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In ancient times, the Korean was written using Chinese characters.
Korean is now mainly written in hangeul, the Korean alphabet, with a very limited use of Hanja. South Korea still teaches 1800 Hanja characters in its schools, while the North abolished most use of hanja decades ago. (See below.)
Hangeul consists of six (6) vowels and fourteen (14) simple consonants, plus several diphthongs and double consonants. Each syllable is formed by combining one vowel or diphthong with one or two single or double consonants:
- See Wikipedia's article on Hangul for more details.
Modern Korean is written with spaces between most words, a feature not found in Chinese or Japanese. Korean punctuation marks are almost identical to Western ones. Traditionally, Korean was written in columns from top to bottom, right to left, but is now usually written in rows from left to right, top to bottom.
Current uses of hanja
- See Wikipedia's article on Hanja for more details.
Hanja are sometimes used to clarify meaning of homophones, either on their own or in parentheses after a hangeul spelling as a kind of gloss. Hanja are often also used as a form of shorthand in newspaper headlines, advertisements, and on signs.
In South Korea, hanja are used most frequently in academic literature, where they often appear without the equivalent hangeul spelling. Only those words with a specialized or ambiguous meaning are usually printed in hanja. In mass-circulation books and magazines, hanja are used rarely, and only to gloss words already spelled in hangeul when the meaning is ambiguous. Hanja are also often used in newspaper headlines as abbreviations or to eliminate the ambiguity typical of newspaper headlines in any language.
In North Korea, use of hanja has been eliminated from mass-circulation literature and from academic publications, since 1949. Hanja are still used for advertising or decorative purposes, though, and appear frequently in dictionaries and atlases.
In modern Korean dictionaries, all entry words of Sino-Korean origin are printed in hangeul and listed in hangeul order, with the Hanja given in parentheses immediately following the entry word to reduce ambiguity, and to serve as an abbreviated etymology.
Most Korean personal names are written in hanja. They consist of a family name, e.g. 姓 (성, Seong), followed by a given name. Many modern given are native Korean words, however, so they have no hanja equivalent and are written in hangeul, e.g. 하늘 (Haneul, “Heaven, Sky”). In official documents, names are recorded in both hangeul and hanja, if applicable.
Due to standardization efforts during Goryeo and Joseon eras, native Korean placenames were converted to hanja, and most names used today are Hanja-based. Subway and railway station signs give the station's name in hangeul, hanja, and English, both to assist visitors and to disambiguate the name.