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Hwanyeonghamnida- Welcome

Korean (Hankukmal 한국어/조선말) is the language of the Korean peninsula in northeast Asia. It is believed that the ancestors of the Korean people arrived in the Korean peninsula and in Manchuria around 4,000 BC. They displaced, or assimilated the earlier Paleosiberian-speaking settlers. Many small Korean tribal states were established in these locations between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD.

There are many theories about the origin and affiliation of the Korean language. What makes Korean linguistic affiliation very difficult to establish is its long history of contact with Chinese and Japanese. According to the so-called Southern theory, Korean belongs to the Austronesian language family. However, according to the Northern theory, supported by a number of linguists, Korean is a member of the Altaic language family. At the same time, some linguists point to some similarities between Korean and Japanese, suggesting that it might belong in the Japonic group of languages.  With the issue of the affiliation of Korean being unresolved, many sources classify it as a language isolate.

There are 48.5 million speakers of Korean in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and another 23.3 million in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). In addition, Korean is spoken by some 2.7 million people in Chinese provinces bordering North Korea. Korean speakers are also found in large numbers in Japan and Russia, the U.S., Singapore, Thailand, and many other countries throughout the world. The total number of Korean speakers worldwide is estimated to be around 77.2 million (Ethnologue).

Click on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where Korean is spoken in the US.


During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Japanese was declared the official language of Korea, and the use of Korean was officially banned. Koreans were even forced to change their family names to Japanese ones. With the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945, despite national division and civil war, Korean was once again established as the official language of the both Koreas. After the division of the country in 1945, each Korea developed its own national standard and language policy. Today, Modern Korean is used in all spheres of life in both Koreas.


The ancient Korean language was divided into two dialects: Puyo and Han. Puyo was spoken in Manchuria and northern Korea, while Han was spoken in southern Korea. Korea mapWhen the Korean peninsula was unified in the 7th century AD, the Han dialect became dominant. At the end of the 14th century, a Han-speaking group unified the peninsula, leading to the spread of its dialect throughout the entire peninsula. As a result, Modern Korean is based on the Han dialect. There are two standard varieties of modern Korean:

  • The standard in South Korea is based on the Seoul dialect.
  • The standard in North Korea is based on the P’yŏngyang dialect.

Despite the small size of the Korean peninsula, there are numerous regional dialects within these two major divisions, all of which are mutually intelligible.


Sound system

Korean has ten vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. A distinguishing feature of Korean vowels is that some front vowels can be rounded and back vowels can be unrounded. Korean vowels can undergo many alternations depending on their position in the word.

  • /æ/ = a in cat
  • /y/ is similar to second vowel in statue
  • /ø/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ə/ = a in about
  • /ɯ/ has no equivalent in English


Korean has 21 consonant phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. A distinguishing feature of Korean phonology is a three-way contrast among the unaspirated (lax), aspirated (tense), and glottalized consonants. Aspiration is a burst of air that accompanies the release of a consonant. Glottalization is the production of consonants with a partially constricted glottis. Consonant clusters occur only in the middle, never at the beginning or at the end of words.

Stops Voiceless unaspirated
Affricates Voiceless unaspirated
Fricatives Voiceless unaspirated
  • /c/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /l/ is pronounced as [l] at the end of words and before another consonant; it is pronounced as a flapped [r] at the beginning of words and between vowels
  • /j/ = y in yet
  • /w/ and /j/ occur only before, never after vowels.



Korean grammar is fairly complex, especially in its verb system. In general, Korean has two classes of words: inflected and uninflected. Inflected words include all classes of verbs. Uninflected words include nouns, adjectives, pronouns, particles, and interjections. Syntactic relations are mostly expressed by particles.

Nouns and pronouns

  • Nouns are not marked for gender and number.
  • There are no articles.
  • Post-positional particles are used to mark the seven cases (nominativegenitivedativeaccusativeinstrumentallocative, and comitative).
  • There is a rich system of classifiers that are attached to numerals. Each classifier is related to a class of nouns. Numeral+classifier can follow the noun, e.g., cʰæk han kwən ‘book one [classifier]’. It can also follow the noun if the post-position ŭi  is used, e.g., han kwən ŭi cʰæk ‘one [classifier] of book’.
  • Korean has a triple system of demonstratives, i ‘this’,  ‘that’, and  ‘over there’.



  • Korean predicates do not agree in number, person or gender with their subjects. Instead, they are governed by levels of politeness (see below).
  • Each inflected verb form consists of a base + ending.
  • There are different kinds of bases and endings. The numbers of endings that can be attached to a base may be as many as 400.
  • In finite verb forms, there are seven sequences where different endings can occur: honorific, tense, aspect, modal, formal, and mood.
  • The honorific marked si is attached to the verb base to show the speaker’s attitude toward the social status of the subject of the sentence (see below).
  • The formal form is used to express politeness towards the hearer.
  • Tense has both marked and unmarked forms: the unmarked form is present tense, the past marker represents a definite completed action or state.
  • There are two aspects.
  • Passive and causative forms are formed by adding suffixes to the verb base.
  • There is a large number of mood markers. The most typical moods are declarativeinterrogativeimperative and cohortative. The mood markers occur in the final position of a finite verb form, e.g.,
ka-pni-ta ‘He is going.’
ka-pni-k´a? ‘Is he going?’
ka-la ‘Go!’
ka-ca ‘Let’s go.’


