Pick of the Day : Korean, The Surprise Package

In today’s Pick of the Day, for D’s Art Takes, I Divvya Nirula present my take on – “Korean, The Surprise Package”

I call Korean as the surprise package. It amazes me how close Korean and Chinese were linguistically close. The languages of the Asian school – Japanese, Chinese, Korean all have tremendous histories.

The Altaic Languages

Korean is one of the most ancient languages in the world. Like most archaic languages, with the passage of millenniums, sources are now obscure. Research and tracking are truly challenging, to find authentic sources. This is why these ancient languages are frequently the subject of scholarly debates. The evidence from inscriptions and documents indicates that Korean and Japanese belong to the Altaic language family. Turkish and Mongolian, from the two geographically diverse locations are included.

The unusual name ‘Altaic’ regarding language family, draws its name from the Altai Mountain region. It is believed that these languages may have originated here. It includes 66 languages spoken by about 250 million people, approximately. Speakers of Altaic languages live over a vast territory that stretches from north-eastern Siberia to the Persian Gulf, and from the Baltic Sea to China, with most of them clustering around Central Asia. This gives us an idea about why there is some debate on the source of some languages. One of the most popular anthropological theories is that tribes traveled. And sometimes they split into smaller sections and developed and merged with others. This kind of mixing was the reason why pockets of languages traveled across vast regions.

There is little written data on the historical development of Altaic languages. The earliest Mongolian records date back to the 13th century AD. Those for Manchu go back only as far as the 17th century AD.

History of the Language

However, Chinese, belonging to a completely different language family, did influence Korean greatly. There is a school that believes that the language emerged from a single cultural source. But as we are discovering that this cannot be accepted as a story.

Simply put, just as the Korean people descend from many different tribes, the Korean language of today did not evolve from a single language. The groups who populated the Korean peninsula in ancient times merged into homogeneous people. Hence a single language brought them together during the unification of the 6th to the 14th  century. The 15th century saw the emergence of the Korean we now know it, in its current format.

The Korean “Han’gul”

The modern Korean writing system, ‘Han’gul’, came about in 1443 during the reign of King Sejong. He was a great monarch of the Yi Dynasty, dating from 1392-1910. Prior to this, other Korean scripts used a complex system of Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Korean. Due to the obvious differences between Chinese and Korean, Chinese characters weren’t adequate to denote Korean speech.

The studying of Chinese and just education was an expensive prospect. It was a luxury and was pretty much limited to the privileged classes. King Sejong commissioned the invention of a phonetic script, applying for efficiency and greater accessibility to the common people. It is one of the most scientific alphabets in use.

Language is powerful. As the variety of grammatical forms used indicate – the high-value Koreans traditionally placed on expressing and receiving respect. In fact, Korean verbs have complex forms to indicate the inferior, equal, or superior status of one speaker to another. Koreans now use only a few respectful styles, a change reflecting growth of the middle class and greater social equality

Modern Korean resonates China’s deep influence over centuries. Roughly half the Korean vocabulary consists of words derived from Chinese, chiefly through the Confucian classics. Today a hybrid writing system of Chinese derivative words, and Korean Han’gul is prevalent. Notably, North Koreans completely eliminated Chinese characters and write even Chinese words in Han’gul.

Moreover, despite word sharing, Korean is completely distinct from Chinese, in sound and in sentence structure.

Korean Literature’s Chinese Connect

Korea has had its own language for several thousand years, but the writing system developed only by the mid-15th century. As a result, the initial literary activity was recorded in Chinese characters. So, the Korean scholars were writing poetry in the traditional manner of Classical Chinese till the 4th century CE. This does blur lines and add to linguistic complexity. The Korean upper classes were bilingual in a unique sense, they spoke Korean but wrote in Chinese.

In the 7th century a system, called Idu, allowed Koreans to make rough transliterations of Chinese texts. The result was? Chinese characters for their phonetic value, representing Korean particles of speech and inflectional endings. A more extensive system of transcription, called ‘Hyangch’al’, followed.

In another system, ‘Kugyŏl’, abridged versions of Chinese characters denoted grammatical elements and were inserted into texts during transcription. This is reminiscent of the different developments in Egyptian.

A national academy was established shortly after the founding of the Unified Silla dynasty (668–935). With the institution of civil service examinations (mid-10th century until their abolition in 1894), every educated Korean read the Confucian Classics and Chinese histories and literature.

Reading Recommendation

#1 Short Stories in Korean by Olly Richards

#2 Korean Stories For Language Learners: Traditional Folktales in Korean and English  by Julie Damron and Ryu EunSun


Visit the archive for more Pick Of The Day shares from over the years in areas of art, culture, politics and tech.