Chinese in Korean

The Korean language is so different from English, it really makes a fascinating study.  But to understand anything about Korean, it helps to understand a little Chinese.

Most Westerners know that Chinese is written with pictographs.  A simple (or not so simple) character represents a concept, an idea.  The symbol 山, for example, means mountain in Chinese and is pronounced something like shan.  Any literate Chinese citizen can see that character and know that it pertains to a mountain.  In fact, Japanese and Korean people would also recognize that meaning, but more on that shortly.

This symbol, meaning mountain, might be combined with another one or two pictograms to take on a completely different meaning.  For example, adding the symbol for 100 (連) before the symbol for mountain (山) means “mountain range”.  A Chinese person seeing the characters 連山 would imagine a mountain range, and usually wouldn’t think of the number 100.

This is very simplified, of course, but you can start to get an image of how this works.  Combining the symbols meaning “under” and “person” gets you a meaning of “servant”.  Combining the symbols meaning “sea” and “out”, you get the meaning of “abroad”.  You can then see how if a word or concept doesn’t exist in Chinese, then one can be created by combining two existing concepts.

(It goes even further than this with the concept of “radicals” – where the image is buried within a more complex image – but you should get the main idea by now.)

All across ancient 中國 (China, or literally, the Middle Kingdom), people would see these characters and understand the meaning of the written words – even if they could not actually speak with each other! 

You see China is a huge place, with great mountain ranges, deserts, rivers, and other natural obstacles which effectively separated ancient peoples governed by the same leaders.  The spoken language of Chinese is actually much more complicated than the writing system as a result of this, and lends us great insight into the formation of Korean and Japanese cultures.

Chinese is spoken in countless dialects, from the relatively ubiquitous Mandarin and Cantonese to lesser-known dialects limited to tiny regions under Chinese influence.  The majority of these dialects  use varying sets of tones leading to the sing-song sounds of Chinese (at least in Westerners’ ears).  So, for example, the fact that Cantonese uses 8 separate tones in their speech (and these tones complete change the meaning of a word) and Mandarin uses only 4, makes the two sound different to uneducated ears. 

But they are really still the same language at heart.  Not only do they share the same writing system, they also share the same basic grammatical structure (which is still somewhat of a mystery to me).   People from opposite corners of the large country still could communicate fairly easily, especially given that, at least in modern China, many people will speak Mandarin in addition to their native dialect(s).

But Korea, despite being considered part of the Chinese Empire for much of its history, was, for the most part, a separate country with a unique culture and language.  Again, there were natural borders at play – mountain ranges and the sea surrounding the peninsula – but these natural borders actually led to a long history of Korea essentially being a vassal state to the Chinese Empire.  (The Japanese have a slightly different experience, being even more geographically removed from the Middle Kingdom, but let’s focus on Korea, shall we?)

Korea was permitted its own kings, its own laws, its own language and culture.  Sure, Korean language and culture shows more Chinese influence than any other in the world, but it is still an outside influence, in a way.  Even today Koreans can tell you which half of their dictionary is comprised of native Korean words vs. those which are Sino-Korean in origin without blinking an eye.  (Much better than most Americans could do with Latin vs Greek vs German etymology.)  The Koreans still use two number systems in everyday life – the native Korean and the Sino-Korean number sets.

It’s quite confusing to the foreigner, but, as I said earlier, a fascinating study. 

So, let’s take it from the top, shall we?

China’s volatile history has influenced the history of all the nations in Asia, not the least of which is Korea.  With Chinese culture (including education and religion) being the primary influence atop native Korean beliefs and concepts since ancient times, Korea has been largely influenced by China.  And the biggest influence was the use of the Chinese writing system.

Koreans historically used the Chinese pictographs in all of their writing, as did any educated Asian thousands of years ago.  Koreans might pronounce their words a little differently (for example, saying “san” instead of “shan” when they saw the character 山, meaning mountain), but what literate Koreans actually read was Chinese*.

But Korean is actually a different language.  Even keeping aside the fact that half the language is made of native Korean vocabulary, which was once written with Chinese characters anyhow, Korean has a different grammatical structure.  It’s also a monotonal language – the whole issue of sing-song is not an issue in Korean, a very calm language when spoken next to Chinese.

