The Korea Herald


Is the Korean language really an orphan?

By Yu Kun-ha

Published : March 8, 2012 - 19:29

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Gnothi Seauton ― In Greek, these words mean “know thyself.” Such was the inscription at the ancient Temple of Apollo, where people would visit the sacred Oracle. Moving on to present-day Korea, the Korean people indeed “know themselves.” Korea has a strong sense of national identity and pride, with the largely homogeneous Korean people being in no doubt with regard to their origins from Mongolian tribes and seen with the people’s determination to forge ahead for a better tomorrow and a general sense of unity for a nation that sees itself as family, seen in part by the people’s reference to Korea as “our country.” And while all Koreans know that their alphabet, by extension a part of their overall identity, was single-handedly created by King Sejong, a question mark still persists regarding the origins of their language.

Until around the 1960s, the Korean language was widely believed to be part of a hypothesized language family called “Ural-Altaic.” The name of this family derives from the Ural Mountains in Europe and the Altai Mountains in Asia, appropriate since the proposed family includes both European and Asian languages.

Specifically, the Ural-Altaic hypothesis stated that two essentially separate language families ― Uralic and Altaic ― were part of one big “superfamily” instead. Uralic languages would include Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, with Altaic languages comprising Mongolian, Turkish, Japanese and Korean (among many others).

The support for this suggested genetic relationship derives partly from several related structural factors within the above languages, such as the process of forming new words by adding individual elements together, a process known as “agglutination.”

For example, “in the houses” would become one word in Turkish, evlerde, with ev meaning “house,” -ler being a plural suffix and de meaning “in” (though Korean does make use of prepositions, however, so is not quite as agglutinating). A lack of both grammatical gender and articles (a, the) within the above languages also helps to complete the picture with regard to linguistic similarities.

However, not all linguists necessarily agree that the Altaic family is itself firmly established in the first instance, but for those who do not all are in agreement that Korean and Japanese are themselves part of this family. Moreover, some more recent developments see linguists questioning if indeed Hungarian is related, however distantly, to Finnish and Estonian.

These two factors alone cast doubt on the Ural-Altaic language family to which Korean supposedly belongs; after all, if we can’t even guarantee that the Altaic family is fully legitimate, let alone if indeed Korean belongs to it or not, then how can we further group Altaic with a recognized family such as Uralic, which itself is being questioned now in terms of the inclusion of Hungarian. In any event, broad support for the hypothesis, as implied above, was largely over by the 1960s.

However, some linguists still recognize the inclusion of Korean in the Altaic family (and by extension, recognise the Altaic family as a legitimate family). The majority view it seems though is that Korean is a “language isolate” (or isolated language). This term has various meanings, but in an absolute sense it would mean that the Korean language is unrelated to any other language, living or dead. It is on its own. An orphan, as it were.

Being a linguistic orphan is nothing to cry over. We’re talking language after all, not children. However, it is the disagreement that still continues with regard to placement of the Korean language that begs to be resolved. Altaic? Isolate? A “mini”-family perhaps comprising Korean and Japanese? Linguists may argue, however, that the debate is over given that linguistic textbooks tend to routinely place Korean (and Japanese for that matter) as an isolate. However, several guide books I have come across about Korea still place Korean within the Ural-Altaic family when discussing the language.

I recognize that linguists and non-linguists alike may find the classification of Korean of little overall importance, especially with regard to its effects, if any, on the overall Korean sense of self. I wholeheartedly agree. However, it is argued that, given a country with such a strong and proud sense of identity, agreeing on a classification for the Korean language (not forgetting the ties that language has to our identity) is called for. We may never fully resolve the issue, but perhaps a more unanimous viewpoint can be reached by linguists and trickle down to the guide book level, for example. If nothing else, a more certain sense of where the Korean language belongs would be the icing on the cake for a country that is already quite sure of itself.

By Alex Baratta

Alex Baratta teaches within the School of Education at the University of Manchester. He can be reached at ― Ed.