Is Korean an Altaic language?

Typologically: yes. Genetically, no.

Typology refers to the structure of a language and, as is well known, modern Korean shares similar grammatical characteristics to Japanese and Mongolian as well as other more geographically distant “Altaic” languages such as Turkish, including a basic subject-object-verb word order, polysyllabic root structure and suffix based agglutinative morphology (the last being where grammatical particles and verb conjugations are directly attached to the end of, or come after, words).

However, the sense in which the Altaic language “family” was originally conceived and is still commonly thought of, is as a genetic language group equivalent to Indo-European or Sino-Tibetan and implying that the associated Altaic languages share a hypothesized common ancestor, known as a “proto” language, in this case “proto-Altaic”.

Why can’t the Altaic languages be considered a genetic language family?

In the case of defining a genetic language family, identifying basic vocabulary with shared etymologies (“cognate words”) between the candidate languages is more indicative and assertable as proof than typological similarities in grammar (the primary shared characteristic of the Altaic languages). The fundamental weakness of the Altaic language hypothesis is simply that the languages involved do not share very much basic vocabulary at all.

How are language families determined and what is Korean if it is not Altaic?

The complete vocabulary (“lexicon”) of any modern language can be understood as having been built up in layers over time in a manner similar to archaeological strata. Any language may include layers of foreign vocabulary such that the given language as a whole becomes a mix of more than one language family (or, in the case of English for example, a mix of separate branches of the same Indo-European). Out of this, the genetic family a language is ideally associated with is the oldest recoverable layer.

As is commonly known, the modern Korean language is in fact Sino-Korean and likely has been since the political formation of historical Korea. At least half, if not more, of the lexicon is “borrowed” Classical Chinese and on top of that, there is now much modern English vocabulary. The earliest Chinese layers may date to the period of the Han Commanderies, c.108BCE, (currently a politically and historiographically sensitive topic in Korea) or rather their subsequent downfall which, according to historical accounts, may have seen “Chinese” refugees enter the peninsula; prior even to that, the harshness of the Qin dynasty was also said to have caused a refugee influx conveniently resulting in the establishment of the Jinhan polity, but this latter may equally have been a fictitious Chinese claim. These layers were then followed more definitely by the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism which were transmitted in written Chinese, then later reinforced with the ascendency of Neo-Confucianism from the 14th century onwards, and finally (so far) early modern Sinic vocabulary introduced first via Catholic missionaries active in China late 18th and early 19th centuries, and then in greater volume from Sino-Japanese during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it should be noted much of these last strata were direct translations of European biblical, ideological and technical terms rather than Chinese though, in a similar manner, much of the early Buddhist Chinese vocabulary was also translated or transliterated from the original Indic Buddhist languages. In North Korea there has been a further layer of imported Sinic vocabulary associated with Marxism which would have first been introduced from Japan and later via Chinese.

However, the Korean part of Sino-Korean (aka the Korean language), what Koreans today refer to as “pure Korean” (순우리말 sun-uri-mal where, somewhat ironically, sun meaning “pure” is itself Chinese 純), understood as the earliest layer of the Korean language into which all the subsequent layers of Chinese were borrowed, can be identified as “Koreanic.” Thus there is a language family termed Koreanic of which only the Korean language survives. When there is only a single language attesting a language family, that language may be described as an “isolate”, so the modern Korean language is an isolate of Koreanic; historically, too, there are no other known Koreanic languages, that is, anything more distinct than regional dialectic variations.

Because Chinese is, of course, as traceably old as Korean, it is not impossible to argue that the Sino-Korean language is a Sinic language classifiable under the Sino-Tibetan language family; the Sinic vocabulary in Sino-Korean together with Sino-Japanese is useful in helping to reconstruct early Chinese phonology. However, the important thing in terms of taxonomy is that we can be certain that there was a prehistoric era in the ancient past when a Koreanic language directly ancestral to modern Korean was being spoken before it came into contact with ancient Chinese. What “pure Korean” nationalists today tend to misunderstand is that this period would have been much earlier than the formation of any “Korean” polity or cultural identity and geographically limited to only a small region, possibly the southeast of the peninsula and that only a tiny minority of the ancestors of the post Silla expansion population of the peninsula would ever have spoken this ancient Koreanic tongue whilst others, including the populations of Goguryeo and Baekje, would have spoken entirely different, quite likely non-Koreanic languages which would already have been infused with Chinese vocabulary before coming into contact with Koreanic. Historically, though, it was Koreanic which spread and either replaced or absorbed the other peninsula languages such that it was Koreanic which borrowed Chinese and other vocabulary into its lexicon meaning the oldest original stratum of the surviving Korean language is Koreanic and not Chinese. Of course, there would also have been regions and periods when Koreanic vocabulary was borrowed into other languages and in those cases it would not have been the oldest stratum, but those languages or idioms ultimately perished or, for example, may have survived outside of the peninsula such as is potentially the case of Japanese. But, in any event, this is why it is reasonable to term the modern (Sino-)Korean language as Koreanic.

The assumption then, is that Koreanic would be a branch of the Altaic language family collateral to other Altaic language groups (Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic), all descended from a single proto-Altaic language (as the earliest hypothesized recoverable layer). “Recoverable” means that the former existence of an extinct language can be confidently postulated and some basic vocabulary reconstructed: this is the work of comparative linguists who use the “comparative method” of linguistics to accomplish, or at least attempt, this.

How does the comparative method work?

To scientifically prove that two or more languages are descended from a common ancestor it is not enough to simply find words which appear similar, although that tends to be the initial starting point, rather consistent sound correspondences have to be established. The theory is, when two languages split and are subsequently isolated from one another, over time the pronunciation of certain sounds in the language will naturally evolve and change in different directions; the key phenomenon exploited by comparative linguists is that the sound changes are internally consistent within the languages, so not just one word changes its pronunciation by chance but the same sounds (certain consonants or vowels in certain positions for example) as they occur in all words in the language change in the same manner. Additionally, however, there are also other changes or exceptions which may occur to pronunciation including the influence of secondary (or multiple) borrowings between genetically related languages which have split and this all muddies the waters.

