Middle Korean

Last updated
Middle Korean
Region Korea
Era11th–16th centuries
  • Middle Korean
Early forms
Idu, Hyangchal, Gugyeol, Hangul
Language codes
ISO 639-3 okm
Glottolog midd1372
Korean name
중세 한국어
Revised Romanization Jungse hangugeo
McCune–Reischauer Chungse han'gugŏ
North Korean name
중세 조선어
Revised Romanization Jungse joseoneo
McCune–Reischauer Chungse chosŏnŏ

Middle Korean is the period in the history of the Korean language succeeding Old Korean and yielding in 1600 to the Modern period. The boundary between the Old and Middle periods is traditionally identified with the establishment of Goryeo in 918, but some scholars have argued for the time of the Mongol invasions of Korea (mid-13th century). Middle Korean is often divided into Early and Late periods corresponding to Goryeo (until 1392) and Joseon respectively. It is difficult to extract linguistic information from texts of the Early period, which are written using adaptations of Chinese characters. The situation was transformed in 1446 by the introduction of the Hangul alphabet, so that Late Middle Korean provides the pivotal data for the history of Korean.



Until the late 19th century, most formal writing in Korea, including government documents, scholarship and much literature, was written in Classical Chinese. Before the 15th century, the little writing in Korean was done using cumbersome adaptations of Chinese characters such as idu and hyangchal . Thus Early Middle Korean, like Old Korean before it, is sparsely documented. [1] This situation changed dramatically with the introduction of the Hangul alphabet in 1446. [2]

Before the 1970s, the key sources for EMK were a few wordlists.

In 1973, close examination of a Buddhist sutra from the Goryeo period revealed faint interlinear annotations with simplified Chinese characters indicating how the Chinese text could be read as Korean. More examples of gugyeol ('oral embellishment') were discovered, particularly in the 1990s. [8] [9] Many of the gugyeol characters were abbreviated, and some of them are identical in form and value to symbols in the Japanese katakana syllabary, though the historical relationship between the two is not yet clear. [10] An even more subtle method of annotation known as gakpil (角筆 'stylus') was discovered in 2000, consisting of dots and lines made with a stylus. [11] Both forms of annotation contain little phonological information, but are valuable sources on grammatical markers. [12]

The introduction of the Hangul alphabet in 1446 revolutionized in the description of the language. [2] The Hunminjeongeum ('Correct sounds for the instruction of the people') and later texts describe the phonology and morphology of the language with great detail and precision. [13] Earlier forms of the language must be reconstructed by comparing fragmentary evidence with LMK descriptions. [2]

These works are not as informative regarding Korean syntax, as they tend to use a stilted style influenced by Classical Chinese. The best examples of colloquial Korean are the translations in foreign-language textbooks produced by the Joseon Bureau of Interpreters. [2]

Script and phonology

Hangul letters correspond closely to the phonemes of Late Middle Korean. The romanization most commonly used in linguistic writing on the history of Korean is the Yale romanization devised by Samuel Martin, which faithfully reflects the Hangul spelling. [14]

Late Middle Korean consonants [15]
Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m[m]n[n]ng[ŋ]
Stop and affricate plainp[p]t[t]c[tɕ]k[k]
aspirated ph[pʰ]th[tʰ]ch[tɕʰ]kh[kʰ]
tense pp[p͈]tt[t͈]cc[t͈ɕ]kk[k͈]
Fricative plains[s]h[h]
voiced W[β]z[z]G[ɣ]
Liquid l[l~ɾ]

The tensed stops pp, tt, cc and kk are distinct phonemes in modern Korean, but in LMK they were allophones of consonant clusters. [16] The tensed fricative hh only occurred in a single verb root, hhye- 'to pull', and has disappeared in Modern Korean. [17]

The voiced fricatives /β/, /z/ and /ɣ/ occurred only in limited environments, and are believed to have arisen from lenition of /p/, /s/ and /k/, respectively. [18] [19] They have disappeared in most modern dialects, but some dialects in the southeast and northeast retain /p/, /s/ and /k/ in these words. [20]

Late Middle Korean had a limited and skewed set of initial clusters: sp-, st-, sk-, pt-, pth-, ps-, pc-, pst- and psk-. [17] [21] It is believed that they resulted from syncope of vowels o or u during the Middle Korean period. For example, the Jilin leishi has *posol (菩薩) 'rice', which became LMK psól and modern ssal. [22] A similar process is responsible for many aspirated consonants. For example, the Jilin leishi has *huku- (黒根) 'big', which became LMK and modern khu. [21]

