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The Korean Language: Beyond K-Pop and K-Drama

The Korean Language: Beyond K-Pop and K-Drama
on April, 12 2013


This is the basic greeting that you are bound to hear when you meet a Korean national. This is a formal greeting that is applicable to everyone, particularly for people that you have just met and for elders. The informal greeting is a shortened version – Annyeong.

When you hear the word Korean, kimchi, bulgogi, the city of Seoul and soju might come to mind. If you are into K-pop, you’d probably think of Super Junior, CN Blue, F.T. Island, Big Bang, ShiNee, JYJ, Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation (SNSD) and 2NE1. If you are a K-drama fanatic, then you’ve surely watched the highly-popular series like Jumong, Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace), Winter Sonata and Boys Over Flowers. There are South Korean global brands like Kia, Samsung, LG, Hyundai, FILA, Lotte and Ottogi. And we should not forget, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is from South Korea.

Behind and beyond K-pop and K-drama is the Korean language. It is spoken by about 76 million native speakers and over 2 million secondary speakers. It is the national language in the whole Korean Peninsula, comprising South Korea and North Korea, and in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the Jilin Province in China. Likewise, there are millions of Koreans living in other countries who carried their language with them and use it as their first or second language.

Terms for the Korean Language

The term “Korean” embodies many things. It could mean anything that comes from Korea. It is the term used to call its people. It is also the term used for the national language. Commonly, the Korean language is called “Hangukmal,” pronounced as “hangungmal.” It is referred to as “Hangugeo” or “Gugeo” in formal terms. All of these translate to “national language.” These are the terms used for the national language if you are in South Korea.

In the Yanbian Korean Autonomoue Prefecture and in North Korea, the term used for the Korean language is “Chosŏnmal,” as it is commonly called. Its formal term is “Chosŏnŏ.”

There are also some Korean people in some areas that were included in what used to be USSR. These people use “Koryo-saram” or “Goryeoin” to refer to themselves. Its literal translation is “Goryeo person.” They refer to the language they speak as “Goryeomal” or Goryeo language.

After diplomatic relations between mainland China and South Korea were established in 1992, China has used different terms to identify the Korean language spoken in the Korean Peninsula. The Korean language spoken in Yanbian and North Korea is called “Cháoxiǎnyǔ” or by its diminutive form “Cháoyǔ.” For the standard Korean language spoken in South Korea, China uses the term “Hánguóyǔ.” The short form is called “Hányǔ.”

Hangeul” is the term used for the Korean alphabet. Borrowed largely from Chinese characters is “Hanja,” which was used before Hangeul was used widely. North Korea stopped using hanja in 1949. Today, it is used in South Korea to clarify names and terms with ambiguous meanings. It has been relegated to be used as gloss words, mainly in advertisements, decorative items and newspaper headlines (as abbreviations and to clarify uncertain terms). However, it is still used by some South Koreans for personal names, whose use was more prevalent for the older generation. This is the reason why you would inevitably see characters different from Hangeul in some printed materials.

English is an SVO language, meaning when sentences are constructed, it is basically written in the order of subject-verb-object. Korean on the other hand is an SOV language, using the subject-object-verb arrangement. This is because the suffixes and the honorifics are attached to the verbs as the end of sentences.

Creation of Hangeul

During the Joseon dynasty when the Confucian teachings dominate the Korean Peninsula, only royalty, members of the elite and prominent families (yanban), particularly the males in the family line were privileged to receive education. Women were relegated a subservient role in the homes. The common people find it difficult to communicate, to read and to write as there are more than 3,000 Chinese characters to be memorized. Their appeals, their sentiments and their complaints were usually not heard because most of them were not able to read and write.

The great King Sejong, who ruled Korea from 1418 to 1450, together with the scholars of Jiphyeonjeon, created the Korean alphabet, which is still in use today. Human sounds, which they believed were related to Yin and Yang, and “ohaeng” or the five primary elements: fire, earth, metal, wood and water became the basis for the creation of each character. They also explored the positions of the parts of the mouth when each sound is made when they devised the Hangeul.

The design of the alphabet was simple that made it easy for commoners to study and memorize. It is said that a person would be able to read and write Korean in about 10 hours. Letters or “jamo” in Korean are stacked in squares, with the vertical letters placed on the right while the letters with long horizontal strokes are placed underneath. The Korean alphabet does not have the English letters c, f, q, v, x and z.


The Korean alphabet has 21 basic vowels, ten double vowels and four vowel symbols. The basic vowels include: a, o, u, eu, i and eo which when written individually needs a placeholder, called an “ieung.” There are four vowels with “y” before the basic vowel: ya, yeo, yo, yu; five diphthongs: e, ae, ya , ui and ye and six vowels and diphthongs with a “w” before the vowel: wae, wa, wo, oe, wi and we.


The consonants are composed of 14 single letters (g/k, l/r, b/p, n, d/t, m, s, j, ch, k, t, h and p). The placeholder, ieung is also a consonant. There are five double consonants (kk, pp, ss, jj, tt) and 11 consonant clusters (gs, nh, lg, lb, lm, ls, nj, lp, lt, bs and lh).

Origin and language family

Some linguists claim that the Korean language traces its roots to the Altaic language family. Named after the Central Asia mountain range called Altai Mountains, this is a group of languages that are spoken in Northeast Asia all the way to Eastern Europe, which would include Mongolic, Tungusic (Manchuria and Eastern Siberia), Japonic, Turkic and Koreanic languages. The inclusion of Korean as part of the Altaic languages would place the total number of living languages under this family to 74, spoken by almost 560 million people around the globe.

Difference between the spoken language in North Korea and South Korea

While Hangeugo is the official language in Korea, there are some minor differences in how it is pronounced in the North and in the South. There is the accent, inflection and the pitch. What makes it unbalanced is that North Koreans are able to understand about 60% of the Korean spoken in the South with a South Korean will have a hard time understanding the spoken Korean language of someone from the North. In the South, the basis for the standard pronunciation is the Seoul dialect, while it is the dialect in Pyongyang that is the basis in the North.

There are also minor differences in spelling and well as in pronunciation. For example, the phrase “thank you” is komawa in the North and komawo in the South. “Cold water” is “raeng su” in the North and “naeng su” in the South while “woman” is “nyeoja” in the North and “yeoja” in the South.

Korean language

There might be millions of speakers of the Korean language although it still has not achieved a high level of significant influence outside of its own sphere in the Korean Peninsula. It is easy enough to learn how to read and write the alphabet but Korean, as a language, is difficult to learn. There are many words with different meanings and there are many levels of honorifics, used in addressing officials, elders, persons of different social status, friends, relations and contemporaries.

The U.S. government has classified the language as Category IV, placing it together with Japanese and Arabic in terms of difficulty in learning. A foreigner learning the language would need at least 63 weeks of continuous instruction to have at least a fluency level that is workable whereas a person learning French or Spanish would only take about 25 weeks of instruction.

Some Korean phrases

Hello/Good morning/afternoon/evening (Annyeonghaseyo)
Goodbye (Annyeonghi gaseyo)
See you later (Tto bwayo)
Good night (Annyeonghi jumuseyo)
Good luck (Haeng eneul bireoyo)
How much is this? (Igeo eolmayeyo?)
What time is it? (Myeot siyeyo?)
Thank you. (Komawoyo)
Thank you very much. (Kamsahamnida)
You are welcome (Gwaenchanayo)
I’m sorry (Joesonghaeyo)
I’m American (Jeoneun miguksaramieyo)
Excuse me (Sillyehamnida)
Happy birthday (Saeng il chukahamnida)
I love you (Saranghaeyo)

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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