When trying to identify the sound laws dictating regular correspondences to other genetically related languages the other secondary influences on given pronunciation need to be accurately identified mainly in order to disregard them. This understanding of the historical development of a language allows for “internal reconstruction” of its vocabulary; that is, before comparing a look-a-like cognate word in one language to another, it is necessary to establish as far back as possible the original shape of the word. Two words which happen to look similar in two languages today (even if the two languages are in fact related) may in the past have been quite different from one another and only come to appear similar by coincidental or secondary processes, in which case they cannot be considered indicative of a genetic relationship.

When attempting to identify potential cognates between two or more candidate languages, focus needs to be directed on basic vocabulary items as these are most likely to be the oldest parts of the language whilst any more complex or conceptually abstract words are more likely to be new or borrowed from neighbouring languages. Basic vocabulary may include the numerals 1-9, body parts, weather, natural geographic features (river, mountain etc), native flora and fauna and primary colours, but even in these cases there is often secondary borrowing from other languages so nothing is certain without rigorous investigation. Potential cognates should also have relatively similarly meanings as otherwise it is simply too easy to find look-a-like words in other languages: for example, if the word for “tree” and word for “sea” are similar this is more likely to be a coincidence, but the words for “lake” and “sea” obviously could have evolved from whichever word referred to a body of water depending on whether the homeland of the proto language was beside a lake or ocean.

A key challenge in establishing genetic cognates is that it is ultimately very difficult to prove whether look-a-like words in two or more languages are the results of borrowing or genetic affinity. In fact, if words look too similar it should raise suspicion that they are borrowings as it implies they are, in relative terms, more recent and have had less time to change. For this reason, the better proof of a genetic relationship between languages comes through words which on the surface do not look alike but can still be connected through sound laws.

Aside from politics and racial theory, the reason it is useful to establish a genetic relationship between two surviving or historically recorded languages is because through the theory of regular sound changes (which have to be identified), vocabulary from ancestral languages going back to a common proto ancestral language, can be deduced and reconstructed. In this way the comparative method is a natural science on which predictions can be made; reconstructed vocabulary, always marked with an asterisk * prefix in academic papers, are the predictions which may ultimately be proven only through discovery of ancient texts containing the older languages. By contrast, there is currently no productive or known theory relating to the typology of languages, it is simply descriptive.

The fundamental weakness of the Altaic hypothesis:

With this in mind we can return to the idea of the genetic Altaic language hypothesis and why Korean cannot be classified as such. In short there are two problems: one is that the original genetic relationship between the “core” Altaic language groups of Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic has not been satisfactorily established through the comparative method, so there is no Altaic language family within which Koreanic could be included; the other is that Koreanic shares little to no basic vocabulary with any of the said core groups.

Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic share much secondary vocabulary most likely owing to areal contact (meaning they have interacted in close geographic proximity allowing for the borrowing of vocabulary into one another’s languages). In particular, there is shared vocabulary between Turkic and Mongolic, and Mongolic and Tungusic, but less so between Turkic and Tungusic which is all indicative of the processes of areal contact rather than the three language groups having a shared genealogy. However, the corpuses of proposed Altaic cognates have been built up usually on the premise that Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic are equal candidate branches of Altaic; this means that when hypothesized Altaic cognates are sought for in Koreanic, Japonic (Japanese) or other languages, there are three language sources from which to pick the most convenient look-a-like word. Through this “omni-comparative” approach which untrained linguists tend to adopt and willing believers accept, many secondary borrowed items are mis-identified as genetic cognates, but they are not supported by regular sound changes and so the situation remains that there is little proven shared basic vocabulary between the core language groups and especially so with Koreanic.

Why, then, do the Altaic languages appear so seductively similar?!

Despite the lack of a genetic relationship, there has been a close cultural relationship and long early history of interaction between the speakers of the Altaic languages which are now spread in an expansive arc across the central Eurasian steppe. Intensive borrowing of vocabulary between the core languages (as mentioned, particularly between Turkic and Mongolic, and Mongolic and Tungusic, but not Turkic and Tungusic) and their similar grammatical structures tell us that their homelands were once in closer proximity, and from relatively early on (by 1930s) this has generally been agreed to have been around the region of southern Manchuria, and not the Altai mountains after which the proposed language family was evocatively named when it was initially suggested to have originated from the central area of its contemporary known spread (that is, at a time when the Uralic languages were also thought to be a part of the Altaic complex – see more on this in the next post).

However, once more in contrast, Koreanic shares very little borrowed vocabulary indicating that it was isolated from the other proposed Altaic languages particularly early on; there may have been later interaction with the Tungusic Jurchenic branch (ancestral to Manchu) during the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (assuming Koreanic was the primary language of Silla and Jurchenic spoken to the north in the continental territory of Goguryeo) and, as a much more secondary and ultimately quite limited influence, historical contact with Mongolian under the Yuan dynasty. Otherwise Koreanic appears to have evolved and survived in relative isolation.

So, it must have been at a prehistoric stage of settlement in the peninsula that Koreanic speakers interacted with those speaking other languages of the Altaic typology. It is not known under what circumstances this occurred; for example, it may have been that Koreanic entered into the peninsula from the north having previously passed through, or evolved alongside, Altaic languages in southern Manchuria; or there may have been other Altaic type languages, subsequently lost, spread across the peninsula which came into contact with Koreanic in its historical southeastern homeland region.

It is not unreasonable to postulate and, in fact, vital to keep in mind that aside from the historically known languages there would have been many other languages and language families which were absorbed or forced into extinction by the languages which subsequently survived. Travelling back in time, the linguistic map would not become reduced to only the few proto-languages that are discussed today: it would be just as complex as ever with any number of languages we have no knowledge of having existed alongside the proto-languages we do know of. The proto-languages discussed today are not the oldest languages, only the oldest recoverable layers of known languages; they in turn belonged to earlier language families which, where necessary, can be termed “pre-proto”.

