Korean Language History

The Korean language is the official language in South Korea and North Korea. It is also one of the oldest living languages in the world! Its origins are hard to trace, and Korean shows a relation to several other languages. Many Korean words are of Chinese origin, while the use of honorifics is distinctly Japanese. This makes the history of the Korean language fascinating.

Fast forward to the present day, and the Korean language is equally as exciting. It is currently the 16th most-spoken native language worldwide, with around 75 million native speakers. Approximately 48 million live in South Korea speak the South Korean dialect, whereas 24 million live in North Korea. Most of the remaining speakers live in China, the United States, and Japan.

As the world has become more globalised, there has been an increase in the number of people wanting to learn the Korean language. K-Pop music, popular Korean TV shows, and certain Korean foods have also helped spread Korean words across the globe. In fact, there are over 160,000 students enrolled in classes that teach Korean words, pronunciation, and grammar. Students learn through King Sejong Institutes, which are in over 75 countries worldwide.

This article looks at the entire history of the Korean language in depth. We travel back to the origin of Korean words and phrases and discover how the language evolved through time. You’ll also learn about the development of the Korean writing system, and the influence of the Korean War on the North and South Korean language. The history of Korean is long and interesting, so let’s get started!

Korean Language Origin

The Korean language is one of the oldest living languages. This makes it difficult to accurately trace the history of Korean back to its origins. Many linguists believe it belongs to the Altaic family of languages that originated from North Asia. Others believe the Korean language (along with the closely related Jeju language) belongs to its own language family: the Koreanic family.

A less followed theory is that Korean is related to Japanese. There are undoubtedly many similarities in grammatical structure and honorifics, but linguists have not been able to establish any historical connection between the two languages. Additionally, more than 50% of Korean words are taken from Chinese, though this language is also unrelated from a historical standpoint.

Despite its unclear origins, it is known that the Korean language has been spoken since 57 BC. This initial version was known as Old Korean. There were thought to be three original dialects corresponding to the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Although all the same language, there were distinct differences in vocabulary and pronunciation, much like the differences between the North Korean and South Korean dialects today.

Modern “Korean Language”

Middle Korean is the next period in the history of the Korean language, spanning the 11th to 16th centuries. Its beginnings were marked by the establishment of the Kingdom of Goryeo. During this time, the capital city was moved to the Northern Korean Peninsula, and the Kaesong dialect became the basis for Korean words and pronunciation.

Modern Korean was then introduced in the 17th century as the language continued to evolve. The main difference from its precursor is that Middle Korean was a tonal language, whereas Modern Korean is not. Tones are not 100% extinct from the modern language. Some dialects use pitch accents, which indicate where the stress should be placed when speaking. However, the meaning of the word doesn’t change – this was left behind in the 16th century.

Speaking of dialects, there are six different major Korean language dialects today. Each dialect has significant differences between the alphabet, pronunciation, and spelling. However, the language is mutually intelligible throughout Korea. There are also distinct dialects used in South Korea and North Korea in official settings.

Alphabets & Writing System of the Korean language

The Old Korean language was initially written in Hanja, a script based on Chinese characters. This explains so many Korean words are borrowed from Chinese. Korean people could understand Chinese words, and they quickly became a part of everyday speech. However, the Hunminjeongeum was created in the Chosun Dynasty in 1443. This was a new native script for Korean.

The script is still used today to write Korean words but goes by different names. The South Korean language is written in Hangul, whereas the North Korean one is written in Chosŏn’gŭl. It is highly regarded as one of the most efficient alphabets in the world. It contains 24 letters that were explicitly designed to be easy to learn, helping to improve the literacy of Korean people.

In this way, the birth of the Hangul script is a significant turning point in the history of the Korean language. It helped spread the written Korean throughout the country and was taught in schools. It also meant literary works could be spread further afield. As a result, the first collection of books written in Korean was brought to the Western world in 1796, including Sangoku Tsuran Zusetsu.


Influence of the Korean War

The Modern Korean period started in the 17th century, but the language has changed much since then and continues to evolve. A significant milestone in the history of Korean culture is the Korean War. The conflict between North and South Korea lasted from 1950 to 1953. With more than 70 years of separation, the Korean language diverged substantially and dialects became more distinct.

One of the main differences is regarding newer Korean words. The South Korean language uses many loanwords from English. On the other hand, North Korea uses more Russian vocabulary and compounded words. Differences in pronunciation have also become more pronounced. The official South Korean language is based on the Seoul dialect, while North Korean is based on the Pyongyang dialect.

Although both use the Hunminjeongeum to write Korean, there are also subtle differences in writing. For example, vowel diagraphs, vowel trigraphs, and consonant digraphs are treated as distinct letters in North Korean but not in the South Korean language. The letters are also given different names. Nevertheless, written and spoken languages in the North and South are still mutually intelligible.

Korean Translation Services

The Korean language is spreading around the world! Koreans are relocating abroad, and we are entering a more globalised economy with increased trade. As such, professional Korean translation is becoming more in demand than ever, specifically for South Korean businesses.

At Renaissance Translations, we have an extensive network of trained translators that know everything about Korean words and culture. Our experts also know the history of the Korean language, using this to help produce authentic and accurate translations. Whether you need to translate a technical document, business website, or mobile app, our team can help.

Contact our team, and one of our friendly project managers will be in touch to discuss your translation into Korean. Alternatively, click here to request a quote online.