6 Facts About Korean: Script, Honorifics and Jeju Island

Korean is an isolated language with few connections to any other existing languages in the world. It is spoken in different versions in North Korea and South Korea, as well as in some other countries and areas.

Originally written in Classical Chinese script that is now not intelligible by modern Korean speakers or readers, it had its own writing system developed in the 15th century.

This language is rising in popularity thanks to the spread of Korean pop and other Korean media in the Western world. Here are some facts for anyone who wishes to start learning!

A Few Facts about Korean

1. The Hangu (South Korean) or Hangul (North Korean) written language is a combination alphabet-syllabary.

It was created by King Sejong the Great in 1443 as a way to simplify reading and writing for the illiterate common people, and is still generally considered extremely easy to learn.

2. Hangu is stylized by basic and complex letters, and its sounds are modified based on vowel sounds and the organ used to produce the sound.

Each of the five speech organ groups has a basic shape for their letter. The forms are:

  • Molar (velar consonants) – ㄱ, shaped like a tongue raised to the soft palate or ㅋ for extra aspiration
  • Dental (sibilant consonants) – ㅅ, a side view of the teeth, or ㅈ for contact with the roof of the mouth, or ㅊ for extra aspiration
  • Labial (bilabial sounds) – ㅁ lips in contact, or ㅂ for a plosive bursting sound, or ㅍ for extra aspiration
  • Lingual (coronal consonants) – ㄴ, a tongue raised toward the gum ridge, or ㄷ for contact with the roof of the mouth, or ㅌ for a burst of aspiration, or ㄹ for a tongue flap.
  • Throat (dorsal sounds) – ㅇ for a throat outline.

Meanwhile, the letters fall into the following groups:

  • 24 basic letters
    • 14 consonants (ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ)
    • 10 vowels (ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ)
  • 27 complex letters (combinations of basic letters)
    • 5 tense consonants (ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅆ ㅉ)
    • 11 complex consonants (ㄳ ㄵ ㄶ ㄺ ㄻ ㄼ ㄽ ㄾ ㄿ ㅀ ㅄ)
    • 11 complex vowels (ㅐ ㅒ ㅔ ㅖ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟ ㅢ)

There were also originally four more basic letters which are now obsolete, three consonants (ㅿ ㆁ ㆆ) and one vowel (ㆍ).

3. Hanja, the old written form based on Chinese characters, is still used by a very tiny population in South Korea

It’s only used for newspapers, historical research, and scholarly papers.

4. Jeju is often considered a dialect of Korean, but it’s increasingly becoming recognized as a language in its own right

Jeju is spoken on Jeju Island off South Korea and is not really mutually intelligible with the language of mainland South Korea.

5. There are several honorifics used in Korean to indicate a person’s relationship with the person spoken to, age, gender, and status. In general, it is considered polite to ‘make oneself lower’ in conversation than your conversational partner.

Since pronouns tend to be dropped, honorifics are important. Address-honorifics are added to the names of a person’s name. When two are included, it usually depends on the ending sound of the base name.

It’s quite common for people to avoid using honorifics or even pronouns between each other in general, but several are attached to names in forms of address.

Using the wrong honorific (for example, a casual close one like -ya for a stranger) can be very rude and may lead to extreme offence.

HonorificUsed byUsed forRude when
-a or -yaClose friends, parents, those of the same age or similar social standing who are familiar with each other.Children, close friends, those of lower age or social status but still familiar and affectionate with each other.Used for strangers and distant acquaintances or from younger people to older people.
SsiCommon usage, those of the same speech level, familiarFamiliar people, used with the first name or both first and surname.Used with only the surname as it indicates you place yourself higher than them on a social level
Nim (proper noun, used alone)Lower social status, younger people, students, worshippersGods, royalty, highly skilled people, highly ranked people, clergyUsed for anyone but the highest-ranking honored person
-nim (as a suffix)Hosts, strangers, clients, family members, shopkeepersCustomers, guests, strangers, distant acquaintances, more distant family membersUsed on someone who is very familiar to you
SeonbaeLowerclassmen, mentees, junior colleagues, etcUpperclassmen, mentors, senior colleagues, etcN/A
HubaeUpperclassmen, mentors, senior colleagues, etc.Lowerclassmen, mentees, junior colleagues, etc.N/A
GunAdults, people of similar social status or higherYoung unmarried men at weddings; young boysUsed for married men or with the surname only
YangAdults, people of similar social status or higherYoung unmarried women at weddings, young girlsUsed for married women or with the surname only

6. There are seven speech levels in Korean to indicate formality, all with different verb endings.

LevelPolitenessUsed for
Hasoseo-cheVery high formalOnce used for monarchs, now only in historical works
Hasipsio-cheHigh formalInitial contact with strangers
Haeyo-cheGeneral politenessGeneral strangers
Hao-cheSemi-formalThose of exact equal status, now out of fashion
Hage-cheFamiliar (neither polite or impolite; neither formal or informal)Older people to younger people (never blood relatives); between adult male friends (sometimes), in novels
Haera-cheImpolite formalClose friends and relatives of similar age; adults to children
Hae-cheIntimateClose friends and relatives; talking to children

Final Thoughts

Korean is an interesting language particularly because it is like almost no other. A language shared by two countries locked in a perpetual struggle, it is emblematic of a split culture. Learning about the Korean language is learning more about the whole world that we live in together.

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