Late Middle Korean had seven vowels:

Late Middle Korean vowels [23]
Front Central Back
Close i[i]u[ɨ]wu[u]
Mid e[ə]wo[o]
Open a[a]o[ʌ]

The precise phonetic values of these vowels are controversial. [23] Six of them are still distinguished in modern Korean, but only the Jeju language has a distinct reflex of o. [23] In other varieties it has merged with a in the first syllable of a word and u elsewhere. [24]

LMK had rigid vowel harmony, described in the Hunminjeongeum by dividing the vowels into three groups: [24] [25]

Yang and yin vowels could not occur in the same word, but could co-occur with the neutral vowel. [24] [26] The phonetic dimension underlying vowel harmony is also disputed. Lee Ki-Moon suggested that LMK vowel harmony was based on vowel height. [26] Some recent authors attribute it to advanced and retracted tongue root states. [27]

Loans from Middle Mongolian in the 13th century show several puzzling correspondences, in particular between Middle Mongolian ü and Korean u. [28] Based on these data and transcriptions in the Jilin leishi, Lee Ki-Moon argued for a Korean Vowel Shift between the 13th and 15th centuries, chain shifts involving five of these vowels: [29]

William Labov found that this proposed shift followed different principles to all the other chain shifts he surveyed. [30] Lee's interpretation of both the Mongolian and Jilin leishi materials has also been challenged by several authors. [31] [32]

LMK also had two glides, y[j] and w[w]: [33] [34]

Early Hangul texts distinguish three pitch contours on each syllable: low (unmarked), high (marked with one dot) and rising (marked with two dots). [35] The rising tone may have been longer in duration, and is believed to have arisen from a contraction of a pair of syllables with low and high tone. [36] LMK texts do not show clear distinctions after the first high or rising tone in a word, suggesting that the language had a pitch accent rather than a full tone system. [37]


Although some Chinese words had previously entered Korean, Middle Korean was the period of the massive and systematic influx of Sino-Korean vocabulary. [38] As a result, over half the modern Korean lexicon consists of Sino-Korean words, though they account for only about a tenth of basic vocabulary. [39]

Classical Chinese was the language of government and scholarship in Korea from the 7th century until the Gabo Reforms of the 1890s. [40] After King Gwangjong established the gwageo civil service examinations on the Chinese model in 958, familiarity with written Chinese and the Chinese classics spread through the ruling classes. [41]

Korean literati read Chinese texts using a standardized Korean pronunciation, originally based on Middle Chinese. They used Chinese rhyme dictionaries, which specified the pronunciations of Chinese characters relative to other characters, and could thus be used to systematically construct a Sino-Korean reading for any word encountered in a Chinese text. [42] This system became so entrenched that 15th-century efforts to reform it to more closely match the Chinese pronunciation of the time were abandoned. [43]

The prestige of Chinese was further enhanced by the adoption of Confucianism as the state ideology of Joseon, and Chinese literary forms flooded into the language at all levels of society. [44] Some of these denoted items of imported culture, but it was also common to introduce Sino-Korean words that directly competed with native vocabulary. [44] Many Korean words known from Middle Korean texts have since been lost in favour of their Sino-Korean counterparts, including the following.

Middle Korean words later displaced by Sino-Korean equivalents [45]
GlossNativeSino-KoreanMiddle Chinese
hundredwón 온〮póyk ᄇᆡᆨ〮 > paykpaek
thousandcúmun 즈〮믄chyen 쳔 > chentshen
river, lakekolom ᄀᆞᄅᆞᆷkang 가ᇰkaeng
castlecassyeng 셔ᇰ > sengdzyeng
parentsezí 어ᅀᅵ〮pwúmwo 부〮모bjuXmwuX 父母

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Korean language East Asian language

Korean is an East Asian language spoken by about 77 million people. It is the official and national language of both Koreas: North Korea and South Korea, with different standardized official forms used in each country. It is a recognised minority language in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and Changbai Korean Autonomous County of Jilin Province, China. It is also spoken in parts of Sakhalin, Russia and Central Asia.

The languages of East Asia belong to several distinct language families, with many common features attributed to interaction. In the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, Chinese varieties and languages of southeast Asia share many areal features, tending to be analytic languages with similar syllable and tone structure. In the 1st millennium AD, Chinese culture came to dominate East Asia. Classical Chinese was adopted by scholars in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. There was a massive influx of Chinese vocabulary into these and other neighboring languages. The Chinese script was also adapted to write Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese, though in the first two the use of Chinese characters is now restricted to university learning, linguistic or historical study, artistic or decorative works and newspapers.

