uth Korea have been developing on separate trajectories for several decades, differences in the way they use their language are becoming more pronounced with each generation. North Korean and South Korean speech is still mutually intelligible, however, and still considered to be a single language both by experts and by the Koreans themselves. Two official bodies exist that are responsible for regulating and cataloging the language within the Korean Peninsula: National Institute of the Korean Language in the South and the Language Institute of the Academy of Social Sciences in the North.
Roots of the language: Korean is usually considered to be an example of a “language isolate,” which means that its roots have not been definitively traced to an older tongue that is also the basis for other major languages. It has a great deal of crossover with the Chinese and Japanese language groups, as well as borrowings from Indian and European languages, but its older forms do not appear to be closely tied to the roots of any of these languages.
The true classification of the Korean language is a matter of some debate among linguists. Some have claimed that it belongs in the so-called Altaic language family, which is a theoretical root language that spread across central and northern Asia in ancient times and gave rise to many of the native languages of those regions. Others reject this hypothesis and propose the Buyeo language family, which would cover the root languages of Korea, Japan, and Southern Manchuria. Nobody is sure which theory could be right, or whether any of them are right at all, and so the debate continues.
Most Korean dialects are very closely related and can be easily understood by speakers from different regions. The main exception to this appears to be the small island dialect of Jeju, which some (but not all) linguists consider as a language all on its own. Jeju was not under direct control of the Korean kingdoms for much of its history and developed a dialect that was different in many respects, notably that it did not make very much use of honorific terms. The Jeju language/dialect is critically endangered today, as most Korean dialects are becoming more alike over time in a process known as “dialect leveling.”
Written form: In the same way as many other nations located close to China, the people of Korea began writing using Chinese characters (or Hanja) in ancient times. Because classical Chinese characters were so difficult to learn, reading and writing was restricted to the societal elite for many centuries. In the fifteenth century, a Korean ruler had a team of scholars invent an alphabet that would be unique to their land, known as Hangul. The 24 letters of the Hangul alphabet are usually arranged in blocks for each syllable, superficially resembling Chinese characters, but they in fact contain individual phonetically pronounced letters in much the same way as the Latin alphabet. Hangul was looked down on for some time, but it enabled the underprivileged to become literate more easily, and it became popular in the nineteenth century as Korea sought to shake off Chinese influences. Hangul is now the official writing system in both Korean countries.
Last Updated : April 20, 2015