Levels of politeness (deference)

Speech levels in Korean are used to indicate level of respect towards the listener or the reader. Verb paradigms associated with speech levels have different sets of endings indicating level of formality or informality of the situation.  The levels are divided into High, Middle, and Low. Each of these levels in further divided into sublevels. This results in seven different levels. However, in most everyday situations, only a few levels are normally used.


Word order
The normal word order in Korean is Subject-Object-Verb. There is some freedom in the order of all constituents of the sentence, except for the verb which must always be in final position. All modifiers precede the noun modified.


The use of Chinese characters brought a large number of loanwords into the Korean language with the result that  more than half of Korean vocabulary is made up of borrowings from Chinese. Despite the Japanese occupation, there are surprisingly few Japanese borrowings, mostly limited to the spoken language. Korean has also borrowed from Western European languages, particularly from English.

Below are some basic words and phrases in Korean.

Hello annyong haseyo (informal) 안녕하세요
Goodbye annyonghi kasayo (to person leaving); annyonghi kyesayo (to person staying) 안녕히 가세요
Thank you kamsahamnida 감사합니다
I’m sorry mianhamnida 미안합니다
Yes ne
No aniyo 아니요
Man salam 사람
Woman eojia 여자

Korean regularly uses two sets of numerals: a native Korean system, and a Sino-Korean system. Below are the Korean numerals 1-10 in the two systems given in Hangul and in romanization.

Native Korean
Native Korean in Hangul 하나 다섯 여섯 일곱 여덟 아홉
yuk (ryuk)
Sino-Korean in Hangul


Korean is written with an alphabetic script called Han’gŭl  (한글) that was in invented in 1444 and promulgated during the reign of King Sejong. Han () means ‘great’, while gŭl () means ‘script’. The name was coined by Ju Si-gyeong (1876-1914), one of the founders of Korean linguistics. The alphbet is called Chosŏn’gŭl  in North Korea. Prior to the invention of Han’gŭl, Korean was written with Chinese characters. Words of Chinese origin have traditionally been written with Chinese characters, called Hanja, even after the invention of Han’gŭlHanja is still used in South Korea, but is officially discouraged in North Korea.

Letters of the Han’gŭl script (with their Romanization equivalents) are given below. Although the symbols look somewhat like Chinese characters, Han’gŭl, in fact, is an alphabetic writing system in which, instead of being written sequentially in horizontal lines like letters of the Latin alphabet, symbols are grouped into blocks, each of which represents a syllable. For example, although the syllable 한 han may look like a single character, it is actually composed of three letters: ㅎ h, ㅏ a, and ㄴ n, arranged in a square block.

Basic vowels ㅏ a, ㅓ eo, ㅗ o, ㅜ u, ㅡ eu, ㅣ i
Vowels with y ㅑ ya, ㅕ yeo, ㅛ yo, ㅠ yu
Diphthongs with y ㅐ ae, ㅒ yae, ㅔ e, ㅖ ye, ㅢ ui
Diphthongs with w ㅘ wa, ㅙ wae, ㅚ oe, ㅝ wo, ㅞ we, ㅟ wi
Consonants ㄱ g, ㄴ n, ㄷ d, ㄹ l/r, ㅁ m, ㅂ b, ㅅ s, ㅇ null/ng, ㅈ j, ㅊ ch, ㅋ k, ㅌ t, ㅍ p, ㅎ h
Double consonants ㄲ kk, ㄸ tt, ㅃ pp, ㅆ ss, ㅉ jj


Romanization of Korean

There are several romanization systems, of which the following two are the most widely used:

  • Revised Romanization of Korean (RR), approved in 2000, is the most commonly used and widely accepted system of romanization for Korean. South Korea uses this system officially. It includes rules both for transcription and for transliteration.
  • McCune–Reischauer (MR) was developed in the 1930s and used with some modifications as the official system in South Korea from 1984 to 2000. It is still the official system in North Korea, albeit with another set of modifications.


Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Han’gŭl .

모든 인간은 태어날 때부터 자유로우며 그 존엄과 권리에 있어 동등하다. 인간은 천부적으로 이성과 양심을 부여받았으며 서로 형제애의 정신으로 행동하여야 한다.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


How difficult is it to learn Korean?
Korean is considered to be a Category III language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.

