I’ve been learning a little bit of Korean recently, just little bits and pieces when I’m not studying Chinese. Previously I did know that there was a lot of Chinese influence in Korean, particularly because of the spread of 漢字 as a writing system across East Asia. But it wasn’t until I actually started learning to read 한글 (hangeul, the Korean writing system) that I realised just how deep this influence goes.
It almost feels like you can see the Chinese origin in every new Korean word you learn. Obviously it’s likely that confirmation bias has a lot to do with it, but it does seem that a large proportion of words are like this, maybe even a majority. Just a few examples off the top of my head:
- 실내 (shil-nae) - 室内 (shìnèi)
- 연 (yeon) - 烟 (yān)
- 중국 (jung-gug) - 中国 (Zhōngguó)
- 일본 (Ilbon) - 日本 (Rìběn)
You can clearly see the relation to Chinese pronunciation in all of those words. I am a complete noob with Korean, so this point is probably laughably obvious to anyone with much experience in both languages. The thing that prompted it for me was a ‘no smoking’ sign at uni that was written in a few languages. I read the Korean and thought it sounded fantastically similar to the Chinese.
East Asian word borrowing
This reminds me a lot of the influence of French on English. Pretty much all high-register English words are very similar or identical to the French equivalent, just with a Anglicised twist. This also holds across a lot of other European languages, and I remember being told by a teacher early on in first year that Chinese in East Asia can sort of be compared to Latin in Europe.
This isn’t surprising considering the widespread use of 漢字 in the region, especially before Korea and Japan had their own consistent writing systems. 漢字 make their way into Korea very early (like 200A.D. kind of early), and not long after that you get the import of things like the Thousand Character Classic.
I’m guessing another reason the impact is so big on Korean is to do with fact that 한글 (hangeul) didn’t exist until 1443, and 漢字 were the main writing system for centuries before that (do correct me if this is wrong). Because of that arrangement, it must have been extremely easy for words to spread from Chinese into Korean.
Chinese → Japanese → Chinese
It also makes me think of the more recent influence of Japanese loanwords (often from English) into Chinese. There are loads of these, and they’re often easy to miss because the pronunciation in Chinese can be very different. One that occurred to me recently is 剑桥 (Jiànqiáo) - Cambridge. I often wondered why only half of this word made sense: it’s the hanzi for ‘sword’ and ‘bridge’.
There is another Chinese word for Cambridge which makes a lot more sense: 康橋. This has 康 (kāng) for the sound of ‘Cam’, plus 橋 for the meaning of ‘bridge’. But this word isn’t normally used in speech, and tends to just make most people think of the famous poem about the city.
So where did the more common word 剑桥 come from? I happened to be talking about this to a Japanese guy I know, and he pointed out that 劍 is pronounced ‘ken’ in Japanese (it’s the ken in kendo). Now in Japanese we’ve got a much more understandable 劍 for the sound and 橋 for the meaning. And it’s easy to see how this word would find its way into Chinese where it’s pronounced less intuitively.
UPDATE: John Pasden pointed out that 剑桥 is actually likely to have come from Cantonese, in which 剑 is pronounced gim3. In any case, it shows how 漢字 make it easy for loanwords to move between languages without being obvious.
Is this consistent?
I’m now wondering if there’s a consistent way in which Chinese loanwords end up being pronounced in Korean. For example, Mandarin ei usually ends up as Korean ae. This would seem plausible, as there seems to be a loose set of rules for how Chinese character radicals end up being pronounced. If so, is there a table of this Chinese → Korean conversion somewhere?
And finally, isn’t Korean writing gorgeous? It’s the main attraction of the language for me, if I’m honest. It’s not just the way it looks beautiful on the page, it’s also the way it’s intelligently designed. I like that it has the best of both worlds, with the spatial efficiency of blocked characters and the ease-of-use of an alphabet.