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The periodization of the historical stages of the Korean language is as follows:

  • Before the first century: Proto-Korean
  • First to tenth century: Old Korean
  • Tenth to sixteenth century: Middle Korean
  • Seventeenth century to present: Modern Korean



Korean being a language isolate, "Proto-Korean" is not a well-defined term, referring to the language spoken in prehistoric Korea during the Bronze and Iron ages. Other theories are the Altaic and Dravido-Korean theory, but both are either discredited or fringe.

According to several linguists the linguistic homeland of proto-Korean is located somewhere in Manchuria. Later, Koreanic-speakers already present in northern Korea started to migrate further south, replacing or assimilating Japonic-speakers and likely causing the Yayoi migration.[1][2] Whitman (2012) suggests that the proto-Koreans arrived in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula at around 300 BCe and coexist with the descendants of the Japonic Mumun cultivators (or assimilated them). Both had influence on each other and a later founder effect diminished the internal variety of both language families.[3]

Alexander Vovin (2015)[4] notes that Koreanic shares some typological features with the four Paleosiberian language groups (e.g. lack of phonemic voiced stops, verb compounding, earlier ergativity), and suggests that it actually has more in common with "Paleosiberian" than with the putative Altaic group. A relation to the Japonic languages is debated but currently not accepted by most linguists.[5]

Homer Hulbert claimed the Korean language was Ural-Altaic in his book, The History of Korea (1905). The classification of Korean as Altaic was introduced by Gustaf John Ramstedt (1928), but even within the debunked Altaic hypothesis, the position of Korean relative to Japonic is unclear. A possible Korean–Japonic grouping within Altaic has been discussed by Samuel Martin, Roy Andrew Miller and Sergei Starostin. Others, notably Vovin, interpret the affinities between Korean and Japanese as an effect caused by geographic proximity sprachbund.

Old KoreanEdit

Old Korean (고대국어, 古代國語) corresponds to the Korean language from the beginning of the Three Kingdoms of Korea to the latter part of the North–South States Period, approximately from the first to the tenth century.[6] Use of Classical Chinese by Koreans began in the fourth century or earlier, and phonological writing in Idu script was developed by the sixth century.[7]

It is unclear whether Old Korean was a tonal language.[8] It is assumed that Old Korean was divided into dialects, corresponding to the three kingdoms. Of these, the Sillan language is the best attested due to the political domination of Later Silla by the seventh century.

Only some literary records of Unified Silla, changed into Goryeo text, are extant and some texts (written in their native writing system) of the Three Kingdoms period are mostly available in form of inscriptions at present. Thus, the languages of the Three Kingdoms period are generally examined through official government names and local district names.

The point at which Old Korean became Middle Korean is assessed variously by different scholars. The line is sometimes drawn during late Goryeo and sometimes around the 15th century in the early Joseon. It is usually thought that Middle Korean begins with the establishment of Goryeo and its new capital city of Kaesong, when the standard language was changed from the Silla dialect to the Goryeo dialect.

There is very little literature for research of Old Korean. The first texts in Old Korean were written using Hanja to represent the sound and grammar of the local language.

Additional information about the language is drawn from various proper nouns recorded in Korean and Chinese records, and from etymological studies of the Korean pronunciations of Chinese characters.

Various systems were used, beginning with ad hoc approaches and gradually becoming codified in the Idu script and the hyangchal system used for poetry. These were arrangements of Chinese characters to represent the language phonetically, much like the Japanese kana.

Middle KoreanEdit

A page from the Hunmin Jeong-eum Eonhae. The hangul-only column, fourth from left, (나랏말ᄊᆞ미), has pitch-accent diacritics to the left of the syllable blocks.

Middle Korean (중세국어, 中世國語) corresponds to Korean spoken from the 10th to 16th centuries, or from the era of Goryeo to the middle of Joseon.

The language standard of this period is based on the dialect of Kaesong because Goryeo moved the capital city to the northern area of the Korean Peninsula.

