Korean, language of uncertain ancestry. It is thought by some scholars to be akin to Japanese, by others to be a member of the Altaic subfamily of the Ural-Altaic family of languages (see Uralic and Altaic languages), and by still others to be unrelated to any known language. The Korean tongue is spoken by more than 71 million people in Korea (48 million in South Korea and 23 million in North Korea) and several million more in Japan, China, and elsewhere. Unlike Chinese, Korean does not use tones to make semantic distinctions. Its syntax, however, is similar to that of Chinese, while its morphology resembles that of Japanese. Korean is an agglutinative language in which different linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are often joined to form one word. A distinctive feature of Korean is the use of a number of different forms to indicate the respective social positions of the speaker, the individual spoken to, and the individual spoken about. The literature in the language dates from the 7th cent. a.d. Once written in Chinese characters, modern Korean has its own phonetic alphabet, called Hangeul (or onmun), which was devised in the 15th cent. The division of Korea into North and South since after World War II has led to differences in the language in the two nations, most prominently the addition of many new words to the South Korean dialect.

See E. W. Wagner, Elementary Written Korean (3 vol., 1963–71); S. E. Martin et al., Beginning Korean (1969).

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