Korean (한국어 / 조선말)

Korean is spoken by about 81.8 million people mainly in South Korea and North Korea. The relationship between Korean and other languages is not known for sure, though some linguists believe it to be a member of the Altaic family of languages. Grammatically Korean is very similar to Japanese and about 70% of its vocabulary comes from Chinese.

There are only a few professional human translation services companies that can guarantee accurate language use and cultural understanding for English Korean translations.

There are about 50.2 million Korean speakers in South Korea, and about 25.7 million in North Korea. Other countries with significant numbers of Korean speakers include China (2.7 milion), the USA (1.1 million), Japan (998,000), Uzbekistan (250,000), Saudi Arabia (173,000), Canada (153,000) and Australia (109,000) [source].

Korean at a glance

  • Native name: 한국어 [韓國語] (hanguk-eo) - South Korea 조선말 [朝鮮말] (chosŏn-mal) - North Korea
  • Language family: Koreanic
  • Number of speakers: c. 81.8 million
  • Spoken in: South Korea, North Korea, China, USA, Japan, Uzbekistan, and other countries
  • First written: 7th century AD
  • Writing systems: Idu [吏讀] and Hyangchal [鄕札] (from 10th century), Gugyeol [口訣] (from 11th century) Hangeul [한글] / Hanja [漢字] (from 15th century)
  • Status: official language in South Korea, North Korea and Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeast China. Recognised minority language in Primorsky Krai in Russian


Origins of writing in Korea

Chinese writing has been known in Korea for over 2,000 years. It was used widely during the Chinese occupation of northern Korea from 108 BC to 313 AD. By the 5th century AD, the Koreans were starting to write in Classical Chinese - the earliest known example of this dates from 414 AD. In the 10th and 11th centuries AD they devised three different systems for writing Korean with Chinese characters: Hyangchal (鄕札 / 향찰), Gukyeol (口訣 / 구결) and Idu (吏讀 / 이두). The Gukyeol system first appears in the 11th century, however there is evidence to suggest that it was used from the 7th century AD, or possibly earlier. These systems were similar to those developed in Japan and were probably used as models by the Korean.

The Idu system used a combination of hanja together with special symbols to indicate Korean verb endings and other grammatical markers, and was used to in official and private documents for many centuries. The Hyangchal system used hanja to represent all the sounds of Korean and was used mainly to write poetry. The Gukyeol system used hanja characters to represent the sounds of Korean.

The Koreans borrowed a huge number of Chinese words, gave Korean readings and/or meanings to some of the Chinese characters and also invented about 150 new characters, most of which are rare or used mainly for personal or place names.

The Korean alphabet was invented in 1444 and promulgated it in 1446 during the reign of King Sejong (r.1418-1450), the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty. The alphabet was originally called Hunmin jeongeum, or "The correct sounds for the instruction of the people", but has also been known as Eonmeun (vulgar script) and Gukmeun (national writing). The modern name for the alphabet, Hangeul, was coined by a Korean linguist called Ju Si-gyeong (1876-1914). In North Korea the alphabet is known as 조선글 (josoen guel).

The shapes of the consonants are based on the shape the mouth made when the corresponding sound is made, and the traditional direction of writing (vertically from right to left) most likely came from Chinese, as did the practice of writing syllables in blocks.

Even after the invention of the Korean alphabet, most Koreans who could write continued to write either in Classical Chinese or in Korean using the Gukyeol or Idu systems. The Korean alphabet was associated with people of low status, i.e. women, children and the uneducated. During the 19th and 20th centuries a mixed writing system combining Chinese characters (Hanja) and Hangeul became increasingly popular. Since 1945 however, the importance of Chinese characters in Korean writing has diminished significantly.

Since 1949 hanja have not been used at all in any North Korean publications, with the exception of a few textbooks and specialized books. In the late 1960s the teaching of hanja was reintroduced in North Korean schools however and school children are expected to learn 2,000 characters by the end of high school.

In South Korea school children are expected to learn 1,800 hanja by the end of high school. The proportion of hanja used in Korean texts varies greatly from writer to writer and there is considerable public debate about the role of hanja in Korean writing.

Most modern Korean literature and informal writing is written entirely in hangeul, however academic papers and official documents tend to be written in a mixture of hangeul and hanja.

Notable features of Hangeul


Hangeul alphabet (한글)

Consonants (자음/子音)

Korean consonants

A recording of the Korean consonants by Jessica Kwon

The double consonants marked with * are pronounced fortis. There is no symbol in IPA to indiciate this.

