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Korean language

The Korean language is the official language of both North and South Korea. The language is also one of the two official languages (the other is Standard Mandarin) in neighbouring Yanbian, China. Worldwide, there are around 78 million Korean speakers, including large groups in the former Soviet Union, China, Australia, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Japan, and more recently, the Philippines.

The genealogical classification of Korean is debated. Many linguists place it in the Altaic language family; some others consider it to be a language isolate. Korean is agglutinative in its morphology and SOV in its syntax. Much vocabulary has been imported from Chinese, or created on Chinese models.

This article is mainly about the spoken Korean language. See Hangul for details on the native Korean writing system.

Classification and related languages

Korean classification is often debated. Many Korean and Western linguists recognize a kinship to the Altaic languages. However, this is debated and some consider Korean a language isolate. Others believe that Japanese and Korean are related due to their similar grammatic structure; still others believe this is not so, and any similarities are simply due to a sprachbund effect.

The Korean relationship with Altaic and proto-Altaic has been much argued as of late. Korean is similar to Altaic languages in that they both have the absence of certain grammatical elements, including number, gender, articles, fusional morphology, voice, and relative pronouns (Kim Namkil). Korean especially bears some morphological resemblance to some languages of the Eastern Turkic group, namely Sakha (Yakut).

The possibility of a Korean-Japanese linguistic relationship is a delicate subject because of the complex historical relationship between the two countries. The possibility of a Baekje-Japanese linguistic relationship has been studied, with Korean linguists pointing out similarities in phonology, including a general lack of consonant-final sounds. There are plenty of apparent cognates between Baekje and Japanese, such as mir and mi, respectively, for "three". Furthermore, there are cultural links between Baekje and Japan: the people of Baekje used two Chinese characters for their surnames, like the people of Japan today, and more notably, the Baekje elite had cordial relations with the Japanese elite, with the Baekje upper classes probably fleeing to Japan when the kingdom fell.

Goguryeo and Baekje languages are considered related, likely descended from Gojoseon. Less is known about the relationship between the languages of Gojoseon, Goguryo, and Baekje on one hand, and the Samhan and Silla on the other, although many Korean scholars believe they were mutually intelligible, and the collective basis of what in the Goryeo period would merge to become Middle Korean (the language before the changes that the Seven-Year War brought) and eventually Modern Korean. The Jeju dialect preserves some archaic features that can also be found in Middle Korean, whose arae a is retained in dialect as a distinct vowel.

A few linguists such as Homer B. Hulbert have also tried to relate Korean to the Dravidian languages through the similar syntax in both.


Korean has several dialects (called mal [literally speech], bang-eon, or saturi in Korean). The standard language (pyojuneo or pyojunmal) of South Korea is based on the dialect of the area around Seoul, and the standard for North Korea is based on the dialect spoken around P'yongyang. These dialects are similar, and in fact all dialects except that of Jeju Island (see Jeju Dialect) are largely mutually intelligible. The dialect spoken there is classified as a different language by some Korean linguists. One of the most notable differences between dialects is the use of stress: speakers of Seoul dialect use stress very little, and standard South Korean has a very flat intonation; on the other hand, speakers of Gyeongsang dialect have a very pronounced intonation that, to Western ears, often sounds European.

There is a very close connection between the dialects of Korean and the regions of Korea, since the boundaries of both are largely determined by mountains and seas. Here is a list of traditional dialect names and locations:

Standard dialect Where used
Seoul Seoul, Incheon, Gyeonggi (South Korea); Kaesong (North Korea)
P'yongan P'yongyang, P'yongan region, Chagang (North Korea)

Regional dialect Where used
P'Chungcheong Daejeon, Chungcheong region (South Korea)
Gangwon Gangwon-do (South Korea)/Kangwon (North Korea)
Gyeongsang Busan, Daegu, Ulsan, Gyeongsang region (South Korea)
Hamgyong Rason, Hamgyong region, Ryanggang (North Korea)
Hwanghae Hwanghae region (North Korea)
Jeju Jeju Island/Province (South Korea)
Jeolla Gwangju, Jeolla region (South Korea)