel (V) as the nucleus.

A very interesting characteristic of the Korean language regards its use of onomatopoeic words. Many of these words show a distinction between lax, aspirate, and tense consonants. Each class of consonant seems to take on certain characteristics that help reflect the sound that is being imitated. The same is true for vowels. The result is an onomatopoeic word that more accurately reflects a specific sound:

'turn round and round'

lax:            pingping      (airplane)
aspirate:  phingphing (a motor belt)
tense:       p'ingp'ing    (a top)


The Korean language is considered to be a highly agglutinative language. It consists of upwards of 100 particles and over 600 affixes, which serve either derivational or inflectional purposes. Long chains of these particles or affixes may be attached to nominal or predicate stems. Each of the particles and affixes maintain a constant form and meaning in its attachment.

Example of Korean morphology:

ka- si-                   ess- keyss-         sup-                           ni-               ta
go+subj.honor.+past+presumpt.+addressee honor.+indicative+declarative
'(a respectable person) may have gone'

An interesting aspect of Korean morphology is its careful use of sentence enders. The sentence ender is very important for passing on required information about the sentence so that it can be understood. Each sentence ender must include from one to three suffixes in a fixed order: addressee honorific, mood, and sentence-type. The sentence ender tells the receiver who is being spoken to, the mood of the sentence, and the type of sentence that is given. The following diagram shows the possible combinations of sentence enders in Korean.

Sentence ender example:

mek- up-                           si-                ta
eat+addressee honor.+requestive+propositive
'Let's eat'


The Korean language is an SOV language; its basic word order is subject-object-predicate. Although the predicate always must appear at the end of a sentence, the subject and other constituents can be scrambled within the sentence for subtle changes in meaning. Quite often, the subject and object are omitted altogether when they are understood in the given context:

eti         ka- sey-               yo?
where go+subj.honor.+polite
'Where are (you) going?'

All Korean particles are postpositions in that they always appear after the words they are used with:

o-pun-e      il
five part of one

In contrast, all modifiers precede the elements that they modify:

nay ka               tani-      nu-              n               hak.kyo
I noun marker attend+indicative+relativizer school
'the school that I attend'

Another syntactic note of interest is the fact that the Korean language expresses things in order of greater-to-lesser, more important to less important, the whole to the part. Thus, Koreans refer to themselves by their family name first, followed by their given name, and then a title, if any. In addition, time is given with the year first and the seconds last.Sample Text
The following short text is a poem from Songs of Flying Dragons, a eulogy written in celebration of the Cosen Dynasty. This eulogy was composed by royal scholars to test the newly developed Hankul script; hence, it is the first sample of the Korean language written in Hankul.


pulhwi kiphun namkaun
paulaumay ani muylssauy
koc tyokho
yelum hanauni
sauymi kiphun mulun
kaumaulay ani kuchulssauy
nayhi ile
palaulay kanauni

Morpheme Breakdown

(1) pul·hwi ki·phun namkaun
(2) paulau·may a·ni :muyl·ssauy
(3) koc :tyokho
(4) yelum ·hanau·ni
(5) :sauy·mi ki·phun ·mu·lun
(6) ·kaumau·lay a·ni ku·chul·ssauy
(7) :nay·hi i·le
(8) pa·lau·lay ·kanau·ni

Literal Morpheme-by-Morpheme Translation

(1) root/ deep+ relativizer suffix/ tree+ topic-contrast particle/
(2) wind+ to/ not/ move+ as/
(3) flower/ good+ and/
(4) fruit/ abundant+ declarative suffix
(5) stream+ nominative case particle/ deep+ relativizer suffix/ water+ topic-contrast particle/
(6) drought+ at/ not/ stop+ as/
(7) river/ form+ and then/
(8) sea+ to/ go+ declarative suffix/

Idiomatic Translation

The tree that strikes deep root
Is firm amidst the winds.
Its flowers are good,
Its fruits abundant.
The stream whose source is deep
Gushes fourth even in drought.
It forms a river
And gains the sea.


Kim, Chin-u.(1983). The Making of the Korean language. In the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, ed., TheKorean language, 13-42. Seoul: Si-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers, Inc.

Kim, Jin-p'yong. (1983). The Letterforms of Han'gul. In the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, ed., The Korean language, 13-42. Seoul: Si-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers, Inc.

Lee, Sang-Oak, Hi-Won Yoon, Jae-Young Han, Mee-Sun Han, and Eun Gyu Choi. (undated textbook). Korean III textbook. Seoul: Language Research Institute of Seoul National University.

Lyovin, Anatole V. (1997). An Introduction to the languages of the world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sohn, Ho-Min. (1999). The Korean language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yi, Chong-no. (1983). Some characteristics of word order in Korean. In the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, ed., The Korean language, 13-42. Seoul: Si-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers, Inc.

Yi, Sang-ok. (1983). The Theory of Altaic languages and Korean. In the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, ed., The Korean language, 43-54. Seoul: Si-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers, Inc.

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contents (c) 2001 Shawn Ford/ Webb-Ed Press