Korean Language

Korean is the language spoken by approximately 65 million people living on the Korean peninsula: 43 million of them in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and 22 million in the Democratic People's Republic (North Korea). The current political partition of the country, along with the resulting different economic and social systems, has tended to strengthen long-standing linguistic divergences between north and south.

A member of the Ural-Altaic family of languages, Korean was brought down into the peninsula by early invaders who first entered the region during the diffusion of the Altaic peoples in Neolithic times. Each of the three kingdoms (18 - 935) of Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche appears to have had a different variety of Old Korean, but the sources for these earliest stages of the language are too fragmentary to make clear whether Old Korean was one language with three dialects or three different, but probably related, languages.

Middle Korean was apparently the final stage in the historical development of the variety of Old Korean used in the Silla kingdom, especially as that language had survived into the period of Unified Silla, from the 7th to the 10th century. Not until late Middle Korean are there extensive records, written in an indigenous phonetic script of great precision and efficiency, called hangul, the development of which about 1443-44 remains one of the major achievements of Korean civilization. Today the north employs hangul exclusively. In the south, the use of borrowed Chinese characters to supplement hangul is discouraged but continues to be tolerated.

Roy Andrew Miller

Bibliography: Martin, S. E., et al., Beginning Korean (1969); Miller, Roy A., Japanese and Other Altaic Languages (1971); Wagner, Edward W., Elementary Written Korean, 3 vols. (1963-1971); Woong, Hub, et al., The Korean Language (1983).

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