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language of uncertain ancestry. It is thought by some scholars to be akin to Japanese, by others to be a member of the Altaic subfamily of the Ural-Altaic family of languages (see Uralic and Altaic languagesUralic and Altaic languages
, two groups of related languages thought by many scholars to form a single Ural-Altaic linguistic family. However, other authorities hold that the Uralic and Altaic groups constitute two unconnected and separate language families.
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), and by still others to be unrelated to any known language. The Korean tongue is spoken by more than 71 million people in Korea (48 million in South Korea and 23 million in North Korea) and several million more in Japan, China, and elsewhere. Unlike Chinese, Korean does not use tones to make semantic distinctions. Its syntax, however, is similar to that of Chinese, while its morphology resembles that of Japanese. Korean is an agglutinative language in which different linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are often joined to form one word. A distinctive feature of Korean is the use of a number of different forms to indicate the respective social positions of the speaker, the individual spoken to, and the individual spoken about. The literature in the language dates from the 7th cent. A.D. Once written in Chinese characters, modern Korean has its own phonetic alphabet, called Hangeul (or onmun), which was devised in the 15th cent. The division of Korea into North and South since after World War II has led to differences in the language in the two nations, most prominently the addition of many new words to the South Korean dialect.


See E. W. Wagner, Elementary Written Korean (3 vol., 1963–71); S. E. Martin et al., Beginning Korean (1969).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the language of the Koreans, spoken on the Korean Peninsula, in the People’s Republic of China, Japan, the USSR, and the USA by approximately 46 million people (1971 estimate).

Korean is a language isolate, although there exist various hypotheses concerning its origins (Dravidian, Japanese, Paleo-Asiatic [Paleosiberian], Indo-European, and Altaic). Many scholars relate Korean to the Manchu-Tungus language group. Korean has six dialects: the northeastern (including the Korean subdialects of northeastern China), northwestern, central, south-eastern, southwestern, and Cheju-do.

The Korean consonant system is distinguished by three sets of obstruents (weak voiceless, aspirated, strong voiceless), which are neutralized at the end of a syllable, and the “two-faced” phoneme l/r. Consonant clusters at the beginning of a syllable are uncharacteristic, and there are numerous syllable- and word-juncture alternations. The vowel system is distinguished by its wealth of monophthongs and diphthongs (rising diphthongs with nonsyllabic y, w, and the full diphthong ŭi), by phonemic length (with a change in tone height), and by traces of vowel harmony. Stress in some dialects is dynamic, in others it is musical; it occurs in different positions.

Korean is agglutinative with elements of fusion; there is a strong tendency toward analytical development. Morphological word derivation is well developed. Nouns are characterized by a wealth of case forms, the grammatical category of specification, and the absence of grammatical gender. Spatial relationships are distinguished in the demonstrative pronouns. Numerals have two counting systems, Korean and Chinese; counting words (classifiers) are used. Predicatives—verbs and adjectives—do not have person, number, or gender; sentence-conclusive forms and a category indicating social status are found in verbs. Word order is subject-object-predicate; a modifier is always in a preposition. Syntactic relations are expressed by means of postpositions, particles, syntactic nouns, and adverbial-participle, participial, and infinitival forms of predicatives. Complex periods are common. The Korean vocabulary proper is rich in figurative (imitative) words. Foreign loanwords are mainly from Japanese and the European languages; there are many Chinese borrowings.

Until the late 19th century the written literary language was hanmun—a Koreanized version of the Chinese wenyen style. The modern Korean literary language (pyojunmal, “standard language”) is based on the Seoul subdialect of the central dialect; the Pyongyang subdialect is regarded as the standard (munhwao, “cultural language”) in the Korean People’s Democratic Republic.


Ramstedt, G. Grammatika koreiskogo iazyka. Moscow, 1951. (Translated from English.)
Kholodovich, A. A. Ocherk grammatiki koreiskogo iazyka. Moscow, 1954.
Mazur, Iu. N. Koreiskii iazyk. Moscow, 1960.
Polivanov, E. D. Stat’i po obshchemu iazykoznaniiu. Moscow, 1968.
Koreisko-russkii slovar’, 2nd ed. Compiled by A. A. Kholodovich. Moscow, 1958.
Kontsevich, L. R. “Koreiskii iazyk.” In the collection Sovetskoe iazykoznanie za 50 let. Moscow, 1967.
Martin, S. Korean Morphophonemics. Baltimore, 1954.
Cho Seung-Bog. A Phonological Study of Korean With a Historical Analysis. Uppsala, 1967.
Chosono munppop, parts 1–2. Pyongyang, 1960–61.
Ogura, Shimpei. Chosengo hogen-no kenkyu, vols. 1–2. Tokyo, 1944.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the official language of North and South Korea, considered by some scholars to be part of the Altaic family of languages
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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