Korean Language: Discover the History Beyond K-Pop and Kimchi

February 2, 2024
Korean Language: Discover the History Beyond K-Pop and Kimchi

Annyeonghaseyo (안녕하세요) from this peninsula of the East! With the rise of global music artists like BTS and award-winning movies like Parasite, it seems like the entire world has been swept by K-fever! What ties these two acclaimed acts is their use of their native tongue, Korean, proudly displayed as a hallmark of their culture and national identity.

But as with all languages, did you know that Korean has its own distinct dialects and varieties? Whether you’re a hardcore K-pop fan or a casual K-drama watcher, Korean is part of our best language to learn list, and we’re here to explain why. 

Origins of the Korean Language

The Korean language is thought to have existed since the Stone Age. However, with the lack of written records of the time, where and how the language started in the region is still a mystery.

From the 6th to the 14th century, the Korean peninsula was ruled by various kingdoms, both within the area and from forces outside of it, until eventually unifying into one nation. During this era, Chinese characters, called Hanja, were used as the main writing script, though it couldn’t precisely represent the sounds of the Korean language being used at that time.

It was only around the 15th century that Hangul (한글), formerly known as Hunminjeongeum (훈민정음), was created by King Sejong the Great during the Silla period. This marks a pivotal moment in the country’s language history, democratizing literacy and writing in Korea, and laying the foundations of the modern Korean language as we know and learn today.

Korean Speakers in The World

Globally, Korean is used by over 75 million people, with most of its speakers in its originating land, which is both North and South Korea. Both countries have it as their official language. Interestingly, it’s also an official language in the Yanbian region of China.

Outside of the peninsula, migration has allowed many major cities around the globe to have large Korean-speaking communities. The Hallyu wave, or Korean Wave, has further spiked interest in the language, with K-pop and Korean dramas enticing people worldwide to delve into learning or translating the language for overseas fans. 

South Korea Official Languages

With its rapid modernization and retained traditional values, South Korea has a linguistic landscape that's both uniform and diverse. Like most countries, there is a standard dialect that is used for education and business, but the country's rich history and geography have given rise to distinct regional dialects.

  • Pyojuneo (표준어)/Gyeonggi (경기)

  • Gangwon (강원)

  • Chungcheong (충청)

  • Jeolla (전라)

  • Gyeongsang (경상)

  • Jeju (제주)

Pyojuneo (표준어)/Gyeonggi (경기)

Pyojuneo, sometimes called Seoulmal (서울말) and Gyeonggido Pyojuneo (경기도 표준어), or Standard Korean, is based on the dialect of the Gyeonggi province. Gyeonggi province is also where the capital, Seoul, is located. This is the variety that’s learned in textbooks and school courses, as well as the dialect heard in media, and formal settings throughout South Korea.

As the standard, most dialects in the region are compared to Pyojuneo. 

Gangwon (강원)

Gangwon is a province northeast of Seoul, and goes all the way to the sea, bordering the southeast part of North Korea. As an area that’s not very densely populated and its close proximity to Seoul, the Gangwon dialect isn’t very distinct or popular compared to other dialects in South Korea, with just small differences in pronunciation.

However, since it’s also close to North Korea, the Gangwon dialect can sound similar to some North Korean dialects. Some differences include:

  • Pronouncing ss (ㅆ) as s (ㅅ). For example saying rice as sal (살) as opposed to ssal (쌀).

  • Changing the standard -ah (아) sound to -eo (어) at the end of sentences. 

  • Ending questions in na (나), no (노), go (고) or ga (가).

  • Ending sentences with (i)reyo instead of the most common iyeyo and yeyo.

Chungcheong (충청)

Chungcheong province is located in the West-Central parts of South Korea, unique in that it’s the only province that doesn’t have a coastline.

One of the hallmarks of this dialect is its slower speech rate and wide pitch, which is considered to be a gentle, soft, and modest sound for locals. As a result, native speakers of this dialect are often seen as friendly and laid-back compared to other locals. One notable difference is the change in ending vowels, such as  -o (ㅗ) to -u (ㅜ) and -yo (ㅛ) changes to -yu (ㅠ).

They also have a specific word, 뭐여 (mwoyeo), which can be used in almost any situation.

Jeolla (전라)

The Jeolla province is on South Korea's southwest side, also called Honam (호남), or “south of the lake”. It’s a district known for its more liberal outlook and its democratic movements throughout Korean history, giving an image of rebellion and aggressiveness. As a result, the dialect is considered to be fast-paced and smooth, assertive to first-time listeners, and rather sing-songy and draggy to other native Koreans from other areas.

Other distinct features include:

  • Using a unique verb ending ‘burida’ which adds emphasis to a sentence.

  • Adding the -ing (잉) sound when asking questions or making suggestions.

  • Its use of many exclamatory expressions.

  • The term geoshigi (거시기) when forgetting how to say something, similar to “that thing” in English.

