Korean VS Japanese - A Comparison Of Two Languages

avatarMille Larsen
9 mins read

The Japanese and Korean languages are two of the most widely spoken languages of East Asia. They're also getting increasingly hyped and popular in popular culture, which means that a lot of people want to learn to speak one of them.

Geographically they're spoken in regions close to one another, and they do also share some history. For one thing, both languages either used to or are still written with the "Chinese" Hanzi characters (called Kanji in Japanese and Hanja in Korean).

The languages share some vocabulary and their grammar systems have a lot in common. This leads many to assume that the two languages are related.

This doesn't seem to be the case!

Throughout the centuries, linguists have suggested that "Japonic" and "Koreanic" languages all be part of a larger "Altaic" language which, surprisingly, also includes Turkic languages like Turkish as well as a few other Central-Asian language families.

This language family has never been widely accepted among linguists, however, so, for the time being, Japanese and Korean aren't considered to be related at all!

But how do the two languages compare? In the following, I'm going to try and compare their writing systems, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, so you might get a feel for the differences between them.

Korean And Japanese Writing Systems

In terms of scripts and writing systems, the two languages are both very similar and very different. They're similar because they share similar evolutionary stories and went through the same progressions in terms of writing.

They're different because - well, the results of this evolution are very different.

Both languages used to be written with versions of the Chinese script. As most people know, the Chinese Hanzi isn't an alphabet with a set of phonetic letters, each representing a sound. Hanzi is a collection of thousands of characters, each representing a "morpheme", or in some instances a whole word in itself.

This writing system is perfect for the Chinese language. It's actually made for Chinese, which is why it makes sense, and the unique, extremely simple Chinese grammar is reflected in the way the characters work in the language. There's no need for a lot of flexibility for verb conjugations, noun declensions, and that kind of "inflection" because Mandarin Chinese simply don't work that way.

Korean and Japanese, on the other hand, are very different from Chinese grammatically!

Both languages do have complicated systems for verb conjugation and so on, which is why the Chinese script never worked out perfectly for any of the two languages.

That's why Japanese, in addition to the Chinese Hanzi characters (called Kaji in Japanese) have the Hiragana and Katakana scripts, and Korean has the Hangul script in addition to the Hanja (which is how the Chinese script is referred to in Korean).

Katakana and Hiragana In Japanese

The Japanese Katakana and Hiragana are phonetic scripts designed to add all the inflections, needed in Japanese, to the Kanji base-characters. Both of them have 46 letters, each representing a sound, and they're fairly consistent. They're also phonetically similar, meaning that they're, in principle, just two ways of writing the same letter.

Hiragana is the "standard" phonetic script in Japanese, whereas Katakana is used for foreign loan-words, but also for putting emphasis on a word, or simply, to make it look cool in writing (!).

You might ask why the Japanese couldn't just stick with one of them since they represent the same 46 sounds. It would make things a little less complicated. This is just how it is, however, and to really be able to read and write Japanese fluently, you need to master both Katakana and Hiragana (92 letters) in addition to Kanji.

Generally, Japanese is written with root-words in Kanji and inflections, loan-words, and various detailing in one of the phonetic scripts.

Korean Hangul

Korean used to be written in a very similar way to Japanese. The Chinese characters, called Hanja, were used for root-words, whereas the Korean alphabet "Hangul" was used for all additions that the Chinese symbols couldn't represent.

Korean eventually got rid of the Hanja characters, however, and today they aren't in common use anymore, meaning that the Korean language is written almost entirely with the Hangul alphabet.

And where the Japanese have two phonetic scripts with a total of 92 symbols, in Korean you only need to learn around 40. (And the Korean script is also mostly phonetic).

As for Hanja? You can easily do without, except if you're into ancient literature.

Pronunciation In Korean And Japanese

When it comes to pronunciation, a Korean speaker would have a relatively easy time pronouncing Japanese (perhaps with the exception of the Korean "Z") whereas a Japanese speaker would find Korean a lot more challenging.

The reason is the Korean has a lot more sounds than Japanese.

Despite the Japanese writing system having a lot of individual letters, the language is mostly made up of 20 individual sounds in combination. 5 of these are vowels and 15 are consonants.

Korean, on the other hand, has 19 consonant sounds and 8 vowels, all of which have a long and a short form. That makes for a total of 27 sounds (or 35 if you count the long vowels).

In Japanese, Syllables are built up in such a way, that consonants rarely follow consonants, meaning that pronunciation is much easier than languages which allow for consonant clusters. (Try pronouncing the Polish word "Szczęście" if you're not sure what I mean.)

