Korean (한국말) is the official language of South and North Korea, spoken by approximately 78 million people worldwide. It is also an official language along with Chinese in Yanbian, in the People’s Republic of China. There are a number of different names for the language in Korean, mostly based on the regional names for Korea: Hangungmal, or Hangugeo more formally, is the most common name used in South Korea, or Gugeo (meaning ‘national language’). In North Korea the language is usually called Chosŏnmal, or Chosŏnŏ more formally. Koreans in the former USSR call it Goryeomal. There are several dialects of Korean but these are all mutually intelligible.
The phonetic writing system used today, Hangul, was commissioned in the fifteenth century by Sejong the Great. Previously the system of hanja was used (based on Chinese characters), which is mostly extinct today, though schools in South Korea still teach a number of hanja characters. Until the 1980s, Korean was usually written top to bottom, right to left (as per the Chinese system), but now it is much more common for it to be written left to right.
The core vocabulary consists of native Korean words, but a significant proportion is borrowed from Chinese. There have also been some borrowings from Mongolian and Sanskrit, among others. More recently borrowings from English have become more common. Some of these come indirectly, via Japanese. Many English borrowings are used differently in Korean, for example ‘service’ (서비스) meaning ‘on the house’. There are limited Korean words which have been adopted in English; the most famous is probably ‘taekwondo’ (태권도).
There are regulatory bodies for the language in both South and North Korea. The National Institute of the Korean Language has been operating as a language regulator since 1991 in South Korea. The Language Institute of the Academy of Social Sciences is the North Korean equivalent. Since the Korean War (1950-1953), differences in the North and South variants of the language, including pronunciation, spelling and vocabulary, have developed. North Korean has a tendency to prefer native words over foreign borrowings.
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