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The socio-cultural dynamics of the Korean language

The evolution of the Korean language is separated into four approximate stages: Ancient (1st millenium), Medieval (~19C), Early Modern (late 19C~early 20C) and Modern (post-1945). The Korean alphabet has existed since 1443 and by this time Korea was already a literate society. However, the Korean language was only written after the invention of Hangul and then started to gain momentum as an independent literary language. All of the academics at this point in time conducted their work in Chinese.

The Korean language can be broken down into three parts; 30% native, 65% Sino-Korean (Chinese character based) and 5% loan words. A good example of this is the use of Sino-Korean and native numbers: native Korean numbers are used for counting and the Sino Korean numbers for ordinal numbers.

How many people speak Korean?

Korean is the 12th most spoken language in the world, with around 77 million speakers on the Korean peninsula. Korean is used in Korean communities around the world, particularly in China, which has approximately 1,760,000 Korean nationals and Russia, which has 500,000. In the Yanbian Autonomous region in the North East of China, there are large Korean schools that teach in Korean up to University level. There are also large Korean speaking populations in Los Angeles and New York where there are ‘Korea towns’. There are church signs in America with their signs written in Korean. The popularity of Korean being taught as a second language grew as the country’s economic power grew and with the rise of the Korean wave. There are approximately 41 tertiary institutions teaching Korean around the world currently.

© KoreaTown, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A., Steven Bay, http://bayimages.net/view-photos/western-avenue-koreatown-los-angeles-8133.html, 2019/12/24

Dialects

Korean has seven different dialects but they do not necessarily affect the language to the point that it cannot be understood by all native speakers of Korean. The Standard Korean is called the Seoul dialect and the Standard North Korean is referred to as the Pyongyang dialect. There are more distinct differences between the South and North Korean dialect for loan words from English, although North Koreans try to keep loan words out of their vocabulary. The differences in some of these loan words can be seen in the table below.

© KLM, https://blogs.transparent.com/korean/north-and-south-koreas-two-koreas-dialects/, 2019/12/24

The dialect in Jeju Island contains remnants of the archaic Korean language from the 15th century. The dialect developed this way due to its isolation from the mainland. The standard Jeju dialect can be understood by mainlanders but the most authentic Jeju dialect is virtually incomprehensible and some linguistic commentators maintain the Jeju dialect is its own distinct language.

Written Korean

The Korean alphabet is iconic in Korea. On the 6th of October, Koreans celebrate Hangul day which honours the inventor of Hangul, King Sejong. Pictures of King Sejong appear on money, streets and institutions. Hangul is a unique alphabet that is only used for the Korean language and is used in magazines through to official government documents. Until the end of the 19th century, government documents were written in Chinese. In the 20th century, despite how proud Koreans are of Hangul, they started writing in Korean with Chinese letters still mixed in, perhaps due to the idea that knowing Chinese represented a high intellect, or they thought the Chinese language conveyed meaning with more certainty. 

Influences

The Korean language is thousands of years old and has been influenced by its constant communication with China, Japan and the United States. The Native words represent the basics of things that are important to Korean life, such as Korean traditional culture and the agrarian based society. Two thousand years ago, the Chinese added to the Korean language when the written Chinese language entered Korea. This was during the period of the Three Kingdoms (57 B.C. – A.D. 935), Koryo (A.D. 918 – 1392) and Chosun (1392 – 1910). The influence of the Chinese became a dominant part of Korean traditional society and culture. During the Japan occupation of Korea, the language, culture and society was shaped by the Japanese. The ‘new novella’ literature wave extended across the country with aims for educational and political reforms. Standardised Korean surfaced in the 1930’s, despite the Japanese government trying to subvert this by taking materials or arresting academics. Loan words from Europe and America were imported by the Japanese until Korea’s emancipation at the end of World War II. Following this, the loan words from other languages were replaced with English words, and of the 20,000 loan words in Korean, more than 90% are from English. More loan words are added daily due to the impact of globalisation.

Metaphorical expressions

Korean has many maxims, proverbs, idioms and slang. K.M. Lee wrote a dictionary of Korean expressions, and this includes around 7,000 listings. These can show different aspects of Korean society. Most of them are in Korean but some have Sino-Korean words mixed in and a few examples are listed below:

  • 천냥 빚도 말로 갚는다. (<말 한 마디로 천냥빚 갚는다)

Translation: A million-dollar debt can be repaid by words. 

Meaning: This is used to encourage polite and strategic language use.

  • 그 전직 대통령 이제 이빨 빠진 호랑이야.

Translation: To lose power is to become a tiger without teeth.

Meaning: This shows a non-influential person who used to have great power in the past.

  • 개천에서 용 난다

Translation: A dragon rises up from a small stream.

Meaning: Myths tell stories of dragons rising from the deepest parts of the ocean and it would be a surprise if one came out of a small stream. This saying represents a person rising from a humble place.

  • 공자 앞에서 문자 쓴다

Translation: Write hanja in front of Confucius

Meaning: This saying is about a person who is arrogant and tells an expert how to do a task. The idea in this is that you couldn’t teach a fish to swim anymore than you could teach Confucius Chinese characters.

  • 원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다

Translation: Even monkeys fall from trees.

Meaning: Even monkeys can fall off trees and if a person is upset about a mistake they made, then this proverb can remind them that these things can happen to anyone.

Communication patterns in different age groups

If the Korean language is examined, then it can show a speaker’s values, attitudes, behavioural patterns, thinking and the underlying social structures. 

Korean language shows the cultural rules for the different levels of status in Korean society. The form of the sentences changes based on the social structures between the people communicating. There are complicated structures for these types of classifications, including but not limited to: 

  1. a humble attribution in the first person
  2. a five person hierarchical attribution in the second person
  3. no gender attribution  
  4. social distance

There are honorific and non-honorific expressions which indicate power and hierarchy. In the past, the honorific form was used to show respect for hierarchical structure, but in modern Korea it is often used in formal situations in which the speakers are unfamiliar with each other. 

The language embodies the different values system in Korea when compared to the United States.

For example, American language represents personal liberty, egalitarianism and individualism, whereas Korean language shows Koreans’ interpersonal dependency, hierarchal classifications and collectivism. English has a very small number of hierarchal honorific forms. Koreans rarely greet or talk to strangers or people outside of a social group, but Americans often do. Americans value privacy and they regard many questions that Koreans may ask them to be rude, including questions about their social life, relationships and salary, to name a few things. Americans use gratitude expressions abundantly more than Koreans do and Americans often use indirect speech (talking about someone in the third person in front of them), but Koreans use indirect speech when they are talking to someone considered below them. 

If you analyse the Korean language for the attributes of your culture in your English dialect, then you may find more similarities or differences.

© Korean community to take part in a multicultural parade to celebrate Australia Day, https://www.sbs.com.au/language/english/korean-community-to-take-part-in-a-multicultural-parade-to-celebrate-australia-day, 2019/12/24

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Featured image source: © The Story of King Sejong Institute of the World, http://www.sejonghakdang.org/opencourse/webcomic/main.do, 2019/12/24

Jennifer Marlton

I lived in Korea for the past two years while working as an English teacher. I have always loved writing and I enjoy exploring new cities. In Korea, my hobbies included swing dancing, KPOP dancing and singing in a Korean choir.

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