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December 22, 2008


-- Travel --

The Korean language, logically

By Minha Lee

Correspondent, Youth Journalism International

Savage, Minnesota, U.S.A. -- 한글 (haan-gul) is Korean, in Korean. It is a language that has always existed verbally in Korea. But formalizing it by inventing the Korean alphabet happened during the reign of Sae-jong (King Sae), which was during the early 15th century.

Before then, Chinese characters were used for written communication. Sae-jong thought that his people needed their own language and worked towards finding a scientific way to create the Korean alphabet. There are 14 consonants and 11 vowels. There are combinations of vowels and consonants to fit the needs of specific pronunciations.

The Korean language pretty much has all the sounds English has, but in Korean, there are no sounds for Z, V, R, and F. There are few sounds that the Korean language has that English doesn’t. Those sounds are (bb) , (jj) , (gg), (ss), and (dd). You will have to hit the roof of your mouth with your tongue while pronouncing the regular consonant to make a harder consonant sound.

These doubled consonant sounds are hard for native English speakers to learn, just like few absent consonant sounds are hard for native Korean speakers to pronounce in English.

The vowels are much more flexible and less confusing than the ones in English. In English, there are five vowels and when combined, they make various other vowel sounds. Instead of combining few vowels, the Korean language has separate letters for each of the variations for combined vowels, resulting in a greater number of vowels than in English. This makes it easier to learn how to pronounce Korean because there is less guess work involved.

Even though pronunciation is easy, mastering the Korean language is difficult.

The flow of Korean is more fluid and the reason for that is the addition of a vowel at the end of a word in many cases. For example, if your name is Ian, the sound “ah” has to be added at the end because the last letter is a consonant. So, it would be “Ian-ah” If your name ends in a softer vowel sound, for example, Sarah, the sound “yah” has to be added to your name and therefore you would say “Sarah-yah”.

Names are not the only instances when the words are changed. Conjugations change the ending of the words. Also, depending on the voice that the writer chooses to write in, the whole writing unites under the same kind of ending for almost all of the words. Since Korean has 존댓말 (jon-daet-maal) – a variation of Korean used for people who are older than the speaker and also for formal occasions –, it can be a challenging language for outsiders.

For instance, 안녕 (ann-nyung), which means hello and good-bye, is an informal way of greeting.

For a formal greeting, 안녕 has to be changed to 안녕하세요? (ann-nyung-ha-sae-yo) for a “hello,” and 안녕히 계세요(ann-nyung-hee gae-sae-yo) for a “good-bye,” if you are the one leaving, or 안녕히 가세요(ann-nyung-hee gaa-sae-yo), if you are the one staying.

안녕하세요? literally means, “Are you well?”, but nowadays it is said as more of a greeting than as an inquisitive statement. 안녕히 계세요 translates as, “Stay well,” and 안녕히 가세요 means, “Go well.”

Korean is an extremely logical language. One can learn to read and pronounce Korean after about seven days of study, according to my mom who has taught Korean to non-natives. Some can manage to do so in less time.

Read all of Minha Lee's pieces about her trip to Korea by clicking here.


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