Gyeongsang (경상)

Gyeongsang province is in the lower southeast part of South Korea, with three major cities: Busan, Ulsan, and Daegu. Two of these cities, Busan and Daegu, have such distinct dialects that these respective varieties have been named after these places. However, they still fall under the general Gyeongsang dialect and share similar characteristics.

As the land-based region that’s farthest from Seoul, it has pronounced differences compared to Standard Korean. It features a strong intonation and can sound harsh, aggressive, and impolite, even if people are just talking normally. This gives the impression that Gyeongsang dialect speakers are straightforward, as this variety also tends to shorten sentences and phrases.

The Gyeongsang dialect is also the only type that preserves tones, which changes the meaning of the word. As a result, male speakers are seen as traditionally masculine, while interestingly, female speakers have a “cute” or “adorable” impression.

Jeju (제주)

An island off the coast of South Korea, Jeju is known as a tourist spot for both locals and foreigners. Among all the South Korean dialects, the Jeju variety is perhaps the most distinct and unique compared to Standard Korean.

Because of its geographical separation, while following the Standard Korean grammar format, there are vocabulary terms that are not present in the Korean dictionary. These terms are mostly influenced by Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese languages.

It’s to the point that some mainland Koreans consider the Jejou dialect as a separate language altogether. However, communication in these parts is easy for native speakers, as Jeju locals learn Standard Korean alongside their local dialect.    

North Korea Official Languages

Similar to South Korea, North Korea has a standard dialect used for education, education and formal events. However, the country's diverse geography and historical regionalism have fostered the development of several distinct dialects, each with its unique characteristics. 

  • Munhwaŏ (문화어)

  • P'yŏngan (평안) 

  • Hamgyŏng (함경)

  • Hwanghae (황해)

Munhwaŏ (문화어)

Munhwaŏ (문화어) is the North Korean standard version of the Korean language. Munhwaŏ also uses Hangul for its script, called Joseongul (조선글). Due to its history with its southern neighbor, while still mutually intelligible, recent North Korean vocabulary is diverging more and more from the South Korean’s, due to different influences and political developments in their respective regions.

Instead of English, Munhwaŏ’s loanwords have been influenced by Russian and Chinese. However, due to its status as the “cultural language”, many borrowed words have been replaced by native Korean words. 

P'yŏngan (평안) 

The Pyeongan province can be found in the Northwestern area of North Korea. This is the dialect that’s said to be the basis of Munhwaŏ which is spoken in the North Korean capital Pyongyang and its surroundings.It stands out for its pronunciation and intonation patterns, which are different from Munhwaŏ.

However, some linguists propose that Munhwaŏ shares its roots with the Pyojuneo or Seoul dialect instead, which has been thought of as the foundation of standard Korean in both the North and the South.

Hamgyŏng (함경)

Hamgyŏng is a region in the northeastern part of North Korea, bordering China and Russia. The dialect here is spoken in several areas, including North and South Hamgyŏng, and Ryanggang Province.

Its defining feature is its pitch, which can be considered archaic by South Korean standards. It’s closely aligned with Middle Korean, the version of the language spoken in the 15th century, also the time when Hangul was invented. It’s also spoken in smaller communities outside North Korea, mainly in Northeast China and the former Soviet Union.

Hwanghae (황해)

The Hwanghae dialect is spoken in the regions surrounding the Yellow Sea, such as its namesake province, and various locations in South Korea, such as the Baekryeongdo, Yeonpyeongdo, and Daecheongdo islands. It’s spoken among former Korean War refugees living in cities such as Incheon.

It shares the many characteristics of both P'yŏngan and Gyeonggi dialects, sandwiched between the two provinces, with only minimal changes in vocabulary. 

Importance of Understanding the Korean Language

Korean is just one of the many languages in the vastness of the Asian continent, with its own uniqueness adding to the amazing varieties of cultures thriving and prospering in this vast land of opportunities. Understanding the Korean language is more than acquiring a new way to communicate; it's an immersive journey into a culture that has made significant impacts globally through its entertainment, technology, and culinary arts.

For enthusiasts of Korean dramas and K-pop, understanding the language opens up a deeper appreciation of traditions and beliefs that give us a better understanding and appreciation of the multi-dimensional world that we live in. For professionals, Korean proficiency can be a gateway to opportunities in South Korea's dynamic economy, which is a hub for innovation and technology.


The Korean language, with its rich history, cultural significance, and global influence, can be a fascinating subject of study. From the standard Pyojuneo and Munhwaŏ to the diverse dialects of the greater Korean Peninsula, each aspect of the language offers insights into the Korean way of life.

Whether motivated by cultural curiosity, professional aspirations, or the sheer joy of learning, diving into the Korean language can be a rewarding endeavor. So, discover the beauty, complexity, and warmth of Korea through its language with Tomedes, and we’ll help you kickstart your exciting language journey.

By Raphaella Funelas

Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.



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