29 Responses to Korean

  1. Vallie

    Greetings! Very useful advice within this article!
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  3. David Hoyong Jeong

    Hello. As a native Korean speaker from Republic of Korea, I would like to show my gratitude to this webpage for showing very decent introduction to the Korean language.

    I would just like to point out one thing – on the top of this page, it is written “Haeremae” to mean “Welcome”. However, I myself have never seen or heard this expression used anywhere or by anybody in South Korea. I have checked the Standard Korean Dictionary, yet has not found any result. Even the google result for this word does not come up with anything remotely suggestive of Korean language.

    The expression that is most commonly used in South Korea to mean “Welcome” is “Hwanyeonghamnida.” Could you please double check and make the modification on this page? I would really appreciate it if you would.

    Thank you very much for your interest in my language.

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    • Irene Thompson

      It depends on your budget and what your capabilities and goals are. WordPress works fine for us. Like all platforms, especially ones constantly undergoing changes, it has its problems.

  5. Chris

    You claim there are only 3 speech levels in Korean. However, there are 7, 4 of which are used in everyday conversation, 2 of which are used regularly by the older population and by the majority of North Koreans, as well as online, and the last 1 strictly in historical dramas and bibles.
    This page explains more but I really think the information should be corrected, as claiming there are only 3 levels of speech is simply inaccurate.

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for pointing it out. We will make the necessary correction.

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  11. asiahand

    Would dispute one important point: the number of borrowings from Japanese is not small but huge, and they are generally not colloquial. ‘Modern’ terms like democracy, railway, economy, etc are all from Japanese. Newspapers are full of Japanese-origin words. Although they look like Chinese because they are written in characters, or were, these words were coined in Japan, and they were also adopted very widely in Chinese too. I would guess that about a half of the commonly used words that look Chinese in Korean are actually of Japanese origin, but it is often very hard to tell. For example: Kamsa hamnida, thank, could be from ganxie (Chinese) or kansha (Japanese), but when a hancha compound is turned into a verb using hada (>hamnida), this is usually a mirror rendering of a Japanese term.

    • Irene Thompson

      This is an interesting comment. Could you give some quick links or bibliographical information on this subject? That would be very helpful. Thanks.

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  13. Sean

    I have one suggestion: when listing the numbers from 1 to 10, the hangul only represents the native Korean set, but the website makes it seem as though the hangul can represent both native and Sino sets. Perhaps you can find out how to write the Sino-Korean numbers in hangul and also include that?


    I need to learn all south east Asian languages.

    • Irene Thompson

      Good luck! How long do you expect to live? Seriously though, it would be wise to pick one and stick with it for a very long time if you want to become very proficient in it.

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  16. Abul Kalam Howlader

    It is good way to teaching korean languge. I am Bangali I want teach korean language with word to word. Please good advice to me how easy learn korean language.

    • Irene Thompson

      I understand that you are a speaker of Bengali who wants to learn Korean. Did you mean to ask if it is easy to learn Korean. We know that it is not an easy language for speakers of English since the two languages are not related. Therefore, one can assume that the same will be true for a speaker of Bengali trying to learn Korean, a language that is totally unrelated to Bengali.

  17. Alex Welch

    Actually as a native English speaker, I found Korean easier to learn than romance language. The Korean alphabet or hangul (한글) was developed scientifically, resulting in Korea having the highest literacy rate in the world (99%). Even North Korea has an extremely high literacy rate (or so they say, haha). As for grammar, the grammar does resemble Japanese and at first is hard to wrap your brain around but in comparison to years and years spent memorizing the conjugation and tenses for romance languages, Korean conjugation is very simple to learn seeing as all normal verb conjugation and honorific verb endings follow the same pattern and irregular verbs are few(and still follow the same pattern for all irregular verbs). As for vocab if you’re a native Chinese speak and an English native speaker the majority of vocabulary terms are very intuitive. Anyway, I highly recommend that if you’re a native enlgish speaker that you give Korean a chance. There’s a common western misconception that all Asian languages are impossible to learn and that’s not true. I’ve learned how to speak Mandarin and Korean. Sure the beginning is filled with culture shock but once that’s over you realize that these languages are very logical and extremely interesting.

    • Irene Thompson

      I agree that there is a misconception that all Asian languages are impossible to learn. It is possible to learn any L2 provided the learner is reasonably adept at language learning, is highly motivated, has the right learning environment, and is able to stay with it for a long time. That being said, there is considerably less positive transfer from English (L1) to Korean (L2) in terms of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary than, for instance from English to Spanish, French, or German. Ergo, it will take longer to achieve a comparable level of proficiency in Korean vs these languages. This has been shown repeatedly. Detecting regularities (your term is “logical”) certainly helps if you can translate intellectual awareness into actual in-time performance.

  18. Alex Welch

    Oops I meant one of the highest literacy rates, not the highest. hahaha

    • Irene Thompson

      At least in South Korea that has an excellent and extremely demanding educational system resulting in high literacy rates.

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