One explanation for why so many distinct language families arose in the region of Manchuria may be the number of river basins which could support the development of several cultures whilst allowing for their independence; the spread of the Altaic languages, particularly Turkic and Mongolic, westwards would have been enabled through the adoption of nomadic pastoralism which first required horses and was greatly enhanced with the introduction of stirrups that allowed for mounted archery and success in warfare.

The “out of Manchuria” expansion of the languages was subsequent to the initial development of their Altaic typologies but most of the borrowing of vocabulary would have occurred in the context of historically known interaction during and post expansion, for example the Turkic speaking Xiongnu and Mongolic Xianbei when the Xiongnu occupied what later became known as the Mongol steppe and the Xianbei were in the Liaoxi (遼西 “west of the Liao river”) region directly adjacent to their east. Koreanic speakers were more isolated in the peninsular and so there was less borrowing.

How is it that languages could interact enough to influence one another’s structures without imparting vocabulary?

In short, rules are not known, but interaction (“areal contact”) can occur between languages in any different number of ways depending on such factors as the relative ratios of populations involved and their respective stages of cultural and political development. Areal contact of languages is directly related to the concept of layers where one language will expand over another, or may survive under an expansion itself; obvious examples occur in the case of invasions and colonization, but whether it is an entire population expanding over less populated or political developed regions, or an elite takeover of an otherwise established civilization, will make a difference to how the languages interact.

A pertinent example of a language being influenced typologically but not lexically (the borrowing of vocabulary) is Mandarin Chinese which, as a northern variant of Chinese that came to dominance during the Manchu Qing dynasty, exhibits many Altaic features absent from other Sino-Tibetan languages, namely more polysyllabic vocabulary, fewer tones and greater use of suffix-based morphology (“morphology” referring to the shape of words) implying it has undergone a process of partial “Altaicization” without absorbing new vocabulary.

The following post will discuss the relationship between Korean and Japanese as well as the historical context of the Altaic hypothesis and reasons for its enduring popularity amongst Koreans today.



61 thoughts on “Is Korean an Altaic language?

  1. Estimates of Sino-Korean words range from 60-70%. Also, there are a lot of words which are corruptions of Sino-Korean words used in the past (e.g., Kimchi).

    • Sorry. That is exegerated amount. 30~40% words are originated from China. In daily conversation, This figure will be down more.

      • As a native Korean speaker who follows this issue quite closely, that’s not an exaggerated figure. 60-70% is widely accepted among Korea, as it is the one put out by the Korean National Language Institute. The Hangul Society, which preaches Korean language purification, even admits that the amount is at least 50%. In technical writing, the amount is said to reach 90% in use. I’ve seen whole sentences, which were quite long in such writing, where all the words are Sino-Korean and was only ended by “~합니다.”

      • believe me. I’m Korean. 60~70% is not true. If you are talking about Korean “Dictionary” especially made in Japanese colonize era in Korea, maybe you are right. However, the dictionary that actually people use don’t have that amount. And also you should know that “Dictionary” tend to use Chinese character to make it clear. In spoken language, Chinese worlds in Korea are very limited. For example, water means in Sino-Korean word is ‘su’ and in Native Korean word ‘mul’. In spoken language, No one use ‘su’ at all. 30~40% is maximum amount for Sino-Korean words.

      • I think you never learn Korean. If you want, we can have a chat in Korean in Skype. I give you one more example.”나는 물을 마셨다” This is a common sentence. In this sentence, There is NO Sino-Korean word. And I want to say one more. 95% of VERB are native Korean words.

      • I grew up in Korea. The “dictionary” I’m referring to is the Korean National Language Institute’s own figures — not exactly a pro-Japanese organization. 50% figure is from the 한글학회 — also not exactly a pro-Japanese group. The examples you mention are merely anecdotal. Your conclusion is not based on any statistical analysis. I can find plenty of English sentences that don’t use Latin words, but that doesn’t remove the fact that 60% of English vocabulary is based on Latin.

      • There are also plenty of Sino-Korean words that were coined in Korea, many of them that appear in colloquial conversations. 당분간(當分間), 어차피(於此彼), 도대체(都大體), 깡패(-牌) etc. aren’t used in China or Japan.

      • That’s not the case. They just wrote that in Chinese words with sounds. In your logic, Korean is made of English too. 당분간(當分間, dangbungan, 어차피(於此彼, achapi), 도대체(都大體, dodaeche), 깡패(-牌, ggangpae). So Korean is made of English?? NO. wherever you grew up, I’ve seen someone who can’t speak Korean at all even if they grew up in Korea. Because they have their own community and hang around them. Hey Do you have skype ID? or anyother video chat?? I want to talk with you in Korean with video chat.

      • give me the link about 50% of vocabulary originated from China. As I mentioned, In spoken language, Chinese vocabulary is very limited. you want one more example?? “”나는 학교에서 컴퓨터를 하고 있다”” means I’m using the computer in the school…In this sentence, one Sino-Korean(학교) and one English-Korean(컴퓨터) and the rest of words are native Korean. Explanation will be longer So why don’t we have a discussion in video chat like Skype??

        ** the examples i gave you are very very common sentences in daily conversation. You can’t say this is special case.

      • I gave you my citations. The 30-40% that you gave me is the for the first time for me. I doubt you have any, since you repeated the common misunderstanding that just because it’s written in Hanja it’s from China. In addition to Sino-Korean words coined in Korea, Many modern Sino-Korean words are from Japan (e.g., 자유, 민주주의).

        I’m not saying it’s a “special case.” If you flip a biased coin that lands 70% of the time heads and only 30% tails, that does not mean you will never see tails. This is the same case here.

        Lastly, I don’t get your hostility toward Hanja. 안중근, 윤봉길, 신채호, 박은식, all wrote in 한문. Look it up.

    • You are completely wrong. First of all, not every Korean words consisted of Chinese character are not originated from China. When Korean didn’t have any their own character, They had to write with Chinese character to write native Korean words. and SECONDLY, Sino-Korean words are easy to track where they are from. So It is easy to distinguish between actual Sino-Korean and native Korean written in Chinese characters.

      • Can you give many examples of non-Chinese Korean vocabulary that can be written with characters, still in use today? The total number would seem to be extremely small.

      • I don’t know how many. I just wrote that because that guy can’t distinguish Sino-Korean and Korean written in Chinese characters. By the way, These are examples i found.
        구경 ― 求景
        생각 ― 生覺
        서랍 ― 舌盒(설합)
        장난 ― 作亂(작란)
        어음 ― 於音
        방석 ― 方席

        Native Korean words but written in Chinese characters.

    • According to National institute of Korean language, Native Korean 54%, Sino-Chinese 35% and another countries 2%. As well as this, If we remove Sino-Korean words we don’t use in daily life, Sino-Korean words are about only 30%.

      • I’m guessing you’ve never worked in any job in Korea that requires at least college degree or read anything beyond children’s books.

      • Thanks for those examples above of non-Sino Korean vocabulary written with characters; I see they are taken from the Wikipedia page for Sino-Korean (한자어) where just above that section (‘고유어의 취음’) is a similar list giving examples of originally Chinese words which have lost their associated characters and are regularly treated as pure Korean.

    • And What’s more funny thing is that you are actually discussing about Korean language with a Korean NATIVE speaker who’s been living for 30 years. I know about Korean much more than you just like you know about Chinese much more than me. So, If you want to discuss about this more, just give me your skype ID and we can discuss with video in KOREAN. When do you have a time??

      • Please quit with these absurd accusations. There are many Korean native speakers but that does not make them qualified historical linguists. You are no doubt a native speaker of Korean, but I see you are also writing your comments from America and, I presume, are most likely a Korean-American.

        No one wants to have a Skype conversation with you. Feel free to continue the discussion with Kuiwon in hangul, if you like, but I will delete any “ad hominem” including meaningless accusations of other commentors all being “Chinese”.

      • Sorry. But I strongly think that guy pretend he knows Korean. So I just want to see if that is true or not. As far as i know, he doesn’t know Korean almost at all.

      • I’m currently living in Australia and studying English. I met many Chinese here and had a conversation. Mostly, They think Korean language is a dialect of Chinese like Cantonese. Because when they look at Korean, it seems like they use Chinese characters a lot. Companies, Cities, Individual’s name etc. But they never learn or even attempt to learn Korean.

        So they don’t know about Korean language nothing but they think Korean is one of Chinese dialect. But truth is absolutely NO.

        Look at him. He doesn’t know Korean language but he’s talking about that with a native. Mostly information from Chinese nationalists.
        I still wonder why they don’t claim Japanese, Vietnamese and Mongolian are also Chinese dialects. They also used Chinese characters or very simmilar one before or even now.

        By the way, I was born in Korea and lived for almost entire my life except for last 2 years in Australia. And I can say that Most Korean can distinguish Sino-Korean words mostly without any of linguistic knowledge.

    • And don’t get me wrong please. I’m not denying Chinese influence in Korean. 30% is high enough. BUT you said Korean word is only ~합니다 and the rest of words are Sino-Chinese?? I think you must have read Chinese nationalist’s post or book. almost every verb, adjuctive, adverb etc are Native Korean words. Only noun part use Sino-Chinese words a lot. Furthermore, You can’t distinguish Native Korean and Sino-Chinese. In your logic, IF I write Korean words in English, Is that from English?? “”Gamsahabnida”” is that word from English?? that’s because it is written in English alphabet??

      • You raise a good point about the definition of what constitutes “Korean language”. At least in the north of the Korean peninsula, Sino-Korean vocabulary was being used from the period of the Han Commanderies (108BCE), and may have been introduced even earlier. In some areas the usage of Chinese may predate the presence of Koreanic in this region (depending on one’s opinion of the homeland and early spread of Koreanic). This Chinese vocabulary is very much a part of the Korean language, even though it is not genetically Koreanic. The same goes for modern Sino-Korean vocabulary, mostly borrowed from modern Sino-Japanese terms coined in the late C19th. Now there is much English vocabulary. These are borrowings which become new layers of the language. What script you write in doesn’t effect this: even if Sino-Korean vocabulary is written is hangul, it is still Sino-Korean. Writing “gamsa-hamnida” in English doesn’t make it English, but if native English speakers started to use that word to mean “thank-you” in English conversation, then it would in effect become a borrowing into the English language.

        Interestingly, those who most actively distinguish Sino-Korean vocabulary in the Korean language as being Chinese (and not Korean), tend to be the “pure Korean” (순우리말) language advocates who want to eliminate its usage. Those who are interested in Korea’s heritage of Classical Chinese learning, tend to view Sino-Korean as a long integral – if not indigenous – part of the Korean language. Since at least the Goryeo period, it has been quite impossible to have any conversation more sophisticated than, “I want to buy a fish” without using Sino-Korean vocabulary: impossible for anything more recent than bronze age society to operate with.

        All this generally arises from too closely relating genetic language groups (“Koreanic”, “Japonic” “Sino-Tibetan”) with actual languages.

      • I generally agree with your post. But there is something you don’t know. First. Most Sino-Korean words were originated in Tang dynasty. Three kingdoms era, many name of city still had native Korean written in Chinese character with sounds. Second, No one know what the Goryo language exactly. I don’t know where you get that information about “”” Since at least the Goryeo period, it has been quite impossible to have any conversation more sophisticated tha”””. I do not agree with this sentence. Modern Korean which is more influenced than Goryo era can also express without Sino-Korean words.

    • common~~hey Chinese friend. If you don’t know about that, then you just say I don’t know. It’s not a shame. No one blame you. If I don’t know about something, I just shut up and say I don’t know. BUT I’m a native Korean and know about that language more than foreigner. If you have any questions or want to discuss more, then leave your Skype ID and time to talk in Korean. Thank you.

    • Using Chinese character does not mean Chinese. You should know the definition of Sino-Chinese word first. And Don’t pretend you know Korean language. Pathetic Chinese nationalists…..

  2. Pingback: Are Korean and Japanese related? The Altaic hypothesis continued.. | Koreanology

  3. Interesting. You seem to consider Koguryo, Baekje and Silla languages to be different and mutually unintelligible. However, a linguist you quote often, Vovin, appears to think the languages in these three kingdoms are dialects of Old Korean and mutually intelligible. Thus, it would appear you are cherry picking, sir.

    • Yes, that is my current view, in regards the dominant languages of each of the Three Kingdoms. In the following post, where I mention Vovin, I also note his view that the dominant language of Baekje was Koreanic (with a Japonic substrate) and, yes, he (in 2004) regards the languages of all Three Kingdoms to have been dialects of Old Korean, which is a possible hypothesis but fails to explain the close political relationship maintained between Baekje and Yamato Japan up until the former’s demise. I do not know, but Vovin may have changed his opinion since then, as he has done concerning the Altaic hypothesis and genetic relationship between Korean and Japan.

  4. Thanks for the links.

    There is a good amount of consensus between many of these linguists; nearly all of them share points of agreement and each in turn differ on other points. The question of the languages of the Three Kingdoms remains the most disputed, and although I have a current view, it is not set in gold if there are good arguments for it to change.

    I would point out the topics discussed in this and the following post, are whether Korean is an Altaic language and whether it is genetically related to Japanese. These two questions do not directly influence the question of the Three Kingdoms’ language(s) which is what you have raised.

    Nearly all of the scholars we’ve mentioned agree at least that Koreanic and Japonic were separate language families and that Japonic was once present on the peninsula from where it expanded to the Japanese isles. Only Unger believes Korean and Japanese to be genetically related and to have shared an immediate common ancestor, but regardless he still associates Japanese with the Yayoi migration and identifies the Japonic Goguryeo toponyms as para-Japanese (which he locates in the future Mahan/Baekje homeland territory and so rejects as evidence of the language of Goguryeo).

    Both Unger and Vovin believe all Three Kingdoms to have spoken dialects of Koreanic, but they accept the presence of Japonic on the peninsula and it leaving behind a para-Japonic language which accounts for the later loans between Korean and Japanese. The only point of contention, then, is whether para-Japonic became the dynastic language of Baekje or survived as a substrate within it. On this question, I currently think something needs to explain the well documented close relationship which existed between the rulers of Baekje and Yamato Japan right up to the demise of Baekje. Maybe it was only another military alliance like the various configurations between the Three Kingdoms (including Gaya) themselves and, ultimately, Silla and Tang, but unlike those others, it was clearly more than a temporary alliance. And if para-Japonic is to explain the loan words which Vovin notes exist between Korean and Japanese but not Ryukyuan, then it needs to have traveled to Japan after the branching of Ryukyuan from Japanese. The simplest solution to this all is if para-Japonic remained as the dynastic language of Baekje.

    I very much enjoyed the Whitman paper but would point out it doesn’t strictly support your view of all Three Kingdoms having spoken Koreanic. Specifically he argues (not unconvincingly) that the Three Han on the south of the peninsula were Koreanic speaking. Concerning the north, he again discusses the question of whether the Goguryeo toponyms represent the language of Goguryeo or not, and notes the two opposing viewpoints that they do (Beckwith, Lee Ki-moon and Ramsey) and that they don’t (Kono Rokuro and Kim Bang-han); the former of these camps is then split between Beckwith who infers from the Japonic elements of the toponyms that the Goguryeo language was thus Japonic, and Lee and Ramsey who posit it was Koreanic; in related footnote 10, he highlights Lee and Ramsey’s failure to account for the Japonic elements implying if anything that he himself is more persuaded by Beckwith, but he goes on to point out, once more, that the Japonic toponyms are predominantly found south of modern Pyongyang, i.e. not the Goguryeo heartland and not the linguistic homeland of the Goguryeo language (whatever it may have been).

    The hypothesis of Whitman’s paper is that both Japonic and Koreanic migrated from the Shandong peninsula in waves some 650 years apart; he still associates Japonic with the Yayoi migration (which he dates earlier than convention to 950BCE) and has it remaining on the peninsula until the arrival of Koreanic from c.300BCE which he associates with the Korean bronze dagger culture.

    Some potential weaknesses are: he treats continental Japonic and Koreanic as non-Sinitic, but the main argument for suggesting continental origins of Japonic is its monosyllabic root structure, a feature which is distinct to Koreanic and other languages of the Altaic typology. The argument against Koreanic having immediate continental origins is of course that there is zero evidence of it having existed elsewhere; there is no specific reason for why it should have come from the Shandong peninsula and for why it should have expanded from the same place as Japonic (unless they had a common ancestor which he does not suggest, although in footnote 1 he indicates he is sympathetic to the Altaic hypothesis).

    Despite positing a continental origin of Koreanic he observes that as a language family it is shallow (i.e. not much dialectal diversity), even more so than Japanese; he therefore suggests its expansion from being a proto-language (i.e. from expanding from a certain linguistic homeland) across the peninsula could not be “radically older” than the C15th CE, which is fine, but somehow he still believes this to have been as early as c.300BCE. If we agree that Koreanic was at least the dynastic language of Silla, its dialectal shallowness seems best associated with the Silla expansion.

    The Vovin paper certainly presents some substantial evidence. At best, it could indeed convince that the dynastic languages of the Three Kingdoms themselves were all Koreanic, but he again still also supports the notion of Japonic spoken on the peninsula across the south and explicitly states that the Jurchen were ruled over by Goguryeo, agreeing then that a significant proportion of the Goguryeo population would have been Jurchenic speaking. It still seems unlikely that Koreanic could have been particularly widespread in Goguryeo’s continental territory which included its homeland, and therefore, we should assume, the linguistic homeland of the Goguryeo language. If Koreanic were this widespread across the whole peninsula, supporting three separate and culturally distinct kingdoms, dialectically it should be much “deeper” (much more so than Japanese for a start). The question of Balhae, given the expanse of its continental territory, becomes even more problematic.

    Concerning Japonic Silla toponyms, the same caution should be taken as with the Goguryeo toponyms, i.e. we need to know the actual locations they refer to; Silla’s territory started off the smallest of the Three Kingdoms and Gyeongju itself is not in the very southeast, so Japonic could well have been spread across much of Silla’s pre-expansion territory.

  5. Nice response. You have clearly read the materials I have linked and answered very thoughtfully.

    However, I think you may have missed Whitmans’ central point, which he summarized in his conclusion:

    “Japonic arrives in the Korean peninsula around 1500 BCE and is brought to the Japanese archipelago by the Yayoi expansion around 950 BCE.


    Koreanic arrives in the south-central part of the Korean peninsula around 300 BCE with the advent of the Korean-style bronze dagger culture.”

    Thus, it is roughly congruent with Unger and Vovin’s theory of Japonic being in the southern part of the peninsula and Koreonic arriving from the north to gradually supplanting Japonic.

  6. Let me ask you one question. This writing talk about Mongolian influence when Korea was colonized for around 100 years to give some example why Koreanic has Altaic factors. But China was conquered by Altaic people many times and dominated for a couple of hundred years. So are there simmilarity between Chinese and Altaic language?? NO. NOT AT ALL. China has been way more connecting with Altaic than Korean. However, Those languages are completely different whereas Koreanic has Altaic factors. Could you explain why..?

    • Because we are talking about the ancient and prehistoric period when the core Altaic languages were all expanding from out of Manchuria close to the Korean peninsula and the proto-Koreanic language. The much later Mongol rule over Goryeo did not have a major impact on the structure of the Korean language itself.

      Similarly the Chinese connections with “Altaic” peoples (Khitan, Jurchen and Mongols) you refer to were all much later on in the medieval period. However, as mentioned, there was a definite influence: Mandarin Chinese is the most typologically “Altaicized” of the Sinitic languages (with fewer tones, more suffixes and bisyllabic vocabulary). But the reason it wasn’t more “Altaicized” or obliterated is because of the ratio and culture of the respective populations: the Chinese speaking sedentary Han (Chinese) population vastly outnumbered the northern and Manchurian peoples even when they were under their control; and they had much greater established literacy.

      • what i heard is that Koreanic is mixed with proto-Koreanic language + Altaic language in pre. That’s why it has altaic factors. However, also it has another factors that can’t be seen in another neighbor languages.

  7. Not only Khitan, Jurchen and Mongols got into the Chinese empires, also many of Altaic people built the countries. For example, after Tang dynasty and before Tang dynasty. Even though Chinese history has more connection with Altaic, Chinese language is so different from Altaic. Whereas Korean which never got conquered by Altaic except for Mongol have a lot similarities with Altaic language. There was connection between Altaic and Koreans in history but it wasn’t as much as Chinese. What I think is that historic connection between Koreanic and Altaic can not explain why Koreanic has Altaic factors. Because in that logic, Chinese also have to have Altaic factors. However, Chinese don’t have Altaic factors at all……

  8. Orginally I planned a terse laconic reply “Do you also call English Romance-English?” but I changed my mind.

    I am sure Andrew is not a linguist. Neither am I but I have taken linguistic courses at college and graduate levels and know enough of their jargon.(also have a long history of hostility with Peter Daniels, Mikael Thompson etc., and actually learned a lot in the process.)

    First of all, Andrew misunderstood Vovin and consequently belittles him, probably unknowingly.

    Vovin’s(and Unger’s) position is as follows.

    Japonic entered the penisulla around 1000BC or earlier.
    It spread to Japan and Okinawa a little later.
    Koreanic entered the penisulla later(as late as 300 AD) and replaced the para-Japonic spoken at the time in Korea.
    Koreanic started somewhere in Southern Manchuria and the order of spread was North, Southwest and Southeast. The territory of Shilla was the last to be Koreanized.

    Paekje influenced Japan after the 5th century or so, and by this time Paekje was speaking Korean, not para-Japonic. The many loan words from Paekje-Korean are attested only in Western Old Japanese, very rarely in Eastern Old Japanese or Rykyuan.(that is how we know they are loans, not cognates)

    In fact Vovin goes so far as to suggest that at least some early dynasties of Japan were Korean in origin.
    “Immigrants or Overlords?”

  9. And I don’t understand the motive behind the argument between Kwiwon and Jim. The situation is similar to Latin and English. Just as French was a significant medium of the source of the loans, not all Chinese loans were borrowed into Korean from Chinese directly.(for instance many translations of Western cultural terms(technological and scientific terms included) are sino-calques from Sino-Japanese).

    It all depends on what constitues “vocabulary”. The legal and scientific vocabulary is mostly Japanese(Sino-Japanese). Everyday usage is mostly native Korean. More esoteric poetic terms etc. are native also. So depending on how one defines “vocabulary” the percentage can vary widely. From 40 to 70 percent.

    If you look at Joseon documents, you will see a lot of Sino-Korean not used today. In fact I say over 50 percent of modern Sino-Korean words are actually Sino-Japanese. So to claim that they are Chinese in origin is like claiming Franco-English terms are just Latin.

    That is why i had to laugh(and subsequently indignant) when I saw Andrew describing Modern Korean as Sino-Korean… Because in linguistics it means something different. And then I realized Andrew was not a linguist.

    And I am pretty sure that Finnish has even more loans from the surrounding Indo-European languages. It is just that the situation looks “worse” for Korean because Chinese has been the lingua-franca(if only in the written form) of this region for a long time.

  10. Kwiwon is an interesting phenomenon of modern Korea. He actually evidences no knowledge in this matter nor in any other he dabbles into. His sole aim is to disparage and humiliate “ultra-nationalists” so called “국뽕”, not knowing that in the process he becomes something even worse.

    I see his kinds at DCinside very often. Actually DC’s history forum is dominated by his ilk. It is quite contrary to the popular western conception that Korea is too nationalistic.

    Among the more established circles “Green Light” 초록불 이문영 Moonyoung Lee comes to mind.

    Though he probably will deny it, he is also in line with “Daily Best Collection” folk, also called 일베충 that are rapidly drawing attention because they have become public nuisance.

  11. I think you should read what I write. Regardless of your ad hominem, the lexicon of the Korean language today is Sino-Korean. It doesn’t matter when, or through what route the Sinic vocabulary entered the language: it is there now. Even if much of the modern Sino-Korean vocabulary was borrowed from Sino-Japanese (themselves often calques from German) – something I had readily pointed out – their pronunciation was the original Sino-Korean pronunciation and wasn’t influenced by Japanese; Korean hasn’t borrowed any pure Japonic (訓読み) words.

    In any event, ‘Sinic/Sino’ etc doesn’t mean “Chinese” in the ethnic or modern political sense in which you seem to be interpreting it. It refers to the language, and is a label of convenience and established convention. Of course, modern politics and ethno-nationalist connotations make it not the best term.

  12. My point is that you are not a linguist. You apparently agree.(Neither is Chris Beckwith a linguist by the way)

    That is all I wanted to say but then I have free time and will add more.

    You are conflating various issues and terminologies here. “A language is A-B (Sino-Tibetan, Tibeto-Burmese, Indo-European, Finno-Ugric)” generally indicates genetic relationship (in the linguistic sense) and a proposed linguistic family. A large part of Korean lexicon is ultimately derived from Chinese but no one says Korean is Sino-Korean. There are Sino-Korean loan words.
    One may even say it is in the majority.

    You can invent a new terminology and just throw a temper tantrum like you do it here;this is your blog anyway. But just point out to any linguist who says the Korean language is Sino-Korean.

    Also the reason that Sino-Japanese-derived Korean words are “Sino-Korean” is that the Chinese characters are not phonetic alphabets. Japanese translated Western terminologies into Sino-Japanese because that looked more erudite. It is akin to English users prefering to coin new words using Latin.(they often comicaly fail) Koreans had easier time adopting them because the Chinese characters thus used are more easily accessible and made sense to Koreans.

    That is why it is called calque not just loan words. You don’t even know what calque is, do you?

  13. And the situation is not very different from Japaense. Their vocabulary is also largely Chinese-derived. Only a handful are direct loans and in those case they almost look like native words. The situation is the same in Korea.

    Things like Kimchi probably started as calques to begin with and it looks like a native word now. Even more so in the case of “지키다”. It is generally believed to have derived from 直히다 even though it may have been a native word made into a Sino-Korean hybrid word by overly China-loving confucist morons of Choson dynasty. I know several cases of such.

    In fact I expect the same for any other country that neighbors on a humongous linguistically unified population. The fact that Chinese script is not phonetic exacerbates the situation since as a written language Chinese has virtually no dialect and has always maintained a huge population compared to its neighbors.

    Andrew should also start claiming that Japanese is “Sino-Japanese”, not just that its vocabulary is Sino-Japanese in the majority but the language itself is as he claimed for Korean. He also should talk about Latin-English or even Latin-Germanic, or Greco-Latin etc. These often describe classes of words, some direct loans and some calques etc. but to say a language is so and so because its vocabulary is over 50 percent so and so is kind of new. Certanly never done by any linguist.

  14. Actually Greek loans into Latin are huge. I wonder Andrew ever talks about Greco-Latin.

    I find ,comical, his self-annointed role as a “sensible and learned outsider’ ready to knock some senses into narrow minded Korean ultra-nationalists and make us know “our proper humble place”.

    In this sense he resembles “Pak Noja”, a Russian who gained the Korean citizenship and who loves to do the same as Andrew does with no greater success. In fact he is the primary reason that many Koreans hate Russians. He did more harm to his ethnicity than the horde of AIDS carrying Russina prostitutes did.

  15. There is some confusion. I did not use “Sino-Korean” to mean a genetic language family that would imply common ancestry between Chinese (Sino-Tibetan) and Koreanic. I meant it primarily as a description of the lexicon. In the original blog post, I try to lay out the basic principles of how language families are determined. The actual “proving” of genetic relationships is through the comparative method which relies purely on lexical items, not structural features. So, as a stage of the process for determining what Korean is – when just looking at the lexicon – it is fair to ask, “why is Korean ‘Korean’ and not ‘Chinese’ given all these Chinese words?!” Then I give the answer, which is because of the direction of borrowings, and historical linguistics being concerned with the earliest recoverable layer of a language etc. I know you know all that, but other readers may not.

    Otherwise I mean “Sino-Korean” in terms of the lexicon being made up of both Koreanic and Sino vocabulary. There is a heavy enough influence of Sinic vocabulary that I think it is reasonable to regard it as characterizing the language, i.e. if we ask what’s the major difference between the modern Korean language today and what proto-Korean might have looked like, it would surely be that it has acquired a whole ton of Sinic vocabulary. In this (non-genetic) sense, I agree, it would be appropriate to talk about “Greco-Latin” or “Norman-English”. The original genetic affiliation of a language and its lexicon is not always the best or sole way to characterize languages.

    Calques represent borrowed concepts, not borrowed words. The words are created from within the language; until recently Korean did this solely with Sino-Korean vocabulary. In a sense, all modern “borrowed” Sino-Korean vocabulary, e.g. via Japan, are in fact Korean language calques because even though the characters are the same as the language from which they borrow the term, the pronunciation remains the original Sino-Korean pronunciation rather than modern Japanese or Mandarin. (This doesn’t apply to words where the Mandarin or Japanese pronunciation is used but that is a very recent development and restricted to proper names.) But I don’t see why the distinction between calque and loanword is important here; etymologically they are still ultimately Sinic in origin and in fact harder to dismiss as recent loans.

    • Distinction between calques and loans is important for historical perspective. Ironically they are equally unimportant only in the sense they are to be excluded from the consideration of linguistic affinity.

      Regular sound correspondences, shared innovations etc. are principal means of determining linguistic affinity and reconstructing the proto language. But they are not the only considerations.

      Grammar, while not considered as stable as core vocabulary, is an issue actually.

      Also extra linguistic information actually comes into consideration knowingly and unknowingly.
      I had had heated arguments over this issue with linguists like P Daniels , Mikael Thompson(then a graduate student) but they all agreed in the end that it matters to some degree.

      In other words historical linguistics not only involves methods internal to linguistics(we all agree that these are preferred, more reliable tools) but also historical facts etc. even genetics may have to be summoned when the available information is scarce.

      And I don’t think there is such a thing called Norman-English. There is something called Anglo-Norman and it is a dialect of French, not English.

  16. Your notion that ancestral Korean was originally spoken only by a tiny minority in the SouthEast region of Korea is flawed. Actually comical. No reputable linguist claims that. Even Beckwith(closest to your view) does not claim that. He claims that ancestral Korean had been widely spoken on the peninsula but it had to take refuge on the Southeast corner.

    Everyone agrees that there were many, if not majority, who spoke dialects of Old Korean outside the territory of Shilla even before the unification. What impetus, what cultural, political drives, anthropological and historical facts can be responsible for the spread of the language of that tiny minority? You have no answer other than unification which came much later than the spread of the language.

  17. To me this topic is more political than scientific. There can be scientific approach but that is not how it is done by most.

    Beckwith for instance claimed(in a conference) that Koguryo elites who spoke a para-Japonic treated the Korean speaking underclass as slaves. Hmmm? I mean, besides that it is offensive to Koreans, how did he come to know so much about the racial dynamics of Koguryo when virtually nothing is known about that state?

    I always dreamed about asking this question but have not had the chance to do so. I am sure his fantasy is childishly based on some fragmentary clues most interpret otherwise.

    In Kwangaeto’s stele there is a passage about Han-Ye. These are people that came under Koguryo’s control after the King conquered the middle part of the peninsula. In that passage they are also called “mae-in”, bought people. This is interpreted by scholars as “people he brought in” but Beckwith’s flight of fancy ran wild perhaps.

    Another possibility is “Sitting Eater”. These are a class of people who did not work and others in the conquered territories like Eastern Ye provided them with food and other necessities. Most interpret these people as the warrior upper class of Koguryo elites but Beckwith may have seen them as Japonic speakers. But then Eastern Ye is Ye of Ye-Maek so they could not have spoken Korean according to Beckwith.

    Someone really should ask this amateur linguist what he based his fancy on.

    Hanye is often thought of Han and Ye as they are thought to be the inhabitants of that region at the time. Or it could have been Ye people who were under the Han confederacy.
    Some think Han is not an ethnonym but a political entity.

  18. [Numbers responding to some of your separate points]
    1) I knew you would pounce on the question of grammar. Similar to lookalike vocabulary, it may be indicative but cannot provide any proof. Just as lookalike words may either be genetic cognates or loanwords, structural similarities may be genetic or areal. The difference is there is no effective method to determine this, and in the case of all other language families, they have been proven through the comparative method. (I know there are computational linguistic approaches, but they are not widely accepted as any form of proof).

    2) It is interesting, on the topic of Goguryeo’s language, when I have suggested extralinguistic reasoning, it has been criticized for not being linguistic!

    3) I know there is no such established term as “Norman-English”, but if there was it would not be the same thing as Anglo-Norman! I was suggesting it as analogous to my usage of the description for the modern Korean language as “Sino-Korean” (not implying mixed genetic affinity). I admit, there may have been some confusion caused in the context of the topic, but these are not linguistic terms so much as me just speaking English. I.e. “Sino” of “Sino-Korean” is just a descriptive qualifier, to express “the Korean language influenced by Chinese”. Again, with English, one major difference between pre- and post conquest English, is the massive influence of Norman French (another example!) on the lexicon, so therefore modern English could be characterized (and qualified) as “Norman” relative to pre-conquest Old English.

    4) I am beginning to change my views (or be open to doing so) on the question of the spread of Koreanic, although I had already said that Koreanic could well have been present across the peninsula before the Silla unification; but otherwise, it is the Silla expansion which is seen as the vehicle for the spread of Old Korean as a dynastic language. In this scenario, other languages or dialects may have survived for longer than is assumed (certainly in the north). There is, currently, still next to no evidence of Koreanic influence on continental languages, or toponyms etc, but WangKon936 has argued effectively on this already, and it may be due to lack of research.

    5) I understand your beef with Beckwith, and I do not agree with his statements.

  19. Pingback: The Celtic Roots of… Korean | Koreanology

  20. “… it has been quite impossible to have any conversation more sophisticated than, “I want to buy a fish” without using Sino-Korean vocabulary…”

    One can say the same thing regarding English and Latin.

    “Sino-Korean vocabulary was being used from the period of the Han Commanderies (108BCE), and may have been introduced even earlier.”

    Perhaps, but the vast majority of Sino words in modern Korean have been identified as coming from either the Tang, Song or Ming dynasties.

    A good way to close this discussion on the Sino word content of Korean is that pretty much no modern day language has survived too much from its native beginnings. Given the Latin content in English, there are more than a few linguists who believe modern day English should be creole/pidgin language from Middle English. One would probably find the same level of Sino word content in Japanese and a pretty big Sino content in Vietnamese too (~40%?). Even the dominant language in China itself isn’t what the Ming dynasty court spoke. Mandarin may very well have a lot of Tungustic pronunciation conventions to it, which reduced its number of tones from 9-ish to about five and made it completely unintelligible from late-Middle Chinese.

    The take away is that purity in any language is absurd and Korean is no more or no less dependent on a loan language for many of its words than any other language in the world.

  21. Pingback: Is Korean an Altaic language? – Hong Moon Cho

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s