Difficulties of the Korean Language

An-yong-ha-se-yo!!!

That’s the impossibly hard way to say hi in Korean. I find the language incredibly difficult just to muster their sounds. Some languages have fairly easy phonemes for English-speakers to make. For the most part, on a very simple level, Japanese and Chinese, aside from a handful of sounds, have fairly familiar phonemes. (Chinese more so than Japanese, in my opinion.) Korean? Not in the slightest.

And this makes sense. Geographically, they are on a peninsula. Linguistically, they are on an island. Indo-European languages follow a shared history. Semitic languages have the pattern of so-called consonant roots in common. Unless you subscribe to the theory of Altaic languages, then Korean is a unique entity. It’s hard to argue that Turkish, Mongolian, Korean, Japanese, and any and all Mongolian and Turkic dialects form any sort of unified band

As for the written language, the Korean alphabet is known as being the most logical one in the world, as every letter is supposed to represent the shape your tongue makes. Created by Sejong the Great over 500 years ago, the Hangul alphabet is easier to process than the phonetics are to enunciate.

Side note: the Korean language doesn’t actually have an alphabet. It’s an “alphabetic syllabary” since it’s a combination of the two. In any case, one phrase is pithier than the other, so let’s go with simply “alphabet” any pedants out there in the crowd.

I see the letter, know what I’m supposed to say, and out just comes nonsense. I don’t think I’m entirely alone in saying the subtleties in Korean vowels and the tense or stressed or double consonants are difficult to grasp. I once spent two hours on a bus ride with a Korean girl trying to both flirt and learn the alphabet. One hindered the other, but I’m not sure which was which.

One good thing is that since I was at least capable of knowing what sounds each letter represented, I could sorta read, but only to the point that I needed to kinda know what I was looking at. Given a menu, I could locate foods if they had Western names in Korean, or names of brands.

Further, almost half of all Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese, on account of being the world’s most powerful nation. Nowadays, as Western culture has crept into Seoul and permeated through the country, English words certainly have a place in the modern lexicon. But in any case, on account of my Chinese ability, I could often put two and two together when I learned a Korean word. The Korean sounds uber similar to the Chinese. If you’d like some examples, Linda Goes East does a quick and easy list.

Additionally, Chinese characters at one point were the norm in Korean; the Hangul weren’t used at all. As the Korean peninsula served as a tributary state to China for many moons during its history, it used their writing system for about…far too long. See, like Vietnamese which also adopted their script for eons, Korean is just not suited to the peculiarities of an ideographic script.

Another feature of Korean, also seen in Japanese, is the speech levels, of which Korean has seven. Essentially, they go hand-in-hand with Confucianism regarding level of respect with whom you are speaking. If you are a woman, you use a certain speech level with men. If you are a man, you use a certain speech level with children. You can see how this might have implications with feminism or equality in today’s society.

While the language is impossible to grasp at first, it’s fairly opposite their culture which I get on with quite well. This was the final leg of my journey, and I loved every second of it (minus the cold). With incredibly basic language ability in hand, it was time to explore Seoul.

Like what you’re reading on Korea? Check out some other related articles in: The Korea Chronicles!

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