Nearly six centuries ago, a king in his late forties stood in front of his people. In his hands was a piece of parchment that would change the life of Koreans forever. King Sejong, the 4th king of Joseon, invented a script unique to the Korean Language. Hangul, the unique Korean alphabet, is the only form of writing in the world with a known creator. The Korean Language, however, remains a mystery. The first sentence of 훈민정음, the document description Hangul, translates to the following: the script that we have been using is ineffective as the Korean Language differs greatly from Chinese. Before Hangul, people used Chinese characters to write Korean, which begs the question: why was it necessary to create a whole new script? This is because Korean is utterly different from Mandarin. In fact, it is different from any other language in the world. Korean is a language isolate, meaning no other language is similar to it.
In order to understand language isolation, we must first delve into the vast world of comparative linguistics. Linguists sort languages into different families. Two languages in the same family mean that their ancestral language, also referred to as the proto-language, is the same. One of the largest families is the Indo-European family, consisting of an estimated 445 languages. The well-known Germanic and Romance languages are also branches within the Indo-European family. Languages are categorised into families depending on genealogical, typological, and areal factors. Genealogical classification is about the history of the language, searching for evidence of shared roots. Areal factors include looking at the geographical location and distribution of the language. However, the primary method linguists use is typological. They study the structure of the language and analyse similarities and differences between other languages. French and Spanish are similar because they have the same sentence structures. For instance, the phrase “I love you” is translated to “(yo) te quiero” and “Je t’aime” in Spanish and French respectively. The position of the pronoun (yo and Je, meaning I), the verb (quiero and aime), and the object (te and t’) are identical. Many other instances such as this indicate that French and Spanish belong to the same family. But what about Korean? Korean sentence structure differs from that of both Chinese and Japanese.
Korea has been an isolationist country for a long time. The earliest Korean countries were Kojoseon and Jin, the former established in BC 2333. Since then, the people governing the countries of the peninsula remained the same. New people did not arrive, and Koreans rarely moved away. Its culture was isolated and facilitated, which made it develop in its unique way. It has been observed that culture and languages mix significantly during war. This is exemplified by Western Europe. Italy, despite being a peninsula like Korea, shares many characteristics with its neighbouring countries because of the many wars they had. Aside from the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 20th century, the Korean peninsula was never governed by non-Koreans; hence, the Korean race is definite. Since Korea’s people have not changed for over 4000 years, its people have remained static as well. Ergo, it is evident that the Korean language is unique from others due to the country’s isolation from the world.
Korea is officially a language isolate, however, some say that a language should be included in the Koreanic language family. The language is native to the island that we reside on. The Jeju dialect, if categorised to be a separate language, will turn Korean from a language isolate to part of the Koreanic language family. Comparative linguistics is constantly changing and evolving, very much like languages themselves. One day Korean might be divided into different languages. It might morph into a completely different language. Only time will tell the changes to come.
Edited by Tae Hyun (Terry) Kim
Jung-Ahn (Gabrielle) Oh
Student Writer of the Ko:lon Article
Student at NLCS Jeju