The Korean language belongs to the Altaic family, which covers a wide range of nations from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east. A highly inflected, polysyllabic and atonal language, Korean is structurally different from Chinese but similar to Japanese. Korean and Japanese incorporate a rich vocabulary from Chinese, much the way English includes a large number of words derived from Latin and Greek.
Korea has long had a distinct spoken language, but there was no Korean alphabet until the mid-15th century. Koreans borrowed Chinese characters to transliterate phonetically the very different sounds and structure of the Korean language. The awkward system of Chinese characters, called idu, was so difficult that only a limited number of educated scholars were able to learn to read and write. After the invention of the Korean alphabet in the 15th century Korean became easier to learn in all respects, especially reading and writing. Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, consists of 40 letters. Twenty-one of these represent vowels (including thirteen diphthongs), and nineteen represent consonants. Twenty-four are basic, while the others are compounds of the basic letters.
Letter Combinations and Words
Each vowel and each consonant can be combined to produce a letter combinations with a sound unique to that symbol. For example, the vowel “ ” (a) combined with each consonant would produce the following symbols with the matching unique sound:
In this manner, symbols for all sounds in the Korean language are made, and combined together they form words. So simple and logical is this system of matching sounds to symbols that once you know all the letter combinations by heart, you can read any Korean word perfectly, regardless of whether you know it’s meaning or not.
Korean grammar is quite different than western languages and this usually presents the largest hurdle for beginning students of the language. For example, in English one would say “Put your book in your school bag,” but the grammar in Korean would read “Your book in your school bag put.”
For people who want to study a few useful phrases, or for those that want to learn the entire language from the roots up, there are many books that can be purchased in Korea which will meet every need. Many language schools in Korea offer Korean language courses of all levels and intensity, and meeting a Korean person who wants to trade English language lessons for Korean language lessons is as easy as turning to your neighbor on the bus.
There are four basic styles of Korean speech which indicate the level of formality and relationship between the speakers:
- The FORMAL style is used when a high level of respect must be shown and when men speak to strangers.
- The INFORMAL POLITE style is used by people who know each other, but still need to show respect due to age or social status, and when women and young people speak to strangers.
- The INFORMAL style is used by people who know each other, but are not close friends or where there is a slight age difference.
- The INTIMATE style is used between siblings, spouses, close friends and associates of the same age or younger.
When speaking English, if we wish to show respect or politeness, we may add words, such as “Please”, to a request. In Korean, depending on the level of formality required, one of several different endings would be added to the verb stem, the most common being “Yo”. For example, the infinitive of the Korean verb “to do” is (ha-da). If speaking to someone of the same or lower age or social stature, to say “Do this!”, one would say (hae), but when speaking to someone of greater age or social stature, good manners would dictate that one say (hae-yo).