A Brief History of Korean Language
The history of Korean language can be divided into roughly 4 stages: Ancient (1st millennium), Medieval (~19C), Early Modern (late 19C~early 20C) and Modern (after 1945). Medieval period can be divided into Early and Later Medieval again; Early Medieval ends and Later Medieval starts with the foundation of Joseon Dynasty in 1392 and the invention of Korean alphabet in 1444. The spoken vernacular began to be written, and eventually standardized written language emerged. Although there were some efforts to create a writing system for Korean using Chinese characters, but they were too complex and made little success.
'Ancient' period refers to the era of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Korean peninsula and southern Manchuria were divided by many tribal states in the beginning of the 1st millennium AD. Among these, Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye, and Goguryo formed a distinct linguistic group and Jinhan, Mahan, Byeonhan formed another. Among these, the three most important states- Goguryeo, Baekje(Mahan), Silla(Jinhan) are called the 'Three Kingdoms.'
Whether the Three Kingdoms of Korea spoke the same language or not is still a subject of controversy, since only a few hundred words are reconstructed at this point. However it is generally agreed that the peninsula spoke the same language by the time of Goryeo dynasty. Whether Goryeo was based on Goguryeo or Silla variety is another issue of controversy. Generally South Korean linguists consider Medieval Korean to be based on Sillan, and the North Korean linguists consider it to be Goguryeo-based.
Korean language was scribed in large quantity only after the creation of Hangeul in 1444, and it slowly gained its status as literary language ever since. The written vernacular belonged to the commons and women while the language of education, administration, and academics remained Chinese; Classical Chinese had similar status as Latin in Medieval Europe. Recorded Medieval Korean shows a lot of differences from the Modern Korean in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and phonetics: Medieval Korean had three extra consonants and one extra vowel. Nowadays people find it difficult to understand Medieval Korean unless they received special education: It can be compared as Chaucer to the Modern English.
A variety of Medieval Korean is still spoken in Jeju Island, where its language remained relatively unchanged from 15C Korean. Jeju dialect in its ‘purest’ form is mutually unintelligible with the mainland dialects, but it’s labeled as a ‘dialect’ by more political reasons than linguistic reasons; many linguists claim Jeju is a language on its own. However, the distinct features of Jeju is rapidly disappearing due to the public education and mass media; majority of people speak more or less ‘standardized’ form of Jeju.
As the Confucian Fundamentalist Joseon Dynasty declined and fell, the Chinese as the language of Confucian Classics lost its status as literary language rapidly, and written Korean gained its status as national symbol. In late 19C a new wave of literature called ‘New Novella’ was spread throughout the country, and some of them had educational or political motives. The demand for the standardization increased as Korean became a major literary language again, and the first “standard” Korean appeared in 1930s, despite the efforts of Japanese Colonial Government to sabotage it by confiscating materials or even arresting the researchers. The language of this period is 'understandable' to most people nowadays, but many will find it somewhat ‘different’ from modern language.
Modern Korean starts after the liberation and Korean War. Two 'standard' forms appeared as the country divided into half; "Standard Language" of South Korea and "Cultural Language" of North Korea. Both standard languages were primarily based on 1930s Korean Institute standardization, and they remained relatively unchanged. But the new influx of foreign loanwords from English (in South Korea) and Russian (in North Korea) and different idiomatic usages make clear distinction between 'Modern' and 'Early Modern' Korean.
In addition, 3 different streams of evolution of Korean language arose in 20th century: Korean as spoken in Diasporas in Japan, China and Central Asia. These groups had relatively little contact with the mainland Korea, and were influenced by the dominant language of their respective regions. Korean spoken in China is under heavy Chinese influence but it is still a living language in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of PRC, and it’s still mutually understandable to the Koreans in peninsula. Korean spoken in Japan went more changes in phonetics and vocabularies, and became almost unintelligible to the mainlanders due to the smaller number of speakers. Korean spoken in Central Asia underwent its own course of development as well, but it’s on the verge of extinction now.
Revised, spell-checked, and slightly updated to be submitted to the Articles page on Unilang.