Modern Linguists Classify Korean as a Language Isolate

June 15, 2018


Korean is the official language of North and South Korea as well as one of two official languages of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China. Since there is no obvious genealogical relationship of Korean to another language, most linguists believe Korean did not descend from any other language. This qualifies Korean as a Language Isolate, or single language family. Modern Korean descended from middle Korean, which in turn descended from old Korean, which descended from the language spoken in prehistoric Korea. Korean is also the native tongue of the Korean diaspora in countries like the People's Republic of China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Official Status of the Korean Language on the Peninsula

Due to the cultural and physical separation at the end of the Korean War, differences in how people in the North and South communicate have become unique. Nowadays, the Korean language spoken in North Korea has distinct differences in pronunciation, spelling, grammar and vocabulary when compared to the dialect spoken in South Korea. In the South, the regulatory body for Korean is the National Institute of the Korean Language in Seoul, which was created by presidential decree. In North Korea, the regulatory body is the Language Institute of the Academy of Social Sciences. However, even after decades of separation, the differences in Korean dialects are considered to be relatively minor, which helps each to be mutually intelligible.

The Evolution of Korean Writing Systems

Ancient Chinese characters arrived on the Korean peninsula around the same time as Buddhism. The writing system (known as Hanja) was adapted for Korean and became the main script for over a millennium. King Sejong the Great ruled during the 15th century and believed Hanja was inadequate for use with Korean. He considered it a key reason as to why the general population was illiterate. King Sejong personally created Hangul. After it was used to print many popular books, literacy increased among all classes in Korea. Not surprising, Hangul is still used today. This came in spite of the fact that learned aristocrats harshly criticized Hangul as too easy to learn. Though neither North Korea nor South Korea officially uses the language, neither is opposed to the learning of Hanja for historical or linguistic studies.

For native English speakers, Korean is generally considered one of the most difficult languages to master despite the relative ease of learning Hangul as a writing system.

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