Sino-Koreanvocabulary or Hanja-eo refers to Korean words of Chinese origin. Sino-Korean vocabulary includes words borrowed directly from Chinese, as well as new Korean words created from Chinese characters. About 60 percent of Korean words are of Chinese origin; however, the percentage of Sino-Korean words in modern usage is estimated to be lower.

Japonic languages Language family

Japonic or Japanese–Ryukyuan is a language family comprising Japanese, spoken in the main islands of Japan, and the Ryukyuan languages, spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. The family is universally accepted by linguists, and significant progress has been made in reconstructing the proto-language. The reconstruction implies a split between all dialects of Japanese and all Ryukyuan varieties, probably before the 7th century. The Hachijō language, spoken on the Izu Islands, is also included, but its position within the family is unclear.

Peninsular Japonic Proposed extinct branch of the Japonic language family

Peninsular Japonic languages are now-extinct Japonic languages that many linguists believe were formerly spoken on the central and southern parts of the Korean Peninsula. The evidence consists of placenames listed in ancient texts, principally the Samguk sagi.

Goguryeo language

The Goguryeo language, or Koguryoan, was the language of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Early Chinese histories state that it was similar to the languages of Buyeo, Okjeo and Ye, all of which are unattested.. Lee Ki-Moon grouped these as the Puyŏ languages.

Sino-Xenic or Sinoxenic pronunciations are regular systems for reading Chinese characters in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, originating in medieval times and the source of large-scale borrowings of Chinese words into the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages, none of which are genetically related to Chinese. The resulting Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese vocabularies now make up a large part of the lexicons of these languages. The pronunciation systems are used alongside modern varieties of Chinese in historical Chinese phonology, particularly the reconstruction of the sounds of Middle Chinese. Some other languages, such as Hmong–Mien and Kra–Dai languages, also contain large numbers of Chinese loanwords but without the systematic correspondences that characterize Sino-Xenic vocabularies.

Old Korean is the first historically documented stage of the Korean language, typified by the language of the Unified Silla period (668–935).

Korean mixed script

Korean mixed script, known in Korean as hanja honyong, Hanja-seokkeosseugi, 'Chinese character mixed usage,' or gukhanmun honyong, 'national Sino-Korean mixed usage,' is a form of writing the Korean language that uses a mixture of the Korean alphabet or hangul and hanja, the Korean name for Chinese characters. The distribution on how to write words usually follows that all native Korean words, including grammatical endings, particles and honorific markers are generally written in hangul and never in hanja. Sino-Korean vocabulary or hanja-eo, either words borrowed from Chinese or created from Sino-Korean roots, were generally always written in hanja although very rare or complex characters were often substituted with hangul. Although the Korean alphabet was introduced and taught to people beginning in 1446, most literature until the early twentieth century was written in literary Chinese known as hanmun.

The traditional periodization of Korean distinguishes:

Gaya language

Gaya, also rendered Kaya or Karak, is the presumed language of the Gaya confederacy in southern Korea. Only one word survives that is directly identified as being from the language of Gaya. Other evidence consists of place names, whose interpretation is uncertain.

Koreanic languages Language family

Koreanic is a compact language family consisting of Korean and the language of Jeju Island. The latter is often described as a dialect of Korean, but is distinct enough to be considered a separate language. A few scholars suggest that the Yukchin dialect of the far northeast should be similarly distinguished. Korean has been richly documented since the introduction of the Hangul alphabet in the 15th century. Earlier renditions of Korean using Chinese characters are much more difficult to interpret.

Puyŏ languages

Puyŏ or Koguryoic is a group of four languages of northern Korea and eastern Manchuria mentioned in ancient Chinese sources. The languages of Buyeo, Goguryeo, Dongye and Okjeo were said to be similar to one another but different from the language of the Yilou to the north . Other sources suggest that the ruling class of Baekje may have spoken a Puyŏ language.

