Saranghaeyo (사랑해요). Mianhae (미안해). Kamsahae (감사해). No, I’m not just spewing random words. In fact, these might be the most familiar Korean terms for the multitudes of K-drama and K-pop fans worldwide. Looking at the current flow of globalization, South Korea rounds up among the top players, and it’s not without reason. With a culture that is fascinating to western eyes, and with talent that’s ready to conquer the world, South Korea also boasts of a beautiful language system that suits the country perfectly. You might wonder though, what makes a single language so special? Let’s find out, shall we?
Korean is a language isolate
Ooh, sounds quite prestigious, doesn’t it? A language isolate is a language that is, well, isolated. It doesn’t belong to any language family such as Austronesian or Indo-European, for example. In the case of Korean, while it does share similarities with Japanese, and with Chinese to some extent, it doesn’t share enough of its vocabulary with any of the language families. It is not known to descend from another language, either. Some people think Korean belongs to the Altaic language family, but there just isn’t enough scientific proof to establish the connection! It must get lonely at the dinner table sometimes, but on the bright side, it gets its own national holiday!
“How many number systems do you want?” Yes.
I guess the stereotype of Asians being good at math is somewhat true, because Koreans have not one, but two whole number systems. And no, they’re not optional, in case you were hoping that. They are meant to count different things, with the Pure/Native Korean numbers used for hours on the clock, objects, age etc. and the Sino-Korean numbers, based on Chinese characters, being used for currency, dates, distances, minutes on the clock when the numbers are higher than 99, etc.. Messing up the usage can be seen as very disrespectful in Korea. From personal experience, the numbers in both the systems are fairly easy to learn, once you’ve got the hang of 1-10. But learning which system is used for which object can be a real pain. Must be a joy for math geeks, though.
The language is a mirror image of the culture
As you might know, South Korean culture is incredibly collectivistic, with a great emphasis on traditions and morals. One attempt at learning Korean, and you’ll find that instead of the typical “me” and “I”, Koreans often use pronouns that value communal harmony like “us” or “we”. Of course, this is not to the point of obnoxiousness. For example, where an English speaker would say “my family” or “my country” , a Korean speaker would say “uri gajok” (our family) and “uri nara” (our country).
Corresponding to the East Asian social systems of respect for elders and higher-ups, Korean also has a complex system of honorifics. A sentence intending to convey the same meaning will be framed using different verb endings and vocabulary, depending on the relationship you have with the listener, as well as their status. You would address your friend in ways very different from how you would address your employer. Formal and informal verb endings also play into this system, confusing you even more as a non-native. But please don’t mess up the honorifics when in Korea. You wouldn’t want to get beaten up by a bulky Grandpa, now would you?
Linguists love Hangeul- the Korean script and alphabet
Hangul is considered to be the most brilliantly designed and logical writing system. And the credit for this goes to King Se-Jong of the Joseon Dynasty. Before his intervention, the Chinese Hanja was predominantly used in Korea, but it was a very complex and elitist language, making it inaccessible to the masses. So the benevolent King Sejong (we need more kings like him) thought to create a script unique to Korea, one that would be very easy to learn for the common people, and very scientific in its logic. Hangul has only 24 letters, even fewer than the English 26.
Interestingly enough, the way Korean letters are shaped is said to reflect the formation of your mouth and tongue when you produce that sound. For example, ㄴ (ni-eun), which is roughly equivalent to the English letter N, looks like the shape your tongue makes to touch the back of your teeth in order to produce the ‘N’ sound. How cool is that! And really, I can vouch for the fact that the Korean script IS easier to learn than other associated languages, like Chinese or Japanese (which has THREE scripts, by the way).
Learning Korean might pave your way into a fast-evolving culture
Okay, let’s start with the meteoric development South Korea has shown over the decades. Some business reports consider it the most innovative country in the world, and South Korean companies are occupying the global market like anything. The Korean language gives you access to becoming better aware about such a major player in international relations. Further, there’s just no way you don’t want to visit South Korea. The countryside and the islands, the palaces and the shrines, and the classic k-drama views make it a breathtaking place. And how do you plan to enjoy it if you’re just fumbling around on Google Translate? Learning Korean is the key to experiencing the country whole-heartedly.
Gangnam Style, Parasite, BTS, and Korean drama-series are some of the things constituting “The Korean Wave”, which has quite literally swept the world off its feet. Glimpses of Korean food and culture are in high demand, and entertainment from Korea is far surpassing other countries in quantity and quality. My one thought when I learnt Korean was that I’ll finally be able to understand what’s going on in a k-drama, as well as be able to talk to BTS at a fansign event. Admit it, a lot of you have the same fantasy, don’t you?
Then what are you waiting for? You’ve got some Hangeul to learn!
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