On Learning Korean

The languages of north-east Asia are mainly split into a few families — the Sino-Tibetan, Mongolic and Japonic. Of course there are language isolates scattered around the region, such as Ainu, but there is this language isolate which is heavily concentrated on the Korean Peninsula. Efforts to classify this language under a huge Altaic language family are all but successful, and now a smaller language family is proposed to fit the Jeju language in, the Koreanic languages. Spoken by close to 80 million people, this is the most spoken language isolate in the world, with its own special Hangeul script. For the past couple months, I have been trying to pick up this language, and this is my language log as of now.

When people talk about Korean, they would usually refer to Korean bands, K-pop, and Korean food. Few would talk about Sejong the Great, the inventor of the Hangeul script to help boost literacy rates in the Korean Peninsula. So that is what I am talking about now — the Korean language. So one thing which makes Korean outstanding is its unique Hangeul script. A featural script depicting the shape of the mouth or tongue when articulating a consonant, Hangeul is arguably the easiest writing system to pick up, and if you are looking at old versions of Korean, no. Before Sejong the Great, Korean used a script borrowed from China and conveniently called it hanja,Β and so many of these Middle Korean works are mainly in this clunky Chinese script. Because Korean and Chinese are so different, learning the hanja script proved to be difficult and thus almost exclusively taught to the rich, leaving most of Korea illiterate. Today, we see almost everything Korean using the Hangeul script, which is vastly different from Japanese, which still readily employs kanji wherever possible, albeit not as often as 50 years ago. The Hangeul script was remarkable for being the first featural writing system to be created, at some point in the 15th century, and it still is today.

The sounds of Korean are somewhat unique as well, as it is only in the Korean Peninsula would you see locals differentiating the ‘k’, ‘t’ and ‘p’ consonants based on three key articulations, namely, aspiration and tense. Thus, one could have an unaspirated ‘k’, an aspirated ‘k’ and an tense ‘k’. Two vowel sounds people would have trouble pronouncing would be the “eo” and “eu” sounds represented by μ–΄ and 으 respectively. Most would say that the “eo” sounds like an uhh sound and the “eu” sounds like the Japanese “u” in “su”. Pronouncing Korean is not really difficult, with the exception of these foreign sounds.

Many Korean words seem to have been borrowed from Chinese, which is not unusual considering Japanese has done it as well, so has Vietnamese. Thus, until I have gained more insight in Korean vocabulary, this would be my main impression of the Korean lexis.

Korean grammar, on the other hand, is strikingly similar to Japanese. Both share the same SOV (subject-object-verb) sentence structure, and both have particles denoting topic, subject, object, direction and possession. Korean, which has syllables ending in more consonants (“l”, “m”, “n”, “p”, “k”, “t”, “ng”), has more conjugations for these suffixes compared to Japanese (Group I and II verbs and two irregular ones, i and na adjectives etc). It is also interesting to note the role of vowel harmony in Korean as well, as some conjugations employ its use in sentence building.

In a nutshell, Korean is this little misfit in the languages of Northeast Asia but is spoken and loved by many. Ainu is its little half-sibling which is also a language isolate but totally unrelated to Korean. This is an amateur’s insight of Korean, and if you’re learning Korean, do share how your learning experiences are like!

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