Adoption of Chinese literary culture Borrowing of Chinese written language and culture by other East Asian states

Chinese writing, culture and institutions were imported as a whole by Vietnam, Korea, Japan and other neighbouring states over an extended period. Chinese Buddhism spread over East Asia between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD, followed by Confucianism as these countries developed strong central governments modelled on Chinese institutions. In Vietnam and Korea, and for a shorter time in Japan and the Ryukyus, scholar-officials were selected using examinations on the Confucian classics modelled on the Chinese civil service examinations. Shared familiarity with the Chinese classics and Confucian values provided a common framework for intellectuals and ruling elites across the region. All of this was based on the use of Literary Chinese, which became the medium of scholarship and government across the region. Although each of these countries developed vernacular writing systems and used them for popular literature, they continued to use Chinese for all formal writing until it was swept away by rising nationalism around the end of the 19th century.

Hangul Native alphabet of the Korean and Cia-Cia language

The Korean alphabet, known as Hangul (Hangeul) in South Korea and Chosŏn'gŭl in North Korea, is a writing system for the Korean language created by King Sejong the Great in 1443. The letters for the five basic consonants reflect the shape of the speech organs used to pronounce them, and they are systematically modified to indicate phonetic features; similarly, the vowel letters are systematically modified for related sounds, making Hangul a featural writing system.

Han languages

The Han languages were the languages of the Samhan of ancient southern Korea, the confederacies of Mahan, Byeonhan and Jinhan. They are mentioned in surveys of the peninsula in the 3rd century found in Chinese histories, which also contain lists of placenames. There is no consensus about the relationships between these languages and with the languages of later kingdoms.

Chapter 37 of the Samguk sagi contains a list of place names and their meanings, from part of central Korea captured by Silla from the former state of Goguryeo (Koguryŏ). Some of the vocabulary extracted from these names provides the principal evidence that Japonic languages were formerly spoken on the Korean peninsula. Other words resemble Korean or Tungusic words. Some scholars have ascribed the extracted vocabulary to an Old Koguryŏ language. Others, pointing out that the area concerned had been part of Goguryeo for less than 200 years, argue that these names represent the languages of earlier inhabitants of the area, and call them pseudo-Koguryŏ or Early Paekche (Baekje).

The Jilin leishi was a Chinese book about Korea written in 1103–1104 by Sūn Mù (孫穆), an officer of the Chinese Song dynasty embassy to Goryeo. The original work is lost, but fragments reproduced in later Chinese works provide vital information about Early Middle Korean.

The Yukjin dialect is a dialect of Korean or a Koreanic language spoken in the historic Yukjin region of northeastern Korea, south of the Tumen River. It is unusually conservative in terms of phonology and lexicon, preserving many Middle Korean forms. Some scholars classify it as a different language. Yukjin speakers currently live not only in the Tumen River homeland, now part of North Korea, but also in diaspora communities in Northeastern China and Central Asia that formed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The dialect is under pressure from Standard Seoul Korean, the language's prestige dialect, as well as local Chinese and Central Asian languages.


  1. Sohn (2012), p. 73.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 100.
  3. Yong & Peng (2008), pp. 374–375.
  4. Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 85–86.
  5. Sohn (2015), p. 440.
  6. Ogura (1926), p. 2.
  7. 1 2 Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 81.
  8. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 83.
  9. Nam (2012), pp. 46–48.
  10. Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 83–84.
  11. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 84.
  12. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 85.
  13. Sohn (2012), pp. 76–77.
  14. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 10.
  15. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 128.
  16. Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 128–129.
  17. 1 2 Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 130.
  18. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 64.
  19. Whitman (2015), p. 431.
  20. Lee & Ramsey (2000), pp. 320–321.
  21. 1 2 Cho & Whitman (2019), p. 20.
  22. Cho & Whitman (2019), pp. 19–20.
  23. 1 2 3 Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 156.
  24. 1 2 3 Sohn (2012), p. 81.
  25. Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 161–162.
  26. 1 2 Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 162.
  27. Sohn (2015), p. 457, n. 4.
  28. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 94.
  29. Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 94–95.
  30. Labov (1994), pp. 138–139.
  31. Whitman (2013), pp. 254–255.
  32. Whitman (2015), p. 429.
  33. Sohn (2012), pp. 81–82.
  34. Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 159–161.
  35. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 163.
  36. Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 163–165.
  37. Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 167–168.
  38. Sohn (2012), p. 118.
  39. Lee & Ramsey (2000), p. 136.
  40. Lee & Ramsey (2000), pp. 55–57.
  41. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 98.
  42. Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 76.
  43. Lee & Ramsey (2000), p. 56.
  44. 1 2 Lee & Ramsey (2011), p. 235.
  45. Sohn (2012), pp. 118–119.

Works cited

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