A Chinese Song dynasty writer, Sūn Mù 孫穆, in his Jīlínlèishì 雞林類事, recorded Goryeo-era Korean, the first foreign record of Korean.[9][10][11][12] It contains several hundred items of Korean vocabulary with the pronunciation indicated through the use of Hanja written in 1103, thus used as one of the main sources for information on Middle Korean. From a phonological perspective however, the usefulness of studying this material is limited due to logographic nature of Hanja.

Ming dynasty China's Bureau of Translators compiled a Chinese-Korean vocabulary of Joseon-era Korean.[13][14]

There were tones in Middle Korean.[15][16][17]

The creation of the Hunminjeongeum ("Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People"), the original name for Hangul, was completed in 1443 by Sejong the Great, the fourth Joseon king, and promulgated in September or October 1446.

Hunminjeongeum was an entirely new and native script for the Korean language and people. The script was initially named after the publication, but later came to be known as "Hangul". It was created so that the common people illiterate in Hanja could accurately and easily read and write the Korean language. Its supposed publication date, October 9, is now "Hangul Day" in South Korea.

In Korean wiktionary, the pronunciation of Middle Korean is represented by the Yale romanization of Korean. This is because the Revised Romanization of Korean was only designed for Modern Korean. Yale romanization of Korean places primary emphasis on showing a word's morphophonemic structure, so it does not indicate the actual pronunciation of the day.

Modern KoreanEdit

Modern Korean (근대국어, 近代國語) corresponds to Korean spoken from the seventeenth century onward.

Over the decades following the Korean War and the division of Korea, North–South differences in the Korean language have developed, including variances in pronunciation, verb inflection and vocabulary.


  1. ^ Janhunen, Juha (2010). "RReconstructing the Language Map of Prehistorical Northeast Asia". Studia Orientalia (108). ... there are strong indications that the neighbouring Baekje state (in the southwest) was predominantly Japonic-speaking until it was linguistically Koreanized.
  2. ^ Vovin, Alexander (2013). "From Koguryo to Tamna: Slowly riding to the South with speakers of Proto-Korean". Korean Linguistics. 15 (2): 222–240.
  3. ^ Whitman, John (December 1, 2011). "Northeast Asian Linguistic Ecology and the Advent of Rice Agriculture in Korea and Japan". Rice. 4 (3): 149–158. doi:10.1007/s12284-011-9080-0. ISSN 1939-8433.
  4. ^ Vovin, Alexander (2015). "Korean as a Paleosiberian Language". 알타이할시리즈 2. ISBN 978-8-955-56053-4. Retrieved November 6, 2016.
  5. ^ Sohn (2001), p. 29.
  6. ^ 최기호, 국어사 서설 (The History of Korean Language), 제8회 국외 한국어교사 연수회 (8th Research Conference of Korean Language Teacher in Abroad), 2004
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ Kim (2004), p. 80.
  9. ^ Heming Yong; Jing Peng (August 14, 2008). Chinese Lexicography: A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911. OUP Oxford. pp. 374–. ISBN 978-0-19-156167-2.
  10. ^ 雞林類事
  11. ^
  12. ^ Ogura, S.. 1926. “A Corean Vocabulary”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London 4 (1). Cambridge University Press: 1–10.
  13. ^ Ogura, S (1926). "A Corean Vocabulary". Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London. 4 (1): 1–10. JSTOR 607397.
  14. ^ 華夷譯語/朝鮮館譯語
  15. ^ Ho-Min Sohn (March 29, 2001). The Korean Language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 48–. ISBN 978-0-521-36943-5.
  16. ^ Iksop Lee; S. Robert Ramsey (2000). The Korean Language. SUNY Press. pp. 315–. ISBN 978-0-7914-4832-8.
  17. ^ Ki-Moon Lee; S. Robert Ramsey (March 3, 2011). A History of the Korean Language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 168–. ISBN 978-1-139-49448-9.
  • Kim, Mu-rim (김무림) (2004). 국어의 역사 (Gugeo-ui yeoksa, History of the Korean language). Seoul: Hankook Munhwasa. ISBN 89-5726-185-0.