Daybreakin Things

Filed under In English/Learn Korea
In fact, Korean is very difficult to learn for foreigners. But don't panic! ;P This series would introduce you to be able to imagine just how Korean looks like. (Of course, I'm not a professional teacher, so I can't educate you formally.)

NOTE: This series may have faults. If you find them, please report me by commenting.

Syntactic Features of Korean Language

Korean is very different from most European languages such as English, German, and Swedish. Theoretically, Korean is one of agglutinative languages which attach various affixes to words for grammatical purposes. This phenomena can be extensively seen in Korean verbs and nouns followed by postpositions (also known as particles).

Also the syntactic structure of sentences is very different. English uses <Subject> + <Verb> + <Object> order typically, but Korean uses <Subject> + <Object> + <Verb>. Omitting the subject or objects is more frequent than English. When we decorate a noun with relative sub-sentences, English uses the order of <Target Noun> + that/which/who/whom/etc. + <Sub-sentence>, but Korean uses <Sentence ending with a verb changed into adjective form> + <Target Noun>. Korean does not exchange the subject and the verb when making questions, just changes the form of the verb. These features make many Korean people to be confused with learning (especially speaking) English-like languages because they have to think in a different order.

Korean Characters

Korean characters are very special in the point that the designer and the design philosophy are explicitly known. In the long history of Korea, there were some attempts to represent Korean sounds with simplified Chinese characters like Japan, but the final one is our current Korean characters invented by the King Sejong (세종대왕; 世宗大王), and announced in September, 1446. He named it 'Hunmin-jeong-eum (훈민정음; 訓民正音)' that means the right characters teach people widely. Despite of his effort, Korean character set was not generalized (especially for official documents) until 1894's 'Gap-oh Gaehyeok (갑오개혁; 甲午改革)'[footnote]a large renewal of Chosun's law and system conducted by the King Kojong[/footnote]. In the 1910s, a Korean researcher Sigyeong Ju (주시경) named it 'Hangul (한글)'. Actually, we had more sophisticated pronunciations and tone variations like Chinese at one time, but they were disappeared about a few hundreds years ago. You can see traces of old Korean pronunciations at 'Hunmin-jeong-eum' here, and some symbols of it are obsolete in modern simplified Hangul.

Unlike Chinese characters, Korean characters represent the sounds of Korean. One character is one unit of pronunciation (called syllable or syllabe block), and each character must have at least one vowel. For example, an English word 'Carlos' which has 2 vowels is written (actually, approximated) as '카를로스' which has 4 syllables and 4 vowels, because we have to write vowels for single consonants sounds such as a sound between 'r' and 'l', and also 's'. Thus, 'Ca' -> '카[Ka]', 'rl' -> '를[Reul]', 'lo' -> '로[Ro]', 's' -> '스[Seu]'. (Note that 'r' in Korean pronunciation is not same to 'r' of English. It's something between 'r' and 'l'.)

Korean characters consist of some basic components (called 'Jamo (자모)' in Korean). Those jamos resemble the shape of our tongue when it sounds for each jamo. We combine them to make a syllable, which is the basic unit of pronunciation. If you want to know more details about jamo symbols, combining rules, and their pronunciation table, refer related articles of Wikipedia. (I think they explain better than I.)

The exact number of all combinations of modern jamos is 11,172. If you want to see the complete list of modern syllables, you may consult the Unicode 5.0 Hangul Syllables table. However, the number of most common syllables for the real life is about 3000, and also we don't memorize all syllables because we can make any sounds via combining basic jamos.

Korean computer keyboards have 2 sets of symbols for consonant jamos and vowel jamos, and are called 'Dubeolsik (두벌식)'. There is another kind of keyboard layout called 'Sebeolsik (세벌식)', which separates consonant jamos into two groups of first sound and ending sound. The printed symbols of typical Korean keyboards are dubeolsik. It is harder to learn sebeolsik because it has more keys to remember, but that layout is closer to the design principle of Hangul. You can see the keyboard layouts for various languages including Korean in this page.
The combining feature of Hangul greatly improves the input speed especially for cellphones. English cellphones usually use their own dictionaries, but Korean cellphones don't need dictionaries.

Pronunciation Features

Compared to English, Korean has less kinds of consonants and more kinds of vowels. It does not have 'z', 'v', 'w', 'f', 'r', 'th' sounds. In spite of more kinds of vowels, some of them are usually abbreviated to easier ones. These facts makes English pronunciation of some Koreans look very strange. These pronunciations were disappeared with their corresponding obsolete jamos.


I will introduce some basic greetings in Korean at the next time. More details of syntax and vocabularies will be followed later.