Koreans all understand, speak and write the same language which has been an
important factor contributing to the spirit of
national unity, which has characterized the Korean people. The grammar of
the language resembles that of Japanese but here
the resemblance ends. Both Koreans and Japanese use Chinese characters,
along with their own alphabets, in their written
language but spoken Korean bears no resemblance to either language.
Linguistic and ethnological sources support the view
that the Korean language belongs to the Ural-Altaic language group of
central Asia which includes Turkish, Mongolian,
Hungarian and Finnish.
The political and cultural influences of China upon Korea over the centuries
have left an indelible mark upon both the written
and spoken Korean language. A large portion of the Korean vocabulary comes
from the Chinese culture, especially its
Confucian classics, though it has been assimilated phonetically into Korean.
For centuries, however, there was no distinct
Korean alphabet, and Korean could only be written using an awkward system of
Chinese characters which was so difficult to
learn that only a few educated scholars were able to write the language.
King Sejong the Great (the 4th monarch of the Lee Dynasty of the Choson
Kingdom) ordered his scholars to devise a simple
method of writing down spoken Korean so that even the common people would be
able to express their thoughts in writing.
They successfully produced a set of symbols consisting of 11 vowels and 17
consonants. (in 1933 it was standarized to 10
vowels and 14 consonants.) The alphabet called han'gul, was introduced to
the people in December 1443. Today it is
acclaimed as one of the world's great literary achievements and the most
remarkable phonetic alphabet ever produced.
This simple han'gul alphabet can quickly be learned so that reading Korean
is not difficult even for a foreigner. This phonetic
alphabet has enabled Korea to have one of the highest literacy rates in the
world. The ease of printing han'gul and the
development of han'gul typewriters and computers have brought communication
skills within the realm of all Koreans.
Traditionally during the dynasty period, books were written in verticle
fashion from the right to the left side of the page. All
old Korean books and many new ones, too, begin where Westerners would expect
to find the last page. Foreigners do find
the Korean language difficult to learn but those who make the effort are
rewarded by the responsiveness of the Korean people
and by the added pleasure a greater knowledge of Korea gives.