A Look at the Korean Language

From here. A look at the Korean from the perspective of an English speaker trying to learn the language. The truth is that Korean is one of the hardest languages on Earth for an English speaker to learn. Most agree that Korean is a hard language to learn. The alphabet, Hangul at least is reasonable; in fact, it is elegant. But there are four different Romanizations – Lukoff, Yale, Horne, and McCune-Reischauer – which is preposterous. It’s best to just blow off the Romanizations and dive straight into Hangul. This way you can learn a Romanization later, and you won’t mess up your Hangul with spelling errors, as can occur if you go from Romanization to Hangul. Hangul can be learned very quickly, but learning to read Korean books and newspapers fast is another matter altogether because you really need to know the hanja or Chinese character that is in back of the Hangul symbols. Bizarrely, there are two different numeral sets used, but one is derived from Chinese so it should be familiar to Chinese, Japanese or Thai speakers who use similar or identical systems. Korean has a wealth of homonyms, and this is one of the tricky aspects of the language. Any given combination of a couple of characters can have multiple meanings. Japanese has a similar problem with homonyms, but at least with Japanese you have the benefit of kanji to help you tell the homonyms apart. With Korean Hangul, you get no such advantage. Similarly, there seem to be many ways to say the same thing in Korean. The learner will feel when people are using all of these different ways of saying the same thing that they are actually saying something different each time, but that is not the case. One problem is that the bp, j, ch, t and d are pronounced differently than their English counterparts. The consonants, the pachim system and the morphing consonants at the end of the word that slide into the next word make Korean harder to pronounce than any major European language. Korean has a similar problem with Japanese, that is, if you mess up one vowel in sentence, you render it incomprehensible. The vocabulary is very difficult for an English speaker who does not have knowledge of either Japanese or Chinese. On the other hand, Japanese or Chinese will help you a lot with Korean. Chinese and Japanese speakers can usually learn Korean quickly. Korean is agglutinative and has a subject-topic discourse structure, and the logic of these systems is difficult for English speakers to understand. Meanwhile, Korean has an honorific system that is even wackier than that of Japanese. However, the younger generation is not using the honorifics so much, and a foreigner isn’t expected to know the honorific system anyway. Maybe 6 Speakers of Korean can learn Japanese fairly easily. Korean seems to be a more difficult language to learn than Japanese. There are maybe twice as many particles as in Japanese, the grammar is dramatically more difficult and the verbs are quite a bit harder. The phonemic inventory in Korean is also larger and includes such oddities as double consonants. Korean is rated by language professors as being one of the hardest languages to learn. Korean is rated 5, hardest of all.

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9 thoughts on “A Look at the Korean Language”

  1. Hangul can be learned very quickly, but learning to read Korean books and newspapers fast is another matter altogether because you really need to know the hanja or Chinese character that is in back of the Hangul symbols.
    It’s my understanding that in N Korea Chinese characters are banned, and it’s being de-emphasized in S Korea. True?
    Would a pure-hangul newspaper, no hanja, be easy to read?

    1. The Chinese have a romanized system call Hanyu pinyin. I think it is terrible. All East Asian language has so many homonyms that it render Hanyu Pinyin a clumsy system.
      I give you an example, the sound meiyou can be
      没有 dont have
      煤油 kerosene
      没油 no oil
      Or the passage “wo gan mao”
      我感冒 I have flu
      我干猫 I fuck cat
      The problem in Chinese are partly solved in the romanized by a lot of diacritics indicating tones, but that make romanized Chinese script extremely ugly.
      The mixed-alphabetic system of Japanese and Korean often replaced nouns with Chinese character instead of alphabet, and hence achieve dis-ambiguity.
      If it doesn’t, one has to know Chinese characters to guess the meaning of lexicon and sentences, or the next terrible alternative is to memorize millions of phonetic combinations.

  2. Hangul can be learned very quickly, but learning to read Korean books and newspapers fast is another matter altogether because you really need to know the hanja or Chinese character that is in back of the Hangul symbols.
    what did you mean when you wrote “you really need to know the hanja or Chinese character that is in back of the Hangul symbols.”

    1. I give you an example. The word/sound
      대기 has meaning of
      大氣 atmosphere
      待機 standby
      待期 appointment
      大器 Talent
      There have different Chinese character despite having the same alphabetic symbols. Using Chinese character make everything clear and information transmission at lightning speed. Also Japanese and Chinese are able to understand what Korean is writing.
      The east Asian has a high degree of literal intelligibility even though our language is 100% mutually unintelligible.
      The east asian pick up one another’s lect fast. I think Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese is an easy language.

  3. The classical Korean is easier to me as a Chinese than modern Korean. Also Korean interleaved with Chinese character is easier to me. The more refined Korean language contains a lot more Sino Xenic lexicon, same as Japanese and Vietnamese.
    Below is the content of Korean Constitution. I undetstand 100% of it.
    改正 經緯
    第1章 總綱
    第2章 國民의 權利와 義務
    第3章 國會
    第4章 政府
    第1節 大統領
    第2節 行政府
    第1款 國務總理와 國務委員
    第2款 國務會議
    第3款 行政各部
    第4款 監査院
    第5章 法院
    第6章 憲法裁判所
    第7章 選擧管理
    第8章 地方自治
    第9章 經濟
    第10章 憲法改正
    Below is the first passage of Korean constitution. I can understand quite a lot.
    悠久한 歷史와 傳統에 빛나는 우리 大韓國民은 3.1運動으로 建立된 大韓民國臨時政府의 法統과 不義에 抗拒한 4.19民主理念을 繼承하고, 祖國의 民主改革과 平和的 統一의 使命에 立脚하여 正義·人道와 同胞愛로써 民族의 團結을 공고히 하고, 모든 社會的 弊習과 不義를 打破하며, 自律과 調和를 바탕으로 自由民主的 基本秩序를 더욱 確固히 하여 政治·經濟·社會·文化의 모든 領域에 있어서 各人의 機會를 均等히 하고, 能力을 最高度로 發揮하게 하며, 自由와 權利에 따르는 責任과 義務를 完遂하게 하여, 안으로는 國民生活의 均等한 向上을 기하고 밖으로는 恆久的인 世界平和와 人類共榮에 이바지함으로써 우리들과 우리들의 子孫의 安全과 自由와 幸福을 永遠히 確保할 것을 다짐하면서 1948年 7月 12日에 制定되고 8次에 걸쳐 改正된 憲法을 이제 國會의 議決을 거쳐 國民投票에 의하여 改正한다.
    Today, Chinese character is coming back in S Korea. Below is from a link.

    Stories of young people unable to write the Chinese characters that compose their own name or read restaurant advertisements are driving a debate about how important it is for Korean students to learn the characters. Known as 한자 (hanja), it was the case until recently that South Korean newspapers were unreadable without knowledge of at least one thousand characters. In the latest development, the Seoul Department of Education is planning to increase opportunities to study the characters in school starting with the fall 2013 semester, a reversal of years of declining interest in the subject. While parents groups and NGOs demonstrated against the policy, the Korean internet seemed to push in the other direction, claiming it was important to know the roots of modern Korean, despite the time required to study the characters. Some made comparisons to the continuing practice in English-speaking countries of teaching Latin.

    The Korean language has alot of homonyms. When Chinese character is used, it dis-ambiguified the lexicon. This is the reason why Chinese characters in legal document is a must. Also this help to preserve Chinese character in the elite of Korea.
    The Chinese character never go away, just that peasants has few access to it. Right now the elites feel that its time to go back to it, and I foresee in the future, the Korean people will be good at it.
    Next, Vietnam will be back using Chinese character.

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