Korean – a united language?

As part of our Asian languages series, we take a look at Korean. We explore the writing system, differences between North and South, and the grammar.

Korean is spoken by approximately 73 million people, the official language of both North and South Korea. There are also large Korean speaking populations in many other countries across the world; two million people in China, two million in the United States, 700,000 in Japan, and 500,000 in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Placed in category 5, the highest category, by the Foreign Service Institute, Korean is seen to be a language that is exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to learn.

Chǒsongǔl in the north, and Hangul in the south

Introduced in 1446, the Korean language consisted of 17 consonants and 11 vowels, since then 3 of the consonants and 1 vowel have stopped being used bringing the number of characters to 24. Hangul was not commonly used until approximately 500 years after its inception.

Hangul was a deliberate invention, it has since been praised by linguists as the world’s ‘most scientific writing system.’

Due to the difficulty of Chinese characters, the literacy rate before Hangul was 5%. Now it’s approximately 99% in both North and South Korea.

Differences between North and South

Korea became divided into the two countries we know it as today, in the mid 20th century. Understandably, this led to the two languages diverging, alongside the two cultures.

As South Korea becomes more globalised, there is a large influx of English words into daily vocabulary. North Korea has import words from Russia and China, however there is a strong movement to keep the language as ‘pure’ as possible. There are often uniquely Korean substitutes for many foreign terms.

The North Korean term for “Donut,” for instance, literally translates in English to “ring bread.”

Another example is for the word “hand bag”, North Korean simply uses the same terminology in Korean: sohn-ka-bang. South Korea, on the other hand, uses the term han-du-ba-gu.

These changes mean that South Koreans perceive the North Korean dialect to be quaint or old-fashioned.

Grappling with grammar

Korean grammar is technically closest to that of Japanese, despite the languages themselves not being related.

There are several reasons for this; the word order (the verb always comes last), the complex honorific system (different verb ending and vocabulary based on who you are addressing), and a large amount of case particles and verb endings.

One aspect of grammar that may seem bizarre to us, is the preference of using the word ‘our’ instead of ‘my’. To many Koreans, saying my country, my mother and so on, can sound far too self-centred. Instead, it sounds much better to say our house, or even our husband/wife.

Korean has at least five words that correspond to the English you.

This system means that it is vital to use native speakers when approaching any project that requires translation. The use of native speakers eliminates sounding too ‘clunky’ when work is translated into another language, and guarantees that the final translation will be of a high quality. Localisation is also another service that is absolutely indispensable to doing business in these countries, allowing websites or other products to be fully optimised and integrated to the new language and culture.

Why do business there?

It is a very lucrative time to do business in South Korea. Despite its notorious reputation, North Korea is also a popular place for international business, and eager for foreign investment.

South Korea is known for having a ‘tiger economy’, and it particularly does a lot of business with China and Japan. The South Korean economy soared at an annual average of 10% for over 3 decades, making it a very wise choice for any investor looking to do business overseas.

Both North and South Korea are countries that have fascinated many people for decades. As economic powerhouses, doing business in these countries could be highly beneficial for all involved.



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