Koreans are also very protective of their culture, as one can imagine in their unique circumstances.  A small peninsula the size of New Jersey, Korea is bordered on the North and West by China.  Across the Eastern sea sat another kingdom which received its culture through Korea, but which constantly desired to posess and displace its own benefactor.  Koreans made sure to maintain their culture (and homogoneity) above almost anything else, while maintaining at least a basic survival.

But even throughout their tumultuous history, Koreans have often stepped up and shown why they are such a unique people, and why their culture has not been swallowed up despite numerous attempts from others (including Westerners).  And the prime example of this is the Korean alphabet, developed by a true visionary.  A man easily the equal of Da Vinci, the inspiration to Gutenberg for movable type.  Scientist, artist and all around amazing dude: King Sejong the Great

But that is a story for another day 🙂


*In modern times, written Chinese shows some variation.  There is a simplified version of Chinese written in mainland China, although Taiwan, Japan and to a lesser extent Korea still use the traditional Chinese.  So the word meaning China in traditional Chinese, 中國, would actually be written 中国 in mainland China.  Seen throughout East Asia, a Mandarin speaker would pronounce this zhong guo, while a Korean would pronounce it choong gook, but everyone would recognize the meaning as the Middle Kingdom, China.

5 Responses to “Chinese in Korean”
  1. askkorean1 says:

    Koreans used chinese character like English used latin, greek, french, german for vocabulary and spelling. For example, English used alots of latin, greek, german, french, in vocabulary and spelling. Does it make English related to all these languages that English borrowed from?? Same goes with Korean. Korean language is related to Altaic ( Korean, Mongolian, Manchurian, Asian Turkish, Japanese Grammar related languages). Koreans adopted vocabulary from Chinese. Thousand years ago Koreans did use Chinese characters like English adopted latin, greek, french, german. But now Koreans used Korean alphabets, Koreans don’t depend heavily on chinese characters on daily Korean life style unlike japanese. Grammar Koreans and chinese are not related.

    • Doug says:

      I don’t argue with that at all – I thought I had made those points, but thanks for pointing them out. Actually, my real point was to illustrate the genius of King Seong. But there is also no doubt that Chinese had a great influence over the Korean language – more so than any other. And really, although Hangul has been around for hundreds of years, it is really only since the era post-Japanese colonialization that Hanja has not been a part of daily Korean life.

  2. askkorean1 says:

    Koreans or Average Koreans don’t deny Chinese influence in Korean language or culture. Like British or Americans don’t deny there is latin, greek, german, french vocabulary or spelling influences in English language. Non-Korean or even Chinese have to realize that Koreans don’t depend on Chinese character or Culture on daily Korean life. Like British or American don’t depend on latin, greek, french, german culture or vocabulary on daily British or American lifestyle. Korean and Chinese are two different languages. Korean grammar is not related to Chinese, Korean writing and alphabet is not related to Chinese, Modern day Korean-Chinese vocabulary is not related to Chinese language. Funny Twist of thing is that even Chinese themselves don’t know Ancient Chinese characters so they send or ask Korean Professors to translate the old Chinese text. Modern day China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan they used simplified Chinese characters unlike in Korea ( North and South) we don’t use or depend on Chinese characters at all.

    • Doug says:

      Again, I don’t disagree – you make some good points. It’s interesting that some of the world’s foremost experts on ancient Chinese are Korean.

  3. askkorean1 says:

    language reflects national character. For example, Korean language and alphabets are so linear and direct. Whereas Chinese language and characters are so boxy and confusing. Japanese language and characters are so indirect and superficial. Korean vocabulary uses 40 percent Korean-Chinese, 40 percent Korean native words, 20 percent English and Japanese words. My point is you cannot generalize Chinese impact on Korea. Even though Korea and China relationship always have been like ” lip and teeth” relationship. Korea hold on to there lip and teeth for quite along time not to be absorb by Chinese that is what defines to be Korean and Korean identity. That is Korean history for 5 thousand years.

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