Vowels (모음/母音)

Korean vowels

A recording of the Korean vowels by Jessica Kwon

Note on the transliteration of Korean

There are a number different ways to write Korean in the Latin alphabet. The methods shown above are:

  1. (first row) the official South Korean transliteration system, which was introduced in July 2000. You can find further details at www.mct.go.kr.
  2. (second row) the McCune-Reischauer system, which was devised in 1937 by two American graduate students, George McCune and Edwin Reischauer, and is widely used in Western publications. For more details of this system see: http://mccune-reischauer.org

See the Korean alphabet pronounced:


Download a Korean alphabet chart in Excel, Word or PDF format.


Sample text (hangeul only)

모든 인간은 태어날 때부터 자유로우며 그 존엄과 권리에 있어 동등하다. 인간은 천부적으로 이성과 양심을 부여받았으며 서로 형제애의 정신으로 행동하여야 한다.

Sample text (hangeul and hanja)

모든 人間은 태어날때부터 自由로우며、그 尊嚴과 權利에 있어 同等하다。人間은 天賦的으로 理性과 良心을 賦與받았으며、서로 兄弟愛의 精神으로 行動하여야한다

모든 인간은 태어날 때부터 자유로우며 그 존엄과 권리에 있어 동등하다. 인간은 천부적으로 이성과 양심을 부여받았으며 서로 형제애의 정신으로 행동하여야 한다. 모든 人間은 태어날때부터 自由로우며、그 尊嚴과 權利에 있어 同等하다。人間은 天賦的으로 理性과 良心을 賦與받았으며、서로 兄弟愛의 精神으로 行動하여야한다


Modeun Ingan-eun Tae-eonal ttaebuteo Jayuroumyeo Geu Jon-eomgwa Gwonrie Iss-eo Dongdeunghada. Ingan-eun Cheonbujeog-euro Iseong-gwa Yangsim-eul Bu-yeobad-ass-eumyeo Seoro Hyungje-ae-ui Jeongsin-euro Haengdongha-yeo-yahanda.

A recording of this text by Jessica Kwon


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Sample videos in Korean

Information about Korean | Phrases | Numbers | Colours | Time | Dates | Family words | Tongue twisters | Tower of Babel | Articles | Learning materials | Links



Information about the Korean language

Online Korean lessons
Learn Korean Online with Rocket Languages http://rki.kbs.co.kr/learn_korean/lessons/e_index.htm

More Korean links

Banner 7

Learn Korean now at Rocket Languages!
Learn Korean with Glossika
Find Korean Tutors with LanguaTalk

90 Day Korean - how to read Korean and start having simple conversations

Korean courses and other resources available on Amazon

Languages written with the Hangeul alphabet

Cia-Cia, Jeju, Korean


A-chik Tokbirim, Adinkra, ADLaM, Armenian, Avestan, Avoiuli, Bactrian, Bassa (Vah), Beitha Kukju, Beria (Zaghawa), Borama / Gadabuursi, Carian, Carpathian Basin Rovas, Chinuk pipa, Chisoi, Coorgi-Cox, Coptic, Cyrillic, Dalecarlian runes, Elbasan, Etruscan, Faliscan, Fox, Galik, Georgian (Asomtavruli), Georgian (Nuskhuri), Georgian (Mkhedruli), Glagolitic, Global Alphabet, Gothic, Greek, Irish (Uncial), Kaddare, Kayah Li, Khatt-i-Badí’, Khazarian Rovas, Koch, Korean, Latin, Lepontic, Luo Lakeside Script, Lycian, Lydian, Manchu, Mandaic, Mandombe, Marsiliana, Medefaidrin, Messapic, Mongolian, Mro, Mundari Bani, Naasioi Otomaung, N'Ko, North Picene, Nyiakeng Puachue Hmong, Odùduwà, Ogham, Old Church Slavonic, Oirat Clear Script, Ol Chiki (Ol Cemet' / Santali), Old Italic, Old Nubian, Old Permic, Ol Onal, Orkhon, Osage, Oscan, Osmanya (Somali), Pau Cin Hau, Phrygian, Pollard script, Runic, Székely-Hungarian Rovás (Hungarian Runes), South Picene, Sutton SignWriting, Sunuwar, Tai Viet, Tangsa, Todhri, Toto, Umbrian, (Old) Uyghur, Wancho, Yezidi, Zoulai

Other writing systems

Page last modified: 14.04.24


Green Web Hosting - Kualo

Why not share this page:


The Fastest Way to Learn Korean with KoreanClass101

If you like this site and find it useful, you can support it by making a donation via PayPal or Patreon, or by contributing in other ways. Omniglot is how I make my living.


Note: all links on this site to Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.fr are affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you click on any of them and buy something. So by clicking on these links you can help to support this site.

Get a 30-day Free Trial of Amazon Prime (UK)