Korea is a divided nation – the South is a vital trade hub whereas the north is isolated by walls of secrecy. The Korean language is spoken by over 72 million people worldwide and is an important business language for Asian trade.
The language itself is the last surviving member of the Koreanic family of languages, and has deep roots – this family of languages predates written history. Linguists point to a possible common ancestry between the Koreanic and Japonic linguistic families, but this is currently conjecture.
There are thriving communities of Korean people abroad, who keep the tongue alive – there are 2 million speakers in China alone, and half a million spread throughout the former Soviet Union.
Other places with large communities include:
As with many Asian languages, Korea originally made heavy use of the Chinese characters for writing. Today, Koreans also use their own alphabet, named “Hangul.” Hangul is made up of 24 letters, representing 14 consonants and 10 vowels.
Unlike English, Hangul has consistent phonetics – in other words, you can be fairly confident of the pronunciation of words if you can read the alphabet. Of course, there are regional differences in pronunciation.
That’s not to say that Chinese characters are no longer used – instead, you can expect to come across a mix of both in the same text.
One reason why Chinese characters are so prevalent in modern writing is the large number of Chinese loanwords – in fact, more than 50 percent of the vocabulary is “borrowed” from China, with subtle changes in meaning and pronunciation.
Much like Japanese, Korean uses honorifics to denote the relationship between the speaker and the audience. Learning these honorifics is an important goal for a language student, as it’s a vital part of etiquette.
In general, younger people use honorifics to show respect to older people. Status is also important – you would use a different honorific to refer to a boss than you would with a co-worker of equal status.
Mastering the Korean language requires an appreciation of these subtle points, but it’s not as hard as you may think. The difficulty of learning Asian languages has been greatly exaggerated in the past.