The Korean Language

North Korea Table of Contents

There is a consensus among linguists that Korean is a member of the Altaic family of languages, which originated in northern Asia and includes the Mongol, Turkic, Finnish, Hungarian, and Tungusic (Manchu) languages. Although a historical relationship between Korean and Japanese has not been established, the two languages have strikingly similar grammatical structures. Both, for example, employ particles after nouns to indicate case (the particle used to indicate "of" as in "the wife of Mr. Li" is no in Japanese and ui in Korean).

Both Korean and Japanese possess what is sometimes called "polite" or "honorific" language, the use of different levels of speech in addressing persons of superior, inferior, or equal rank. These distinctions depend both on the use of different vocabulary and on basic structural differences in the words employed. For example, in Korean, the imperative "go" can be rendered kara for speaking to an inferior or a child, kage to an adult inferior, kao or kaseyo to a superior, and kasipsio to a person of still higher rank. The proper use of polite language, or of the levels of polite language, is extremely complex and subtle. Like Japanese, Korean is extremely sensitive to the nuances of hierarchical human relationships. Two people who meet for the first time are expected to use the more distant or formal terms, but they will shift to more informal or "equal" terms if they become friends. Younger people invariably use formal language in addressing elders; the latter use "inferior" terms in "talking down" to those who are younger.

The Korean language may be written using a mixture of Chinese characters (hancha) and a native Korean alphabet known as han'gl, or in han'gl alone. Han'gl was invented by scholars at the court of King Sejong (1418-50), not solely to promote literacy among the common people as was sometimes claimed, but also, as Professor Gari K. Ledyard has noted, to assist in studies of Chinese historical phonology. According to a statement by the king, an intelligent man could learn han'gl in a morning's time, and even a fool could master it in ten days. As a result, it was scorned and relegated to women and merchants. Scholars of linguistics consider the script one of the most scientific ever devised; it reflects quite consistently the phonemes of the spoken Korean language.

Although the Chinese and Korean languages are not related in terms of grammatical structure, a large percentage of the Korean vocabulary has been derived from Chinese loanwords, a reflection of China's long cultural dominance. In many cases, there are two words--a Chinese loanword and an indigenous Korean word--that mean the same thing. The Chinese-based word in Korean often has a bookish or formal nuance. Koreans select one or the other variant to achieve the proper register in speech or in writing, and to make subtle distinctions in accordance with established usage.

There is considerable divergence in the Korean spoken north and south of the DMZ. It is unclear to what extent the honorific language and its grammatical forms have been retained in the north. However, according to a South Korean scholar, Kim Il Sung "requested people to use a special, very honorific deference system toward himself and his family and, in a 1976 publication, Our Party's Language Policy, rules formulated on the basis of Kim Il Sung's style of speech and writing were advocated as the norm."

During the colonial period, large numbers of Chinese character compounds coined in Japan to translate modern Western scientific, technical, social science, and philosophical concepts came into use in Korea. The North Korean regime has attempted to eliminate as many of these loanwords as possible, as well as older terms of Chinese origin; Western loanwords are also being dropped.

P'yongyang regards hancha, or Chinese characters, as symbols of "flunkeyism" and has systematically eliminated them from all publications. Klloja (The Worker), the monthly KWP journal of the Central Committee, has been printed exclusively in han'gl since 1949. An attempt has also been made to create new words of exclusively Korean origin. Parents are encouraged to give their children Korean rather than Chinese-type names. Nonetheless, approximately 300 Chinese characters are still taught in North Korean schools.

North Koreans refer to their language as "Cultured Language" (munhwa), which uses the regional dialect of P'yongyang as its standard. The "Standard Language" (p'yojuno) of South Korea is based on the Seoul dialect. North Korean sources vilify Standard Language as "coquettish" and "decadent," corrupted by English and Japanese loanwords, and full of nasal twangs. Two documents, or "instructions," by Kim Il Sung, "Some Problems Related to the Development of the Korean Language," promulgated in 1964, and "On the Development of the National Language: Conversations with Linguists," published in 1966, define basic policy concerning Cultured Language.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress