Sources: Choe Namseon’s “Bulham-munhwa-ron” – The great lineage of Joseon sindo 神道

Below is a translation of another representative chapter from Choe Namseon’s Bulham-munhwa-ron. This chapter was not so easy to render into English and so the translation should be understood only as giving the basic impression of what was originally written.

In addition to what’s already noted in the previous post, text struck through denotes words in the Korean translation which do not fit comfortably into English syntax.

There are two words I haven’t yet been able to translate, myeonpa (面怕) and joyeon (助緣) – any suggestions are welcome.

The term minjok (民族) translates as ‘ethnic group’ or ‘people’ as in ‘the Korean people’; in this sense it corresponds to the Latin gens.

Chapter 10: The great lineage of Joseon sindo (神道 ‘way of the gods’ / ‘divine way’)

Taigăr (대갈) representing the sky and Taigam (대감) its personification (인격형), and Părk (ᄇᆞᆰ) representing god and its personification of Părkăn-ai (ᄇᆞᆰ은애) are all originally religious [concepts]. In fact, from ancient times an extremely clear doctrine (宗旨) based on these was established and a theocratic (제정일치) world appeared; this formed a single expansive cultural area (문화권). [From this] sinseondo (神仙道 ‘way of gods and xian‘/’divine way of xian‘) was a Chinese development [whilst] susindo (隨神道 ‘following the way of the gods’) was a Japanese branching, however, it seems to have been what belonged to Joseon that was at the centre of its distribution and maintained a comparatively [more] pure true-aspect (진면목).

In Joseon, with Părk as the original root, [the term] also became Părkăn, and changed to Pukun (부군) or was simply called Pur (불). For a long it became buried and dropped out of people’s (世人) attention (주의), however, if one carefully investigates, the teaching (가르침의 모습) and tradition (法脈) [become] comparatively clear; at times like a great river, at times like an underground spring, it threads (관통) its way through Joseon history and its permeation within society can clearly be observed both in textual sources and actuality.

In textual sources, the [most] directly expressed extent evidence is the first section (서문) of the Nallang-bi stele (鸞郞碑) [inscription by] Choi Chiwon (崔致遠) recorded in the Samguk-sagi (Book 4, King Jinheung 37th year [576CE]).

“The country has a mysterious way (道) called Pung-ryu (風流). The root which bestowed this teaching is contained in the Seon-sa (仙史 ‘History of Seon [mountain sage/immortals]’) and so it includes the Samgyo ‘Three Teachings’ (三敎 [Taoism, Buddhism and Confucionism]) and enlightens (교화) all living things as it comes into contact [with them]. Further, entering at home [there is] filial piety, going out [there is] loyalty to the country and this is the true meaning of Confucius’s teaching; progressing through life without doing anything and teaching without words, this seems to be the primary root purport of Laozi; [finally] not behaving in any evil manner and holding aloft good actions, this seems to be the enlightenment (교화 [in the educational sense]) of [Buddha] Shakyamuni.”

 {NB The syntax of the follow paragraph is particularly garbled so the following is only an approximation of the meaning.}

Thus [he] transmitted the teaching (가르침의 양상). However, aside from this one passage, there are no other written sources that pass on the religious nature (상태 lit. ‘state’) [of Părk]; to be sure, together with the facts of Wonhwa (源花) introduced there [in the same entry of the Samguk-sagi {or in the Sillaguk-gi}], [implicit reference of Părk as the Hwarang order 花郞] was recorded in the text of the Xinluoguoji (新羅國記 K. Sillaguk-gi ‘Record of Silla’) [by] Ling Hucheng (令狐澄 fl.860?) of Tang [China]; // looking [only] briefly [at the original Xinluoguoji description] it may have seemed [to compilers or readers of the Samguk-sagi entry] that [Părk/Hwarang] was [just] a normal social institution for cultivation (교화) and with its name as ‘Pung-ryu’ it [seemed just one particular] religious group; // [consequently] it would have been easy [for readers] to have neglected the point that it was likely the highest religious order (宗門) in the country.

{Alternative interpretation of the latter part of the above paragraph.}

// [for the original author of the Xinluoguoji ] observing [only] briefly [the circumstances of Silla] it may have seemed that [the Hwarang he described] was [just] a normal social institution for cultivation (교화) and with its name as ‘Pung-ryu’ [to have been just one particular] religious group; //

{According to a footnote of the Korean translation, the Sillaguk-gi was a first hand account of Silla compiled by Gu Yin 顧愔 who was part of an official embassy in 768. This in turn was quoted from by Ling Hucheng and this, apparently is all that survived although it doesn’t say in which of his writings.}

In any event, through ethnic universalism and national veneration, at first it was a solemn (장엄) and large ritual (의식 or ‘consciousness’), but in later times for various reasons the old meaning (古義) was entirely lost, and because traditionally it ended at the succession of the physical form (형체) it subsequently became like an annual event and the [original] sacred meaning (진의) was increasingly obscured.

However, this [reference to] ‘wonhwa’ also, [represents just one] social application and one [particular] circumstance (상태) of ceremony, not the entirety [of Părk]. Further, the phrase ‘pung-ryu’, too, is simply phonetic with no relation to the characters’ (문장) meaning. It was only much later that I came to this idea (이에 생각이 미쳤고), and only on account of this did the beginning and end [points] of this research link together.

As it [otherwise] becomes to complicated, I will simply state the results of [my] investigation. Părk was practiced on the [Korean] peninsula since ancient times and gradually assumed a national hue; in Silla, from its foundation it was transmitted by a class of ritual [specialists] called Pak (朴 Bak). The ceremony (제사) was called Părkăn (ᄇᆞᆰ은) and the priests (祭司) Paksu (박수); [those] made leaders were [termed] Geoseogan (居西干), Chacha’ung (次次雄), Isageum (尼師今) and Maripgan (麻立干); [there was] the religious order (교단) ‘wonhwa’ (hwarang, Părkăne) and the era Părknui (불구내 bulgunae ).

Because society was centered around ritual (제사), at first the priests were the rulers, but together with the development of society, politics and religion became separated and the belief systems of pung-ryu (풍류 pur) or na’eul (奈乙 nar) became the independent religion; the [subsequent] development of this religion becomes gradually [more] noteworthy. Concerning doctrine, sacred texts (聖典) such as Sinji (神誌), Seonsa (仙史), Bisa (秘詞) and Book of Jeong Gam (鄭鑑의書 {refers to Jeonggam-nok 鄭鑑錄 ‘Record of Jeong Gam’}) were compiled. Concerning practice, [both] secluded mountain practice as well as temporary mountain pilgrimages occurred, [both] had music as one aspect. The societal activities of the Wonhwa (separately the guk-seon 國仙; later there is the name hwarang ) become visible, giving strength to Silla’s national circumstances (국가정세).

Later, [Părkăn] flourished (융섭) alongside the introduction of Buddhism, [with which] it synthesized; Părkăn sacred rituals (聖儀) were practiced under the name of Palgwanhoe (Joseon pronunciation ‘Parkwanhoi’) [which was based on] similar sounding characters. But as Buddhism flourished (융성) it [began] gradually to dominate and the famous mountains of superior topography (승지) that had been the spiritual grounds of Părk all became lands of garam [sangharama] (伽藍) and nan’ya [araṇya] (蘭若) [temples], the guksin (國神 ‘national gods’) and their sasa (社祠) shrines barely managed to maintain their remaining life within the shadow of the character bul (佛) [of Buddhism].

However, the reason [it] was protected by the state and [the fact it was a] custom which had permeated folk traditions {or had itself been permeated by folk} meant that it could not be entirely obliterated (소멸) by foreign ideos (사상). Consequently the Palgwan (八關) rituals of the courts of [both] Taebong (泰封 aka Later Goguryeo) which continued from Silla, and Goryeo which succeeded Taebong, were consistently held on a grand scale; when the sinsa (神事 ‘divine matters’) were increasingly neglected because of this kind of Buddhism, it was such that on several occasions the state issued royal decrees (칙명) admonishing this and giving warnings.

Towards the end of Goryeo Confucianism arose and following the success of the Yi dynasty revolution, a policy was taken to suppress [both] sin (神 ‘gods’) and Buddhism for the sake of plotting (도모) political stability. As a result, leaving aside [the similar circumstances of] Buddhism, sindo (神道 ‘the way of the gods’) was [now like] ‘a once mighty bow down to its last arrow’ (强弩?) appearing clearly lonesome. Further, during the period of Taejo, sinseo (神書 ‘divine books’) were burnt bringing the loss of much literature on this subject [of Părk]. Only fragments which prophesied the fate of the Yi dynasty such as the Book of Jeong Gam (鄭鑑의書) which had been the most powerful, were secretly transmitted, [albeit] with later corruptions in the text.

However, during the Yi dynasty the Buddhist term palgwan [used] since early Goryeo, changed its makeup (얼굴 모습) to the Confucian term bukun (Pukun) [whilst] the old appearance (모습) of the sinsa shrines were preserved throughout [the country] by government offices (官府) and station inns (驛院). Concealed by the deep myeonpa (面怕), Pukun-harmöi (부군-할머이) fortunately continued the public/official (공적) belief [system] and in the form of Purki (呼旗 {hogi }) and Pukun-kut (府君굿 {bu’gun-gut }) the national Palgwanhoe has maintained the reverence of the people (민중적) until today.

Consequently, national instability and social discontent were treated as joyeon (助緣) and the phenomenon of belief (religious behaviour) arose connected to such [texts] as Book of Jeong Gam. [A picture of] the ideal world of ‘South Joseon’ (南朝鮮) was drawn, and all manner of big and small [events like] ripples [across] (波紋) were transmitted through history. Within this meaning, whilst in actuality having disappeared (망실), approaching the modern era the Way of Părk (ᄇᆞᆰ道) can be seen to have [undergone] a spiritual revival and has formed the core of [our] minjok‘s way of life with a vigour it previously had lacked.

For example, [amongst] Donghak (東學; later [named] Cheondo-gyo and Sicheon-gyo), Heumchi-gyo (吘哆敎 우치교; later Tae’eul-gyo 太乙敎), Bocheon-gyo (普天敎) and other similar religious groups that have appeared with various names, there is not one that is not based on this [Way of Părk]. The reason that such [new religions] as these have been easily established and that they (오느 것이나) have developed to a considerable degree is not due to the personality of the founder (敎祖) or the profundity of their [particular] doctrines, but [because] they have caused a response in the Joseon minjok’s single traditional spirit/soul (정신) that lay submerged in the people’s (민중) hearts, transmitted from ancient times. In truth, the ‘Way of Părk’ never died, it is living in the present and is the reality [of the] currently active generation (일대 현실). [Just] the people (민중) are not so conscious [of it in] themselves.

Source for the translation:
Choe Namseon 최남선, translated by Jeon Seonggon 전성공. 2013. 불함문화론ㆍ살만교차기 (최남선 한국학 총서8). Seoul: Kyung-in Publishing 景仁文化社.

See also a translation of the concluding chapter.


The Celtic Roots of… Korean

Not meant literally, of course. This post is on the topic of substrate language influence and the search for it. The title and initial stimulus has come from a collection of edited papers, The Celtic Roots of English (2002), recommended to me by Janne Saarikivi who himself is specialized on Finno-Ugrian substrate studies. In the case of that work, too, the title is somewhat misleading in my view, because plant or tree ‘roots’ are an inaccurate metaphor for the non-genetic nature of substrate influence which might be better understood as the earth in which a tree – or language – is rooted. “Celtic (word) roots in English” would be more accurate but is less evocative as a title.

Celtic Roots of Englishc

How to explain the differences between related languages

The notion of genetic affiliation (language families) explains why two or more languages are similar in many regards but not why those same languages are at once so different to one another that they should be classified as distinct languages. The same issue applies to dialects within a language.

Language change

The conventional explanation is that languages naturally change over time as they are passed from generation to generation such that given long enough, the sounds, and occasionally the structure of words (the morphology) will significantly diverge from their point of origin, the proto language. The purest conceptualization is that languages split and evolve in relative isolation resulting in dialects and eventually new languages (but recognized as being within the same family).

Some apparently spontaneous/organic “language change” certainly occurs for any number of reasons, but rarely – if ever – have historical languages evolved in perfect isolation. The other phenomena, then, which cause languages to change stem from “areal contact” with other languages.

In the discussion of language families, the concept of areal contact most often comes up as the explanation for words which appear similar – usually too similar – but are not genetic cognates; they are interpreted instead as loanwords “borrowed” from one language into another; often they are associated with the introduction of new cultural or technological items and so tend to constitute secondary rather than basic vocabulary. Borrowing is generally restricted to words, not grammar, and as they are usually words for “things” the majority tend to be nouns rather than verbs or any other parts of speech; for this reason, even when there is a very large number of borrowings, they do not have much impact on the structure of the language. Korean, like Japanese, is heavily saturated with Chinese “borrowings” (even when they are calques they are derived from Sino-Korean vocabulary), but remains recognizably Korean and otherwise distinct from the Chinese language, both in structure and phonology (sound system).


The other aspect of areal contact relates to the movement and spread of whole languages. Since the last ice age, and particularly in a region such as east Asia, when a language does spread or expand it will have been over territory previously inhabited by speakers of other languages. In this case, the incoming language will invariably acquire “substrate” influences of the earlier languages.

How profound the influences are depends very much on the nature of the groups involved including both relative population ratios and stages of cultural development resulting in differing “prestige” values of the languages, again, relative to one another. In cases of invasion and conquest, most often the conquerors will be outnumbered by the indigenous population; if the new overlords have a social impact but fail to fully impose their language, the indigenous language will likely receive cultural loanwords but not too much further. Even in a maximal example of this, such as the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, an enormous number of Norman-French loans resulted in the pronounced diglossia (double vocabulary) of English, but structurally and genetically the language remained broadly English and Germanic.

The alternative situation is if the incoming group, even when a relative minority, is able to gradually cause the indigenous population to adopt their language resulting in anywhere between bilingualism (at least short term) to a complete “language shift” by the indigenous population to the incoming language. Under this process, as the incoming language expands, it may be more fundamentally altered – on the level of syntax and morphology – by the “substrate” (the previous indigenous) language influence of its new speakers.

A key property of substrate influence in the theory of language contact is that it has the greater potential to cause structural changes without necessarily influencing vocabulary; in a very simple model this might be considered the result of the indigenous population “mis-learning” the prestige language of the newcomers who are likely to constitute a socially higher class which will not make any effort to learn the natives’ – possibly a defeated enemy’s – language.

Separately, on the lexical (vocabulary) level, substrate languages survive in trace as the residue of local words for which the incoming language had no substitute word of its own or immediate interest to name; these typically include local flora and fauna, geographical features and toponyms (place names).

Thus, although not the only cause of language change, substrates provide one of the more concrete and interesting sources of explanation for some of the differences between genetically related languages and what would seem to give any particular language, or dialect, some of its distinct vocabulary.

An archetypal example of substrate influence accompanying language shift is the spread of Germanic Anglo-Saxon languages over the Celtic speaking Romano-British; in short, some of the structural features of Old English which distinguish it from continental Germanic languages (e.g. being structurally more analytic) are found in Celtic, especially Welsh. The traditional 19th view is that the Celtic languages were obliterated in the regions which became English speaking as the Celtic population was subjugated and marginalized to the northern and western peripheries but both archaeological continuities and toponymic evidence fail to support the total replacement of the Romano-British; rather, it seems, the Anglo-Saxon migrations occurred over a longer period of time (the introduction of the language potentially beginning with Germanic Roman soldiers) and there was more of a synthesis of language and cultures (visible in swirly Anglo-Saxon art and style of poetry) than previously appreciated.

Turning to Korean..

What substrate influence(s) might there be in the Korean language and what evidence of pre-Koreanic languages might remain across the peninsula where only Korean is spoken today?

If we accept the premise that two or more of the kingdoms of the Three Kingdoms period were Koreanic speaking, how might their languages have differed to one another?

It must be a certain that Korean, like all languages spread over a wide previously inhabited area, has significant substrate influences. Because these languages are prehistoric and unattested, however, we don’t know what they are, so it is difficult to frame a trendy academic question like “How Celtic is English?”; instead we have to ask “How non-Korean(ic) is Korean?”

The example of Celtic and English is neat because we have two language families, or at least distinct branches (both being Indo-European) with surviving and historically attested examples (Celtic and Germanic) outside of the contact area in question (England). As a basic method, one can identify where Old English differs from continental Germanic languages and compare those features to the Celtic languages, both insular (Q Celtic) and continental (P Celtic); if there are similarities – particularly with the Celtic languages geographically closest (i.e. Welsh) – these might be considered candidates for substrate influence.

The difficulty with Korean is that there are no surviving attestations of other Koreanic languages or candidate substrate languages with which to compare. Japonic is the only other language we can be reasonably confident was spoken on the Korean peninsula but we do not know the timing of arrival (assuming also that it had continental origins) and exact nature of interaction between the speakers: are there areas where Japonic was a substrate to Koreanic, for example, or Koreanic a substrate to Japonic? Or were they both influenced by an older indigenous substrate language now lost?

In many regards, the latter of those speculations seems the more intriguing prospect. We know that typologically (structurally speaking) Koreanic and Japonic are a part of the broader Altaic Sprachbund, but K and J also share certain features between themselves, in a sense forming their own smaller Sprachbund. Some of these features might be caused by a shared substrate influence.

Turning to dialects..

Although there is no surviving Koreanic language outside of the peninsula, there is internal variation – dialects – within. Difference between the dialects may also provide evidence of substrate influences.

Whilst some, or the greater proportion of dialectal variation may be due to the more spontaneous processes of “language change” associated with geographic isolation, it seems unlikely to be pure coincidence that the known dialectal zones of modern Korean broadly map the positions of the ancient kingdoms: certainly the Jeolla (southwest ‘Honam’) – Gyeongsang (southeast ‘Yeongnam’) divide persists; and elsewhere, for example, east coast Gangwon-do correlates to either “Ye” or “Ye-Maek” territory, perhaps extending north to southern Okjeo; northeastern Hamgyeong-do may correlate to Okjeo; Jeju-do remains particularly distinct as an island, and of course there is Pyeongyang, the former capital of Goguryeo. These dialects may carry echoes both of greater Koreanic variation and, beyond that, non-Koreanic substrates.

Toponymy and local lexicon..

The other area to investigate, as mentioned, are place names and local dialect words. These will not tell much about structural substrate influence, but they rather have the potential to identify the prehistoric “lost” languages.

The basic method to determine non- (or distantly related) Koreanic words is: firstly, if their phonology (the basic sound system from which the word is built) does not match proto- (or as old as can be reconstructed) Koreanic phonology, and secondly if the words cannot be semantically analysed as Korean (i.e. if they don’t carry meaning found in other Korean words and/or do not posses any Koreanic etymology that could be internally reconstructed).

For this to be potentially informative, we ideally need a lot of toponyms and local words which can be mapped; only then is there a chance that through naming patterns the meaning of recurring word parts might be deduced and that they might even be associated with local archaeological sites. The distribution of words may indicate the spread of a substrate language and would be even more telling if they corresponded to the distribution pattern of surviving dialects or historical polities (though they equally may not).

What sources might be used?

To my (possibly inaccurate) knowledge, there is very little literature on Korean dialects in English language whilst most discussion of toponyms relates only to those found in the Samguk-sagi.

In Korean, there are various collections of oral literature, such as produced by the Academy of Korean Studies, compiled during the 1970~80s at a time before standard Seoul dialect had yet to become so utterly pervasive through improved infrastructure and television; if studied, these likely contain toponyms as well as examples of local syntax and word forms.

The first studies of Korean dialects were produced during the Japanese era; they include the 1936 Bang’eon-jip (方言集 Dialect Collection, published by 京城師範學校 [醇和]朝鮮語硏究部 Keijō-shihan-gakkō Chōsen-go Kenkyū-bu) and Ogura Sinpei’s (小倉進平 1882-44) lifetime work Chōsen-go Hōgen no Kenkyū (朝鮮語方言の研究 Research on Korean Dialects, 岩波書店 1944).

Again, from the 1970s onwards at least the SK dialects have been the subject of investigation by Korean linguists; between 1987-95 the Academy of Korean Studies published the 9 volume Han’guk-bang’eon-jaryo-jip (한국방언자료집 Collected Sources [on] Korean Dialects).

The premodern local gazettes and maps, as well as private writings of provincial literati may also be a source of toponyms although there is the obvious challenge that they are mostly authored in Chinese.

If it hasn’t been done thoroughly enough already, it is still not too late to collect local toponyms from the oldest speakers of rural communities.

As a conclusion, I would suggest that whilst the genetic discourse of language families is regularly exploited for purposes of ethnic nationalism, substratum discourse reminds us of shared accumulative heritage across ethnic distinctions and encourages us to look deeper.

References (what I’ve been reading related to this topic)

Filppula, Markku (ed.). 2002. The Celtic Roots of English. Joensuu: Joensuun Yliopistopaino.

Kroonen, Guus. “Non-Indo-European root nouns in Germanic: evidence in support of the Agricultural Substrate Hypothesis” in Grünthal (ed.). 2012. A Linguistic Map of Prehistoric Northern Europe. Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 266.

Saarikivi, Janne. 2006. Substrata Uralica: Studies on Finno-Ugrian Substrate in Northern Russian Dialects (PhD dissertation). Tartu University Press.

Tristram (ed.). 2000. The Celtic Englishes II. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter.

강정희 2005. 재주방언 형태 변화 연구 (Research on morphological changes in Jeju dialect). 서울: 도서출판역락(亦樂).

박성종 2008. 강원도 영동지역의 방언 (The dialect of Yeodong region of Gangwon-do province). 서울: 제이앤.

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.


Understanding the Enigma of Korean Culture

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Traditional culture is a mask fashioned by the present 
onto which features believed to represent the past are painted.  This article identifies and attempts to reconcile some of the key conflicts arising in the popular notion of “traditional Korean culture.” 

From early on, human culture has been wired into concepts of dualism: complementary phenomena where one half cannot exist or be described without reference to the other.  The root examples are life and death and the two genders.  In East Asian culture, dualism was early on made explicit through the Taoist notion of yin and yang.  By coincidence, Chinese cultural make-up now lends itself to a yin and yang interpretation reflecting a dynastic historiography alternating between ethnic Han and foreign periods of rule; in this case the dualism is given another layer of nuance by Barfield’s observation that nomadic steppe cultures tended to rise and fall in tandem with their agrarian Han neighbours forming their own bipolar yin and yang patterns of interaction.[1]  The foreign conquest dynasties of Manchuria relied on the ethnic Han bureaucracy whilst the territory of the expansionist Qing dynasty has come to define the modern concept of a once more Han controlled China and the scope of its historiography.

Dualist interpretations of foreign cultures are popular because they appear simplistic and through their own generalizing nature become self-fulfilling axioms.  Thus the notion of Japanese culture was equally summed up by Benedict in her enduring “Chrysanthemum and Sword” formula.  Such “greedy reductionism,” however, is regarded by today’s Orientalists as the epitome of Orientalist cliché.

In this brief and under-researched examination of what the current notion of Korean traditional culture encompasses, I unintentionally find myself describing another broad dualism though trying to introduce a formulaic label for Korea is not the motivation of my discourse.  The following observations I believe, help to make explicit an almost schizophrenic sense of unacknowledged divisions, or polarizations, inherent in the discourse of Korean cultural identity implied when and wherever the word “Korean” is used.  Designating language, sovereignty, ethnicity and plenty besides, the words “Korean” and “traditional Korean” are in constant use and, indeed, the discipline of Korean Studies would not exist without them.  This paper is not a comprehensive exposition but only a starting point to aid my own research.

With raced based nationalist historiography having become the mainstay of the two modern rival regimes, the homogeneity of the Korean people and their culture has become a self-professed and oft celebrated defining feature.  This trait of homogeneity is widely perceived and continues to be propagated amongst Koreans and those with an interest in Korea today. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as features considered to represent Koreanness – language, dynastic history, kimchi, ondol underfloor heating, traditional hanbok dress etc – have been emphasized over any other historical or cultural details which might otherwise detract from the brand image of traditional Korea.

The desire to create a nationalist cultural identity is nothing unusual and arguably quite necessary given thirty-six years under Japanese colonization (1910-45) which in its final decade included the infamous Naisen Ittai program of cultural assimilation aiming to eradicate any separate notion of Korean identity, including even the language itself.

In the West, the homogeneity of the Korean people has gone largely unquestioned as the notion undoubtedly merged with lingering stereotypes of neatly classifiable oriental cultures.  As the Korean peninsula was arbitrarily divided into opposing halves in August 1945 and the still today unresolved internal confrontation ensued, it became in the interests of both regimes to claim a culture and clearly definable Koreanness in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of their citizenry as well as, for the South, in the allied West’s imagination.  While North Korea made its own consequent beeline from internationalist Communism to Stalinist inspired ethnic nationalism, a similarly crude cultural nationalism quickly took shape in the South from which a more nuanced view of Korean identity, although now emerged, has yet to be fully untangled.

Tracing further back, Korea’s avoidance of historical conquest and the celebrated tradition of popular resistance to invasions are important factors giving credence to modern claims of homogeneity.  During the premodern historical era, the Korean peninsula was invaded several times and made subject to long term occupation on two separate occasions;[2] it was subjugated both by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and later the Jurchen Qing but crucially has never experienced any permanent conquest or associated wholesale inward migration comparable, for example, to the 1066 Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.[3]

Korean homogeneity is therefore not entirely a myth and its discourse remains valid to some degree.  However this characteristic has been overemphasized or at best, left unchallenged leading to continued presumptions about cultural, ethnic and linguistic insularity.  Often overlooked both in the past and present, Korean culture and society has in fact played host to a series of internal divisions which are characterized by a tendency towards extreme polarization.  It is consequently only when these often opposing phenomena are treated as constituent parts of a greater whole that a more accurate description of Korea and what is popularly identified as “Korean” can be achieved.

In the broadest case of traditional Korean culture itself, polarization has occurred between popular notions of “indigenous folk” and “Classical Chinese learning.”[4]  The chief characteristic of Korean folk culture is its strong association with Korean shamanism, musok, alongside oral and music traditions embodied in folk song and performance arts.  Perhaps unexpected for a country with such a propensity for education exhibited in both the premodern Neo-Confucian examination system and the high level of university entrance rates of South Koreans today, folk culture remains, or rather has reemerged as, a compellingly prominent feature of contemporary Korean identity.  By contrast, “Classical Chinese learning” refers to literacy in Chinese and is now chiefly associated with Neo-Confucianism which became the male preserve of the yangban literati elite from early on in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).  This cultural divide was not just between the educated, landowning elite and peasant farmers but included, for example, female patronage of musok all the way up to palace ladies and queens owing to their own blanket exclusion from participation in the Neo-Confucian ritual practice of ancestor worship.

If the contemporary popular notion of “traditional culture” is assumed to refer to the culture of the Korean peninsula as it had evolved by the latter centuries of the Joseon Dynasty, then Buddhism falls on the folk side of the divide as it similarly faced official discrimination from relatively early on in the long lived dynasty in spite of having originally been introduced to the peninsula, together with Confucianism, through writings in Classical Chinese and itself having served as the dominant religious ideology of the elite until the overthrow of the preceding Goryeo Dynasty (936-1392).

An inaccurate but popularly imagined model of Korean cultural history therefore assumes an indigenous, Old Korean speaking musok substratum culture upon which the Chinese language and Buddhism were first introduced before in turn being supplanted by Neo-Confucianism which relegated musok and Buddhism to the lower classes and women.  The extension of this assumption is that if the Neo-Confucian layer were peeled away from Korean culture, a more indigenous substratum of folk culture would be recoverable beneath.  This was something actively attempted during the left-wing Minjung people’s movement which, coming to prominence in South Korea during the 1980s, sought to reinvigorate and, where necessary reconstruct traditional folk culture with the emphasis firmly on ideals of indigenous folk arts and musok actively downplaying the earlier cultural heritage of Chinese learning.

A key aspect influencing popular perceptions of the “folk versus Classical Chinese learning” divide is found in what can be termed the “Joseon Dynasty effect” created by the impressive longevity of a dynastic period throughout which the idiosyncrasies of Neo-Confucianism dominated the ruling stratum and those who aspired to it.  This half millennium persistence of strictly exclusionary Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, itself a contemporary neo-traditionalist movement,[5] strongly contributed to, if not created, the antagonisms between musok and Chinese language erudition.

Meanwhile in contemporary Korea a potent symbol of the “indigenous folk culture versus Classical Chinese learning” divide is the relationship between the use of the vernacular hangeul alphabet and hanja Chinese characters.  Hangeul, from the outset of its historic promulgation in the mid-fifteenth century, was very much conceived of as a writing system for the common people.  Infamously rejected by court officials, it was until the modern era chiefly used by educated women and poets for composing Sino-Korean sijo poems, personal letters and translating popular works from Classical Chinese; wider spread official usage and explicit association with Korean nationalist sentiment did not begin in any earnest sense until the late nineteenth century.  Throughout the same period Classical Chinese rendered in hanja continued to maintain a firm monopoly as the official written language of the Joseon court, Neo-Confucian yangban intelligentsia and Buddhist monks.[6]  In both Korean states today, hanja is consequently perceived as an elitist script and viewed as a borrowed item of foreign “Chinese” origin.

However, since the introduction of hangeul, and until recently when hanja was systematically phased out by both the North and South regimes, the modern Sino-Korean language was written naturally enough with an appropriate combination of hangeul and hanja.  This had the effect of making visible pure Korean vocabulary and distinguishing it from Sino-Korean words in the vernacular Korean language.  In South Korea today, those with a neo-traditionalist interest in reviving indigenous Korean culture and who attempt to reduce the volume of loanwords (both modern English and ancient Sino-Korean) in their usage of the modern Korean language naturally profess allegiance to hangeul.[7]

The pure Korean term for “pure Korean language” is uri mal, literally meaning “our speech” and in its strongest connotation, for which it is regularly employed, it distinguishes pure Korean from Sino-Korean vocabulary.[8]  The uri mal movement is thus associated with hangeul nationalism and treats hanja vocabulary as an occupying foreign entity where the continued study and usage of hanja is essentially only tolerated as a necessary evil in acknowledgement that so much of the peninsula’s historical heritage was, up until the end of the nineteenth century, recorded in Classical Chinese.

Otherwise the movement for the exclusive use of hangeul in the modern Korean language, that is Sino-Korean, has been highly successful,[9] though writing Sino-Korean exclusively in hangeul has subsequently had the converse effect of renaturalizing hanja loanwords which continue to account for a significant portion of daily vocabulary and this has further reinforced popular perceptions of homogeneity.

In a more nuanced contrast to immediate nationalism, the uri mal movement is simultaneously one aspect of what might be termed the “Altaic Theory effect” which sees some Koreans actively seeking cultural and linguistic connections with other ethnic groups in Northeast Asia based on the premise of a shared northeast Asian shamanic heritage.  Musok is thus associated with Siberian shamanism whilst Old Korean, the ancestor of uri mal, is treated as an “Altaic language,” albeit based on etymologies now widely regarded by comparative linguists to be false reconstructions.  Even if not linguistically correct, the Altaic Theory remains compelling because it supports the quest for an influential Korean regional identity outside of the Chinese cultural sphere.  The Altaic Theory effect can thus be understood in large part as a reaction to the Joseon Dynasty effect: it is anti-Sinocentric and through its active omitting or downplaying of Chinese learning, presents itself as a solidarity movement against Asian imperialism.  By locating Korean culture in the wider nexus of Northeast Asia, it also attempts to liberate its identification from the straightjacket of East Asia in which the peninsula is still widely treated as a passive conduit for Chinese learning to have reached Japan.[10]

Hangeul and hanja are thus representative extremities of the contemporary “indigenous folk versus Classical Chinese learning” divide, however it would be incorrect to believe that beneath the cultural layer of imported Classical Chinese lies a recoverable substratum of “pure” indigenous Korean folk culture because the introduction of Classical Chinese to the peninsula significantly predates the emergence of any pan-peninsula culture identifiable as specifically Korean.

On the premise that an indigenous Old Korean was the dynastic and likely dominant language of Silla during the Three Kingdoms period, it would not have begun to spread widely across the peninsula until following the Silla conquests over Baekje (660) and Goguryeo (668).  Classical Chinese however was introduced to Silla at the very latest with the official adoption of Buddhism in 527 but undoubtedly earlier given hanja terms used to designate native institutions such as the youthful order of hwarang (花郞) knights, the hwabaek (和白) council and golpum (骨品) hereditary status system, as well as names and titles.[11]  In the case of hwabaek and other recorded Old Korean, or Silla, words where the characters have been employed for their phonetic value, rather than their meaning in Chinese, there still had to be sufficient knowledge of Chinese in order to utilize their sound value and choose characters with attractive meanings.[12]  It is most likely therefore that the vernacular language of Silla was already Sino-Korean before its expansion in the late seventh century.

However, the hypothesis that Old Korean was only spoken in the homeland region of Silla and not the much vaster territory of the two modern Korean states, is not widely promoted or accepted amongst Koreans today because it undermines said claims of homogeneity.  In particular the implication that the dominant language of Goguryeo was genetically something other than Koreanic, possibly Tungusic (para-Jurchenic) or para-Japonic,[13] would be particularly grave for North Korean ethnic nationalism as well as South Korean irredentists who make at least cultural claims on Goguryeo’s former continental territory in southern Manchuria.[14]

The preferred assumption is that variants of Old Korean were spoken in all of the Three Kingdoms’ territories from time immemorial.  However, whilst it is possible that Old Korean was widespread on the peninsula as a relatively indigenous language prior to the Silla expansion it almost certainly was not spoken in the ancestral territory of Goguryeo and would not have begun to spread there until following the kingdom’s demise.[15]

By contrast, hanja was fully established across the whole of the Three Kingdoms’ combined territory by the sixth century at the very latest, whilst in the territory of Goguryeo the population would have been familiar with hanja and associated Classical Chinese learning – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism – up to half a millennium before they were exposed to Old Korean which, by the time they were and as concluded above, would already itself have been Sino-Old Korean.[16]

Pure Koreanists or folk nationalists, might respond that the vast majority of the Three Kingdoms’ populations were in any event illiterate and Classical Chinese learning remained the preserve of the elite aristocracies: this would likely be correct but describes essentially the same circumstances as persisted all the way up until the modern era and so cannot prove that Classical Chinese learning was any less influential in more distant times than recent past.

Turning to historiography, the Old Joseon foundation myth of Dan’gun is comfortably interpreted as principally being of northeast Asian shamanic origin.[17]  In the established orthodox scheme Gi Ja later arrives from the Shang introducing Chinese learning, an event notably occurring before the establishment of the Chinese Han commanderies.  Both the Dan’gun myth, later historicized by the modern North and South regimes, together with the historical legend of Gi Ja are played out in the northern half of the peninsula and southern Manchurian mainland.

When Wi Man then arrives and usurps the kingdom, the ruling descendant of Gi Ja, Gi Jun, is forced south where he takes control of Mahan thus bringing Chinese learning to the southwest and by subsequent diffusion the wider area of the southern Three Han, the territory of which was later consolidated under Baekje and ultimately Silla.  This orthodox narrative created an unbroken lineage of Chinese learning which was actively celebrated throughout the Joseon dynasty providing the basis for its presumptions of Confucian moral superiority over the Manchu Qing.  At the same time, however, Dan’gun remained a recognized folk deity.[18]

The legend of Gi Ja has played a key role in allowing Koreans to accept Chinese learning as a near indigenous part of Korea’s formative heritage and not just an early foreign import received under the perceived duress of Chinese Han occupation.  By contrast, debate over the ethnic identity of Wi Man, recorded in the Siji as tying his hair in a topknot and wearing eastern barbarian dress, today provides material for an active “Altaic” interpretation, i.e. that he was a Murong Xianbei.[19]

What becomes evident in both linguistic and historiographic lines of enquiry, then, is how the “folk versus Classical Chinese learning” divide was existent from the most formative period of Korea’s cultural and historical origins.  To reach a point where an indigenous culture associated with only pure Old Korean and hypothesized primitive musok could be conjectured requires going back still centuries further, but in relation to any practical description of the modern Koreas’ traditional culture this would simply be too early and Chinese learning transmitted through hanja should be understood as being as indigenous to Korea’s traditional heritage as the illiterate “folk” element.

It should further be recognized that whilst, since at least the Three Kingdoms period, oral folk traditions, including songs and storytelling, may have been performed and enjoyed by those illiterate in Classical Chinese, the language employed would still have been Sino-Korean and stories told heavily influenced by Chinese learning.[20]  In this regard the solo operatic chantefable art of pansori can be considered as a representative example of “traditional Korean culture” and has indeed been designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property Number 5 by the South Korean government in 1964.[21]  Native to the Jeolla provinces in the southwest region of the peninsula and with its surviving repertoire first written down by the provincial yangban, Shin Jae-hyo (1812-84), pansori enjoyed its heyday from the late eighteenth through to nineteenth centuries.[22]

Given the enduring strength of the tradition and uniqueness of its vocal technique, Pansori remains relatively understudied in the West and underappreciated in South Korea in part because it so epitomizes the perceived “folk culture versus Chinese learning” divide and thus remains difficult to approach for those of either inclination.  To an anthropologist or ethnomusicologist the length of plays and large volume of Classical Chinese is intimidating whilst to scholars of premodern literature, pansori is equally difficult to study for a lack of familiarity with performance tradition and the limited availability of authentic texts.[23]

In spite of Shin Jae-hyo’s contribution which involved editing texts and coaching singers, pansori remained a genuinely oral tradition with variations of the plays being passed down through generations from master to pupil and as such has avoided being committed to paper until recent decades.  Pansori performers were drawn from the lower classes of hereditary mudang shamans and itinerant entertainers, and, though able to achieve recognition for their talents, were consequently denied status in the Neo-Confucian dictated social hierarchy which placed them at the bottom.  These facts taken together, pansori would appear to be firmly on the “folk” side of traditional Korean culture.[24]

The content of the pansori plays, however, is heavily influenced by Classical Chinese with a high volume of hanja and allusions to Chinese learning.  These are commonly explained as being the result of increased yangban patronage from the late eighteenth century onwards with pansori performers presumed to have begun including highbrow Classical Chinese references to satisfy the tastes of their audience when performing, for example, at the parties held to celebrate a yangban scholar’s success in the civil service examinations.  The implication of this, however, is that the pansori performers would have to have been sufficiently literate and knowledgeable in Classical Chinese in order to have made, or at least to have understood, the appropriate changes and embellishments: an idea which fails to tally with the hangeul nationalist ideal of shaman-descended, illiterate folk performers.  Yangban patronage may have influenced the selection of repertoire leading to an emphasis of Confucian themes within existing tales and songs but it would not have paid for a complete education in Classical Chinese literature and nor, notably, did it lead to any severe censorship of, for example, Buddhist references.

The sole explanation of Neo-Confucian yangban patronage is consequently unable to account for the depth of Classical Chinese learning inherent in pansori texts which were maintained almost exclusively as an oral tradition.  Even the Confucian themes of loyalty and filial piety present in the remaining five plays[25] are not explicitly Neo-Confucian, but rather are based around the more fundamental Three Bonds and Five Codes defining human relations inherent in original Confucian doctrine, and are fully integrated with equally blatant Buddhist and Taoist thematic devices.[26]

Pansori, as well as the substantial repertoire of preserved folk songs, are therefore better understood not as the direct results of an indigenous folk item having been altered and refined to suit the tastes of eighteenth century Neo-Confucian yangban but as the product of an already indigenous Sino-Korean heritage which the performers were equally in possession of in spite of their low social status.  It might be further postulated that pansori, although heavily embellished, was not so much adjusted to match the tastes of the yangban literati but that its inherent Sino-Koreanness appealed as much to some provincial yangban as it did to more common folk and consequently attracted their patronage.  After all, not all yangban were lofty Neo-Confucians and though the ideology they were encouraged to aspire to may have been exclusionary, Sino-Korean folk culture including the older Chinese transmitted traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, were not.

In conclusion, both claims of homogeneity as well as the polarization between the folk and Classical Chinese learning elements present in the modern Koreas’ traditional heritage can be explained as results of the Joseon Dynasty effect which through its longevity sustaining an exclusionist ideology and the invention of hangeul led to a distillation of a Sino-Korean culture long indigenous to the peninsula.  The perception of division is most evident in the polarization exhibited between hangeul and hanja.  Where hanja itself has historically been the medium for both Buddhism and subsequently Neo-Confucianism, hangeul today is similarly utilized at once as a vehicle for cultural nationalism as well as in the search for a pan-northeast Asian “Altaic” identity.

However, when examining concrete examples of what is commonly referred to as “traditional Korean culture,” such as pansori, it becomes evident that Korean heritage and identity has been from its most formative period a product of both folk and Classical Chinese learning.


Barfield, Thomas. 1989: Perilous Frontiers: Nomadic Empires in China. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Beckwith, Christopher. 2005: The Ethnolinguistic History of the Early Korean Peninsula Region: Japanese-Koguryŏic and other Languages in the Koguryŏ, Paekche, and Silla kingdoms. – Journal of Inner and East Asian Studies, volume 2-2: 34.

Deuchler, Martina. 1992: The Confucian Transformation of Korea: A Study of Society and Ideology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University.

Caprio, Mark. 2009: Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945.  Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Grayson, James. 2002: Korea – A Religious History: Revised edition. Abingdon: RoutledgeCurzon.

Hong, Wontack. 2010: East Asian History: A Tripolar Approach. Seoul: Kudara International.

Howard, Keith. 2006: Preserving Korean Music: Intangible Cultural Properties as Icons of Identity.  London, Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Hwang, Jurie. 2010: Ko indifferent to ‘Western yardstick.’ – The Korea Herald, 1 November 2010.

<; 1 September 2011.

Janhunen, Juha. 2003: Tracing the Bear Myth in Northeast Asia. – Acta Slavica Iaponica, 20: 1-24.

Sapporo: The Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University.

Online version at: <;

Janhunen, Juha. 2005: The Lost Languages of Koguryŏ. – Journal of Inner and East Asian Studies, volume 2-2: 84.

Kang, Jae-eun. 2006: The Land of Scholars: Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism. Translated by Suzanne Lee. Paramus, New Jersey: Homa & Sekey Books.

Pai, Hyung Il. 2000: Constructing “Korean” Origins: A Critical Review of Archaeology, Historiography, and Racial Myth in Korean State-Formation Theories.  Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Asia Center.

Park, Chan. 2003: Voices from the Straw Mat: Toward an Ethnography of Korean Story Singing. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Pentikäinen, Juha. 1999: Kalevala Mythology: Expanded Edition.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pihl, Marshall. 1994: The Korean Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Asia Center.

Song Gi-jung 송기중. 2004: 역사비교언어학과국어계통론 (Historical comparative linguistics and theories on the genealogy of the Korean language). Seoul: 집문당 (Jimmundang).

[1] Barfield 1989:9

[2] The Han Lelang Commandery (108BC-c.313) and the Mongol Yuan’s Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters (1280-1356).

[3] In cultural terms, the closest watershed event was the 1392 coup d’état led by Yi Seong-gye (1335-1408) which although ushering in the Joseon Dynasty, in fact confirmed the complete expulsion of foreign interference (both Mongol Yuan and Han Ming) and furthered the consolidation of power under the previous Goryeo landed elite who effectively utilized the ideology of Neo-Confucianism to dissolve the power of the Buddhist temples.

[4] “Traditional culture” as a vague but frequently used term, in official as well as colloquial contexts, can be considered to typically refer to the documented cultural milieu as it had evolved by the end of the 18th century before exposure to distinctly foreign notions such as Christianity or industrialization.  Origins of traditional cultural items are assumed to be at least several centuries old and will often be traceable to the Goryeo Dynasty (936-1392) or beyond.

[5] In Joseon Dynasty Korea the Neo-Confucian movement attempted to recreate what was imagined to be the ritual practice and lifestyle of ancient Han China.  See Deuchler 1992:107

[6] It was occasionally learnt by women such as the poet Heo Nanseolheon (1563-89).

[7] For example the former Buddhist monk, democracy activist and celebrated poet Go Un (b.1933) has declared, “King Se-jong is my god. I have no other gods but Se-jong. I am so thankful for Hangeul, and I will do anything to guard it…”   See Hwang 2010.

[8] Ironically there is no pure Korean word for “pure.”  It can only be implied by the “our” of “our language,” though for absolute clarity the hanja sun (純,순) must be incorporated to make sun uri mal (純 우리 말).

[9] Just as the nationalist association with Korea’s folk identity was born out of the independence movement and search for identity during the Japanese colonial era, it can be speculated that hanja has been purged from modern Korean not just for its Chinese origin but because Sino-Korean written with a combination of hanguel and hanja too closely resembles the appearance of modern Sino-Japanese which had been the language of occupation.  The claim that hanja is simply cumbersome to the written language would otherwise be countered by the consistently stellar literacy rates displayed in Japan where the usage of Chinese characters has evolved in a far more complicated fashion than when used in Korean.  There is nothing either to imply the South Korean education system has significantly moved away from the cumbersome method of rote learning that was inherited from the study of hanja and has in large part subsequently been transferred to English.

[10] Where hanja is felt to be a regressive, even oppressive, influence recalling Joseon’s suzerainty to China, hangeul has become an active and positive identifier of Korean cultural identity.  Its association with the Altaic Theory in turn provides a legitimizer for Koreans to project their recently gained economic and “soft power” influence over weaker “Altaic” countries such as Mongolia and the Central Asian states; though this represents a nascent and relatively benign form of economic imperialism, if scaled up, the justification of shared ethno-cultural roots for the choice of countries Korea acts upon would soon echo similar claims made by Japanese scholars to support the annexation of Korea.   See Caprio 2009:102, 121 and Pai 2000:39.

[11] See Song 2004:179.

[12] Song 2004:152.

[13] Suggested by Janhunen (2005) and Beckwith (2005) respectively.

[14] For discussion of North Korean scholars professing a single Three Kingdoms’ Korean language, see Song 2004:181, notes 7,8 and 9.

[15] Though at some point significantly earlier, Old Korean would originally have had to have entered the peninsula from the continental mainland.

[16] Early use of hanja in Goguryeo is evinced by inscriptions found in fourth century tombs and on the Gwanggaeto Stele (erected c.414).  At the latest, hanja would have been first introduced to the peninsula by the Han commandery of Lelang (established in the Daedong River basin 108BC) if not nearly a century earlier: either first by Gi Ja or with the arrival of refugees led by Wi Man, though this depends both on whether either historical legend is true and whether either of them were ethnic Han Chinese or not.

[17] Grayson 2002:241, Janhunen 2003:5 and Pai 2000:93.

[18] Pai 2000:116-9.

[19] Hong 2010:121.

[20] The raw literary talent of illiterate oral storytellers should not be underestimated: both the biwa hōshi tradition of blind storytellers in premodern Japan, as well as current day singers of the Tibetan Gesar epic attest to this.

[21] Howard 2006:xi-xii

[22] There is perhaps an argument that pansori should not be considered representative of Korean culture owing to its distinct regional association, but all traditions have to have some place of origin and it could equally be noted that the Kalevala tradition forming the bases of Finnish national identity was based on oral poems collected in the remote White Sea Karelia region outside of Finland proper. See Pentikäinen 1999:228.

[23] Pihl (1994) and Park (2003) are the two seminal English language treatments of pansori.  It should be noted pansori enjoys significantly higher recognition in France than other Western countries.

[24] Its continued association with the politically discriminated Jeolla provinces further secured its Minjung credentials following the May 1980 massacre of citizens by government troops which occurred in the South Jeolla capital of Gwangju.

[25] The five pansori plays still performed are Song of Chunhyang, Song of Simcheong, Song of Heungbo, Song of the Water Palace and Song of Red Cliff.  The Confucian themes presented in the first four plays respectively are a wife’s faithfulness, filial piety (notably of a daughter), behaviour of brothers and loyalty to one’s sovereign whilst the fifth play is an adaption of the historic Chinese episode Battle of Red Cliffs.

[26] A Confucian academy (not to be confused with a Confucius Institute) was recorded in the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) to have been first established in Goguryeo in 372, the same year as the official adoption of Buddhism; another was established under Unified Silla in 682: see Kang 2006:37 and 61.

Notes on the languages of the Three Kingdoms

The following notes are taken from Song Gi-jung’s Historical Comparative Linguistics and Theories on the Genealogy of the Korean Language (2004).  Song offers an insightful and critical summary into what is known and what opinions are held by Koreans regarding the languages of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla.  I’ve made these notes a mix of translation and general paraphrasing with very occasional supplementation.  They hopefully give a useful overview but should not be quoted from without referring to the original book!  (The numbers in brackets indicate the page of Song’s book where the equivalent information can be found.)

  • It may forever be impossible to accurately reconstruct the contemporary pronunciation of any vocabulary from the Three Kingdoms period because the phonetic reading (讀音) of hanja (Sino-Korean characters), in which all known sources are recorded, has differed throughout periods and regions. (174)
  • It is not unreasonable to surmise that written Chinese (漢文) and Chinese characters (漢字) would have been introduced alongside Chinese culture (漢文化) to the Three Kingdoms which suddenly rose up both within and adjacent to the territory occupied by the Han Commanderies. (175)
  • It is presumed, therefore that Sino-Korean vocabulary (한문어식 단어) already existed to a considerable degree at the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. (175)

Relying on the language sources currently known, it cannot be estimated to what degree the languages of the three countries differed, nor to what extent the language of each kingdom changed according to period.  Consequently, whilst it cannot be said whether the difference was one between that of language families or dialects, on the premise that the languages did at least differ to some degree, they can be distinguished as ‘Goguryeoic’ (고구려어), ‘Baekjeic’ (백제어) and ‘Sillaic’ (신라어).


  • Goguryeo is recorded as only ever having used the Sino-Korean term wang (王) ‘king’ to designate their ruler.  This is in contrast to both Silla in the south which early on used the terms geoseogan (居西干), chacha’ung (次次雄) and isageum (尼師今), and the peoples who neighbored to the north of Goguryeo such as the Xiongnu (匈奴) and Göktürks (突厥).  It is thought therefore that Chinese vocabulary was introduced to Goguryeo particularly early on. (177)
  • Official ranks and titles such as mangniji (幕離支), daeryeo (對廬) and toesal (褪薩); personal names such as Yeon Gaesomun (淵蓋蘇文), Ondal (溫達) and Eulpaso (乙巴素); and toponyms such as Dunul (杜訥), Maehol (買忽) and Buji (夫只) are examples of indigenous words which were rendered into hanja using the characters only for their phonetic value, regardless of their original meaning.  They are clearly built from Goguryeoic word roots but for most, neither the root, nor the exact meaning or pronunciation of the word can be conjectured.  Only in the few cases where old or alternate names have been recorded alongside using hanja for their meaning, can the meaning of these Goguryeoic words be deduced. (177)
  • Examples where this is possible are principally found in books (권) 35 and 37 of the geography section (지리지) of the Samguk Sagi.  An example from Book 35, is where a former Goguryeo place name was subsequently revised during the Unified Silla period: “Sujeong-gun (水城郡 ‘water fortress county’) was originally Goguryeo’s Maehol-gun (買忽郡); King Gyeongdeok revised the name.  It is now Su-ju (水州 ‘water province’).”[1]  In Book 37 there is the example, “Namcheon-hyeon (南川縣 ‘south river county’) is also known as Nammae (南買).”[2]
  • In total there are around 80 such Goguryeoic words for which there are also hanja “translations” of their meaning; of these there are around 20 which occur in more than one toponym and thus can be confirmed with greater certainty.[3]  They include the following:

gosa                           古斯                            jewel                            (玉)
geumhol                    今忽                            black                            (黑)
nae, no, noe              內-奴-惱                       land                             (壤 ‘땅’)
naemi                         內米                             pond                            (池)
dan, tan, don             旦-呑-頓                       valley                           (谷 ‘골짜기’)
dal                               達                                mountain, high            (山,高)
mae                             買                                water, river                  (水, 川)
sabok                          沙伏                            red                               (赤)
somun                         蘇文                            gold (metal?)              (金)
sur’i, doni                  述爾-道尼                     mountain peak            (峯 ‘봉우리’)
sik                               息                                earth                             (土)
eosa                            於斯                            horizontal(?)                (橫)
eo’eul                          於乙                            water spring                 (泉)
to                                 吐                               embankment, dyke       (堤 ‘뚝방’)
pa’ui, pa’ui, pahye    巴衣-波衣-波兮          rock                                (巖 ‘바위’)
pa                               波                                sea                                 (海)
hol                              忽                                fortress                          (城)

  • Some grammatical particles and endings can be deduced from mid 5th century stone inscriptions (石刻文) that record the construction of Pyeongyang-seong (平壤城).  They represent an early form of idu where certain characters are borrowed to represent grammatical features of the vernacular Goguryeoic, e.g. ‘-jung (-中)’ is used for the equivalent to the modern Koreanic dative particle -e (-에) and ‘-ji (-之)’ for the verb ending -da (-다).  An example sentence is:

丙戌十二月 漢城 下後卩 小兄文達 自此西北行涉之  (卩=部)

해석: 병술 12월 한성 하후부 소형 문잘 감독관(?)[이] 여기서부터 서북방(?)[공사를] 치르(?).[4]  (178)


  • Compared to Goguryeoic, the introduction of hanja to Baekje was significantly later, however there are far fewer confirmable Baekjeic words.
  • Although the Sino-Korean wang (王) is exclusively used in the Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa, in the Chinese Zhoushu (周書) earlier terms are recorded.
  • The first 22 listed Baekje rulers have names thought to be Baekjeic (as opposed to carrying a meaning in Chinese).  This is in contrast to Goguryeo where only the name of the 2nd king, Yuri (琉璃) , appears to be Goguryeoic.
  • Identifiable Baekjeic vocabulary is similarly found in the Geography chapters of the Samguk Sagi, Book 36.  In Baekjeic han (翰) means “big” (大) and is equivalent to Sillaic han (韓).  Han meaning “big” is attested still in 15th century Middle Korean. (179)  Other examples include:

sa                           沙              new                             (新, 현대국어 ‘새’)
buri                        夫里           field, plain                  (平野, ‘벌’; Sillaic beol (伐))
ji                             只              fortress                        (城)
o                            烏              alone, lonely (single child?)  (孤, ‘외’)
bi                            比              rain                              (雨)
sobi                       所比           red     (赤; Goguryeoic sabok (沙伏), sabi (沙非))
eum                       陰  fang, tusk, molar (牙, Middle Korean ‘엄’, modern ‘어금니’)
mulgeo                 勿居           clear                          (淸, 현대국어 ‘맑-‘)
maro                     馬老           dry                              (乾, ‘마르-‘)


  • There are many more sources available for Sillaic than Goguryeoic or Baekjeic.  They include inscriptions in which the grammar does not match Classical Chinese but rather Old Korean in the manner of the idu system; there are also the 14 hyangga songs recorded in the Samguk Yusa. (179)
  • From very early on in the Silla period, there are examples of hanja characters being used in names for their Chinese meaning, but at the same time the overall influence of Chinese remained weaker than in Goguryeoic or Baekjeic.  Examples of hanja being utilized for their meaning include the title of queens/consorts (王妃) as bu’in (夫人) e.g. in Alyeong-bu’in (閼英夫人) and Unje-bu’in (雲帝夫人); gong (公) used for princes, e.g. Ho-gong (瓠公) and Sobeol-gong (蘇伐公); wang (王) used for kings, e.g. Galmun-wang (葛文王) and Heoru-wang (許婁王); ju (主) used to designate commanders and lords e.g. gun-ju (郡主 “governor”), seong-ju (城主 “fortress commander; castle lord”), gun-ju (軍主 “chief; military governor”), jin-ju (鎭主 “garrison chief”). (179)
  • Until King Jijung (智證王) in the 6th century, the titles for and names of kings, together with official positions created during the reign of the 3rd monarch Isageum Yuri (r.24-57), were all non-Chinese, i.e. Sillaic.  Titles of the Silla king include geoseogan (居西干), chacha’ung (次次雄) , isageum (尼沙今) and maripgan (麻立干); names of kings includes Hyeokgeose (赫居世), Namhae (南解), Yuri (儒理), Talhae (脫解), Pasa (婆娑) and Jima (祗麻); official positions ibeolson (伊伐飡), icheokson (伊尺飡), pajinson (波珍飡) and ason (阿飡). (179-80)
  • In most cases, still, the meaning of identifiable Sillaic words cannot be deduced, only when Chinese translations are given beside the phonogram (character used for its phonetic value).  In total, there are more than 30 Sillaic words which can be reconstructed; in contrast to Goguryeoic or Baekjeic many of them can be compared with words found in 15th century Middle Korean and modern Korean.  In the 1st Book of the Samguk Sagi, it is recorded that, “The people of Jinhan (辰韓) call gourds (瓠) bak (朴).” (180)  Other examples include:

gawi         嘉俳         Han’gawi (Chuseok)   (秋夕, ‘한가위 < ᄀᆞᄇᆞㅣ’)
pajin          破珍           sea                            (海 ‘바다 < 바ᄅᆞᆯ’)
han            韓              big                              (大, 중세국어 ‘한’)
na              那              river                             (川, ‘내’)
bulgeo      弗炬           red, light                     (赤, 光明 ‘붉-’)
eul             乙              water well                    (井)
mul            勿              water                           (水 ‘물’)
alji             閼知           child                            (小兒 ‘아지’)
gil              吉              long                             (永 ‘길-’)
geochil       居柒        rough                           (萊, 荒, ‘거츨’)
icha, icheo   異次-異處   hate(?)                   (厭, 중세국어 ‘잋-’)
mil             密              push                            (推, ‘밀-’)

  • From the 14 recorded hyangga (鄕歌) songs it is possible to deduce grammatical particles:

subject (주격)                                 i, shi                            伊-是 (‘-이/가’)
genitive (속격)                                ui, ui                            矣-衣(‘-의’)
dative (처격)                             jung, yangjung, yajung   中-良中-也中(‘-에’)
accusative (대격)                             eul                              乙(‘-을/를’)
instrumental (조격)                          [r]yu                             留(‘-로’)
comitative (공동격)                          gwa                             果(‘-와/과’)
topic marker (주제지칭사)              eun                              隱(‘-은/는’)

The relationship between the languages of the Three Kingdoms

  • Those who profess that the languages of the Three Kingdoms were the same are at most able to suggest 30 words they believe are cognates, but all of them are problematic. (181)

For example North Korean scholar Kim Su-gyeong quotes a list from another North Korean consisting of 29 Three Kingdoms’s cognates.[5]  In contrast to this, South Korean scholar Kim Bang-han claims there are no cognates for all three kingdoms and lists only a small number of possible cognates between Goguryeo and Baekje.[6]  (Note 7, page 181.)

As an example, the first on the list of Kim Su-gyeong’s 29 cognates (given p45 of his book) may be assumed to be the one he and his colleagues were most confident about.  It comprises Goguryeoic su’eul (首乙) and mak-ri (莫離); Baekjeic moryang(go) (毛良(高)) and Sillaic suro/sureung (首露/首陵), marip/masu (麻立/麻袖) and mal(sang) (末(上).  He surmises their shared reading (공통적인 독음) was *mara/mari (마라/마리), and their meaning was meori (머리”head”).  In the Goguryeo and Silla cognates, the character su (首 “head”) is used for its meaning whilst all the remaining hanja are interpreted for their sound value, that is as phonograms.  The only point in common observable about these characters is that when read with Korean pronunciation, they all begin with an “m” and the second consonant is an “l/r” but this, simply, is not sufficient to confidently posit them as cognates.  (Note 8, p181).

In a separate list in Kim Su-gyeong’s book (p48-54) he suggests 17 Goguryeoic-Baekjeic cognates, 37 Goguryeoic-Sillaic cognates and just 10 Baekjeic-Silla cognates.  By contrast, Kim Bang-han gives only 2, 6 and none respectively.  (Note 9, p181).

  • Among existing sources there are no reliable examples of shared vocabulary; there are however examples of vocabulary from each of the Three Kingdoms to be found in Middle Korean (중세국어). (182) For example:

pawi, pawi, pahye    巴衣-波衣-巴兮       rock                     (巖 ‘바회/바위’)
hol                              忽                   administrative region   (城 ‘골/고을’)
sul’i, suni                   述爾-首泥     mountain peak              (峯  ‘수늙’ 嶺)
su                               首                   cow                               (牛 ‘쇼/소’)
gosa                           古斯              jewel, bead                   (玉, ‘구슬’)

sa                               沙                 new                             (新 ‘새’)
buri                             夫里             field, plain                    (‘平野, 벌’; 신라어 ‘伐’)
o                                 烏                 alone, lonely                (孤, ‘외’)
bi                                比                  rain                              (遇 ‘비’)
eum                             陰              fang, tusk, molar  (牙; 중세국어 ‘암’, 현대극어 ‘어금니’)
mulgeo                        勿居           clear                              (淸 ‘맑-’)
maro                            馬老           dry                                 (乾, ‘마르-’);

Sillaic – same as the above list.

  • There are three possible theories as to why this is so:
  1. The Three Kingdoms all had the same language which was thus inherited through Goguryeo to Joseon.  If this were the case, however, it needs to be explained why the individual languages share no vocabulary.
  2. The languages of the Three Kingdoms all came from a common ancestor; this recognizes a difference between the languages but fails to explain still the lack of shared vocabulary.
  3. Korean developed into a unified language subsequent to the Three Kingdoms period and was thus influenced by historical vocabulary absorbed as Silla expanded into the former territories of Baekje and Goguryeo, and further with the establishment of the Goryeo dynasty and the return of remnant population from Balhae: in the absence of convincing evidence of shared vocabulary during the Three Kingdoms period this appears to be the most appropriate explanation. (182)
  • Some scholars point to the fact that no mention of different languages is made in historical sources and that therefore the Three Kingdoms must have shared the same language; but this is not positive proof and in the histories of many other countries reference is not always give to the fact that foreign countries spoke foreign languages. (183)
  • Another observation made in support of a single Three Kingdoms’ Korean language is that the founders of Goryeo named their state after Goguryeo whilst being the successors to Silla.  Together with the grouping of the three kingdoms in the Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa, this implies they considered themselves to be the same minjok  (민족 “ethnic people”) and therefore must have had the same language: but this is still not strong positive evidence. (183)

Records in Chinese histories and the relationship between the Three Kingdoms’ languages

  • Opinions on the relationship between the Three Kingdoms’ languages have been chiefly based on the Chinese histories. (183)  There are four main theories:
  1. That the language of Goguryeo was Buyeoic (夫餘系) whilst the languages of Silla and Baekje were Koreanic (韓系).[7]  This theory was professed by South Korean scholar Lee Gi-mun (李基文) from the early 1960s and has remained influential.
  2. That a distinction can be made in the language of Goguryeo before and after its move south.  Before hand it was Tungusic and after it was the same as Silla and Baekje.  This theory was professed by Kim Bang-hang (金芳漢) similarly from the 1960s onwards.
  3. That the Three Kingdoms all spoke the same language differing only to the extent of dialects.  This is the North Korean stance as professed by Kim Su-gyeong.
  4. That the language of Goguryeo was originally Paleo-Asiatic but through contact with Tungus tribes it became Tungusic.  This is the hypothesis of Japanese scholar Kōno Rokurō (河野六郞).  In 1945 he described the languages of ancient Northeast Asia falling in two principle groups: Japonic (日本語系), consisting of Japanese and Sillaic (formerly the dialects of the Three Han); and Buyeoic, consisting of Goguryeoic (formed from the languages of Yemaek, Okjeo and Buyeo).  From this time on, Japanese scholars began to treat Goguryeoic as a branch of the Tungusic language family. (184)
  • The main Chinese sources upon which opinions are based are: Book (卷) 85 in the Dongyi-liezhuan (東夷列傳) section of the Hou Hanshu (後漢書); Book 30 in the Wuwan-xianbei-dongyi-zhuan (烏丸鮮卑東夷傳) in the Weishu (魏書) section of the Sanguozhi (三國志); Book 54 in the Zhuyi Donyi (諸夷 東夷) section of the Liangshu (梁書); Book 100 in the Liezhuan section of the Weishu (魏書); and Book 49 in the Yicheng-zhuan (異城傳) section of the Zhoushu (周書). (184)

From these there are thirteen key passages:[8]

  1. As a separate group (별종) of Buyeo, the language and customs (제반사) of Goguryeo were very similar to Buyeo.  <三國志>, <後漢書>
  2. The language of East Okjeo (東沃沮) was basically the same as Goguryeo, or just slightly different. <三國志>
  3. The language, food, housing and clothes of East Okjeo were similar to Goguryeo. <後漢書>
  4. The language and customs (법속) of Ye (濊) was basically similar to Goguryeo. <三國志>
  5. The people of Eumnu (挹婁) appear similar to Buyeo, but their language is different to Buyeo and Goguryeo.  It is the old country of Suksin-ssi (肅愼씨). <三國志>
  6. Eumnu later became Suksin (肅愼).  The people appear similar to Buyeo but their language is distinct.  <後漢書>
  7. Mulgilguk (勿吉國) is to the north of Goguryeo and was formerly Suksin.  Its language is uniquely different. <魏書>
  8. Jinhan (辰韓) is to the east of Mahan (馬韓).  According to what their elders have passed down through generations, to avoid labour duty under the Qin (秦), many people came to Han’guk (韓國).  Mahan shared its eastern borderlands.  There is a fortified fence (城柵) and their language is not the same as Mahan’s.  They call country (國) as na ‘那’[9], bow (弓) as ho ‘弧’, and robber/bandit (賊) as gu ‘寇’… So their language is similar to the people of Qin (秦). <三國志>, <後漢書>
  9. The Byeonjin (弁辰) live amongst the Jinhan (辰韓).  They have their own fortress (성곽).  Their clothes and housing are similar to Jinhan and their languages and customs resemble one another. <三國志>
  10. The Byeonjin (弁辰) live amongst the Jinhan (辰韓); their fortress and clothing are all the same.  There is a difference in their languages and customs. <後漢書>
  11. The ancestors of Baekje were Dong’i (東夷).  Today their language and clothing is roughly similar to Goguryeo. <梁書>
  12. The ancestors of Silla were originally of Jinhan (辰韓) stock.  Jinhan (辰韓) is also called Jinhan (秦韓 i.e. Qinhan in Chinese).  According to legends passed down, during the Qin (秦) people seeking to avoid corvèe duty came to Mahan and settled there; Mahan allowed them to live in its eastern border region.  Because they were people of Qin (秦) they called their territory Jinhan (秦韓).  Their language and words for things (사물) resembles those of the Chinese.  They call country (國) as na ‘那’, bow (弓) as ho ‘弧’, and robber/bandit (賊) as gu ‘寇’, which is different to Mahan…  Originally Jinhan was divided into six countries (나라), and even smaller as 12 statelets (나라); Silla was one amongst these…  The manners (拜禮), behaviour and lifestyle (행동거지) of Silla is the same type as Goguryeo.  They have no writing but carve on wood and use them as tokens (信表).  Their language can be interpreted by people from Baekje (언어는 백제 사람을 중간에 넣고서 통할 수 있다). <梁書>
  13. The ancestors of Baekje were made up of those from Mahan (마한의 속국) and separately those from Buyeo…  The surname of the king was Buyeo-ssi (夫餘氏)  and his title (호) was Eoraha (於羅瑕) whilst the Baekje people (백성) called him Geon’gilji (鞬吉支) which in Chinese both mean king (王).  The queen (왕비) was called Eoryuk (於陸) which in Chinese means queen (妃). <周書>

These thirteen points and scholarly opinion can be summarized as follows:

Points 1-4: Offer evidence that the languages of Buyeo, Goguryeo, Eastern Okjeo and Ye were the same.  These languages are typically referred to as “Buyeoic” (부여계 언어) but it is not known whether these languages were related to Koreanic (韓系) or the Tungusic family (Lee Gi-mun thinks the former, Kōno Rokurō the latter).

Points 5-7: Offer evidence that the languages of Suksin (肅愼), Eumnu (挹婁) and Mulgilguk (勿吉國) were the same and they are typically referred to as “Suksinic” (숙신계 언어).  Mulgil (Malgal) is a tribal name that was used significantly later than Suksin or Eumnu.  Suksinic languages are thought either to be Tungusic or Paleo-Asiatic, but either way not directly related to Koreanic.

Points 8-13: Deal with the countries that existed in the Three Han but they do not all agree with one another and are slightly confusing.

Points 8 and 12 (which was likely referenced on 8): State that the language of Jinhan was that of people who had migrated from the Qin dynasty and was different to Mahan.  Some scholars such as Lee Gi-mun believe the theory that 辰 was derived from 秦 was invented by the Chinese authors, whilst other scholars such as Kōno Rokurō have interpreted it as historical fact.  Either way, as long as it is understood as having been a language brought by migrants from Qin and not the indigenous language of the local population, it does not cause a problem to the debate on the relationship between the languages of the Three Kingdoms.

Point 9: States that the languages of Byeonjin and Jinhan were similar whilst Point 10 says they were different.  Some, such as Lee Gi-mun, believe this is a matter of interpretation of dialectical differences whilst others think that it must simply be a scribal error because the information for Point 10 from the Hou Hanshu (後漢書) was based on the Sanguozhi (三國志).  Point 9 is consequently taken as evidence by Kōno Rokurō and others that the people of Byeonjin and Jinhan were the same race (同族).

Point 11: Is the only record claiming the languages of Baekje and Goguryeo were the same.  Taken together with Point 13, it is conjectured to be referring to Goguryeoic and the language of the ruling class of Baekje.  Because the Liangshu (梁書) was compiled in the early 7th century, it is interpreted by some (An Byeong-hui and Kim Bang-han) to be referring to the language of Goguryeo after Goguryeo’s movement southward; whilst by others such as Kim Su-gyeong it is taken as evidence that the language of Baekje and Goguryeo were the same.

Point 12: That Sillaic could be understood through a Baekje interpreter is generally taken as evidence by scholars (represented by An Byeong-hui) that the two languages were similar whilst Point 13 has been noted (by Kōno Rokurō and subsequently Lee Gi-mun and An Byeong-hui) to infer that the language of the ruling class and those below was different.  Other scholars (Kim Bang-han and Kim Su-gyeong), however, have stressed that there is no evidence the language of the ruling Baekje class was Goguryeoic and they are unwilling to take these points as evidence that Baekjeic and Goguryeoic could have been different languages.


An Byeong-hui 安秉禧. 1987: ‘어학편’ (Linguistics) in 韓國學基礎資料選集古代篇 (A selection of basic sources materials for Korean Studies: ancient period), pages 1019-22.  Seoul: 韓國精神文化硏究員 (Academy of Korean Studies).

Kim Bang-han 金芳漢. 1983: 韓國語系統 (The Korean language family). Seoul: 民音社 (Mineumsa).

Kim Su-gyeong 김수경. 1989: 세나라시기 언어력사에 관한 남조선학계의 견해에 대한 비판적 고찰 (A critical examination into the opinions of South Korean academia concerning the linguistic history of the Three Kingdoms period).  Pyongyang: 평양출판사 (Pyeongyang chulpansa).

Kōno Rokurō (河野六郞). 1945: 朝鮮方言學試攷 (Experimental study on Korean dialects). Seoul: Tokyo Shosekirin (東都書籍林).

1993: 三国誌に記された東アジアの言語および民族に関する基礎的研究 (Basic research concerning the languages and peoples of East Asia recorded in the Sanguozhi ). 平成2-3-4年度 科學硏究費補助金 一般硏究(B) 硏究成果報告書, 1993)

Lee Gi-mun 李基文. 1981: 韓國語形成史 (Evolution of the Korean language). Seoul: Samseong Munhago (三星文化文庫 )

Ryu Ryeol 류렬. 1983: 세나라시기의 리두에 대한 연구 (Research on the ridu of the Three Kingdoms period). Pyongyang.

Song Gi-jung 송기중. 2004: 역사비교언어학과 국어계통론 (Historical comparative linguistics and theories on the genealogy of the Korean language). Seoul: 집문당 (Jimmundang).

[1]水城郡 本高句麗買忽郡 景德王改名 今水州.

[2] 南川縣 一云南買.

[3] Taken from Lee 1981:72

[4] Taken from An 1987:1019-22.

See also:

[5] Kim 1989:45-48 and Ryu 1983.

[6] Kim 1983: 114

[7] See Lee 1981

[8] My tenses are inaccurate here.

[9] These are only the modern Korean readings of the hanja.