Korean has more of a tendency to group up consonants, but they're generally not too difficult to pronounce.

For many Westerners, Korean is equally more difficult to pronounce because many letters seem to have "somewhat" similar sounds. Being able to correctly distinguish between them is very important in order to be understood, however. In Japanese, you've got a much better chance of being understood, despite not pronouncing letters 100% correctly.

Grammar In Korean And Japanese

This is where it gets weird.

Korean and Japanese are as unrelated as... English and Chinese.

Yet they seem to have a lot in common grammar-wise.

The sentence structure of both languages is SOV (Subject-object-verb), meaning that "I walk to the baker's" would be "I to the baker's walk".

Both languages have relatively simple verb-conjugation, although Japanese has two tenses (past and non-past) whereas Korean has three. (Past, present, and future).

Both languages also have complicated "honorifics", which means that different words are used when referring to other people, depending on your relationship with them and their social status. Korean has more forms than Japanese, however.

There are, however, important differences in Korean and Japanese grammar, but for two unrelated languages, the above similarities are impressive.

One big difference is vowel harmony, which is a rare grammatical principle, important in Korean but mostly inexistent in Japanese. Languages that use vowel harmony have certain "classes" of vowels that go together, and others that don't, meaning that inflected words have to use specific affixes that correspond to the vowels of the root-word.

Interestingly, vowel-harmony also exists in the Turkic and Mongolic language family which is another argument for the existence of a common "Altaic" language family.

Vocabulary In Japanese And Korean Vocabulary

Apart from loan-words, Japanese and Korean are normally considered to not have any cognates or similar words. Some linguists disagree, however, and there are some 500 root-words which some researchers suggest to be related.

Other than those, the biggest lexical similarities between the two languages come from the Chinese loan-words that they both have acquired through the ages.

Around 60% of Korean words are said to be of Chinese origin, although the percentage of words in common use are estimated to be lower. In Japanese, too, the number of Chinese loan-words is at around 60%, but only around 18% of the words in common use have Chinese roots.

But with so much Chinese influence on both languages, might it be possible to detect a lexical similarity between Korean and Japanese?

Let's try translating a short phrase into both Japanese and Korean in order to see if there are any similarities.

To make comparison easier, I'll write both translations in a Romanized version.

So first the English phrase (off the top of my head):

I went to the baker's to see what was for sale but ended up disappointed because there weren't any cakes. I then went home and sat and stared out the window for the rest of the day, thinking of sweets.

And now in Korean:

Naneun ppangjib-e gassneunde pallyeogohaessneunde keikeuga eobs-eoseo silmanghaessda. Naneun jib-e gaseo halu jong-il gwajaleul saeng-gaghamyeo anj-aseo changbakk-eul bala boassda.

And now in Japanese:

Nani ga ura rete iru no ka mi ni pan'yasan ni ikimashitaga, kēki ga nakattanode gakkari shimashita. Sorekara watashi wa ie ni kaette suwatte, okashi no koto o kangaenagara, ichinichijū mado no soto o mitsumemashita.

While the two texts seem very different, there are a few words that just might have something in common:

  • Naneun / Nani
  • ppangjib-e / pan'yasan
  • keikeuga / kēki ga
  • silmanghaessda / shimashita

But the similarities between the two aren't great, and even if they did share some Chinese loan-words, it wouldn't mean much in terms of understanding one language.

English and Dutch both have a significant amount of French and Latin loan-words, and in addition to that, they're closely related languages. Yet they aren't mutually intelligible, so it would be quite the stretch to assume that Korean and Japanese would be even slightly similar.

Conclusion: How Similar Are Japanese And Korean?

So what's the verdict? How do Korean and Japanese compare?

When comparing the features and specificities of the two languages it becomes clear that they're very different. They do share some superficial grammatical principles, but these are very broad and once you look more closely, the differences become staggering.

In terms of writing systems, they're typologically similar in that they both used to rely on the Chinese characters, Hanzi as well as a local, phonetic alphabet, but the phonetic alphabets aren't the same, and Korean has since moved away from the Chinese alphabet.

As for vocabulary, Korean and Japanese have almost nothing in common in their root-vocabulary, but share plenty of Chinese loan-words. Even the Chinese words end up quite different when inflected and pronounced in any of the two languages, though.

So are Japanese and Korean similar?

Not really.

But then again: Why would they be?

Read more: How similar are Chinese and Japanese?