Today (i.e., 9 October 2015) is Hangeul Day (한글날) in South Korea. This day celebrates the promulgation of Hangeul (한글), the Korean alphabet, invented by King Sejong the Great (새종대왕) in 1446, and is a national holiday in South Korea. In my blog post dated 21 May 2015, I have talked about the background, principles and features of Hangeul, and introduced some tourist spots relating to Hangeul. On this Hangeul Day, let’s talk about some more interesting facts and features of the Korean language.
Popularity of Hangeul
According to survey results from the language research website, Ethnologue, out of over 7,000 languages in world, Korean is the 13th most widely spoken language, ranking just behind German but before French. It is spoken by about 77 million people in 5 countries (i.e., South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan and Russia). Perhaps the Korean wave has helped the spread of Hangeul a lot.
In English, we use the “subject-verb-object” (SVO) word order in the sentence, e.g, “Peter studies Korean”. In Korean, we use the “subject-object-verb” (SOV) word order in the sentence. For example, 피터가 한국어를 공부해요 (i.e., Peter-Korean-studies).
There are subject markers (~이/가, ~는/은) which are attached to the subject, object markers (~을/를) which are attached to the object, and location markers (~에서/에) which are attached to the location in the sentence. So, you can easily identify the subject, object and location in the sentence. Perhaps due to the presence of such markers, in Korean, the word order in a sentence may not follow strictly the “SOV” order and can be quite flexible. For example, for the sentence, “Peter studies Korean at home”, in Korean, you can say or write 피터가 집에서 한국어를 공부해요. (i.e., Peter-at home-korean-studies) or 피터가 한국어를 집에서 공부해요. (i.e., Peter-Korean-at home-studies) or 집에서 피터가 한국어를 공부해요. (at home-Peter-Korean-studies) or 한국어를 피터가 집에서 공부해요 (Korean-Peter-at home-studies) – you can still tell what the subject, object, location and verb are, and understand the meaning of the sentence.
In Korean, the most important elements (e.g., verbs) are located at the end of the sentence. Therefore, the further a word is from the end of the sentence, the less important it is and the more likely that it is dropped. It is common that there are no subject and/or object in a sentence, especially in a conversation, in cases where it is easily understood from the context what the subject or the object is. For example, if a man says, “I love you.” to his girlfriend in English, in Korean he can simply says”사랑해.” (i.e., love) without mentioning the subject “I” and the object “you” as it is understood from the context.
In Korean, we say or write about general or bigger units before the specific or smaller units. For example, a Korean says or writes his/her last name first, followed by the given name (e.g.,김수현 – Kim Soo-hyun). When writing a date in Korean, the year comes first, followed by the month and the day, e.g., for 9 October 2015, we say or write in Korean, 2015년 10월 9일 (i.e., 2015-year, 10-month, 9-day).
Due to the influence of Confucian ideology, Koreans have great respect for people of higher status, whether due to age, social status, occupation, seniority, etc.. Failure to show due respect to people of higher status is considered as rude. As a result, when talking to someone of higher status or referring to such person, Koreans use the honorific elements to show respect, and the Korean honorifics system is quite complex.
Examples of the honorific elements are: (a) people use the honorific suffix -(으)시 which is added to plain verbs to change the plain verbs into honorific verbs, e..g., changing the base form “가다”(i.e., “to go”) to “가시다”; (b) there are special honorific nouns (e.g., 생신 (i.e., “birthday”), 성함 (i.e., “name”)) and honorific verbs (잡수시디 (i.e., “to eat”), 주무시다 (i.e., “to sleep”)) that Koreans use when talking about the things which belong to people of higher status and actions performed by such people; and (c) Koreans use humble person pronouns such as 저 (i.e., “I”) or 저희 (i.e., “we”) when talking about themselves to show humility.
Let’s Celebrate Hangeul Day
On this Hangeul Day, like the Koreans, you can go to visit King Sejong the Great at Gwanghwamun Square and/or the National Hangeul Museum to celebrate the birth of this wonderful language. Happy Hangeul Day! 🙂
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Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2015. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Eighteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.
Lee Sun-young, “Celebrating the beauty of hangeul“, The Korea Herald, 2014-10-08
Kim Da-ye, “Korean 13th most widely spoken language“, The Korea Times, 2014-05-14
Kim Bo-eun, “Hangeul Day to become a national holiday again“, The Korea Times, 2012-12-24
Daniel Tudor, Korea: The impossible country, Tokyo; Rutland, Vermont; Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2012, pp. 209-210
Chung Ah-young, “Hangeul week“, The Korea Times, 2009-10-08
Andrew Sangpil Byon, Basic Korean: A grammar and workbook, Oxon: Routledge, 2009
Richard Harris, Roadmap to Korean (2nd ed.), Korea, Seoul: Hollym Corp., Publishers, 2005
A guide to Korean Cultural Heritage, Korean Information Service, Korea: Seoul, 2001, pp. 45-57