Approximately 78 million people speak Korean. It is the official language of both North and South Korea. South Koreans call the Korean language Hangungma, Hangugeo or Gugeo, while North Koreans refer to it as Chosŏnmal or Chosŏnŏ.
The origins of Korean are disputed. There are theories Korean is a language isolate or an Altaic language due to similarities or related to Japanese.
Korean is divided into three eras: Old Korean, Middle Korean and Modern Korean.
Old Korean (1 BCE to 1000 BCE)
Old Korean is identified as the language spoken from the beginning of the Three Kingdoms of Korea through to the Unified Silla. There were two Old Korean languages: Sillian dialect and Buyeo language. It is believed Old Korean was a tonal language. During the Three Kingdoms period, it is thought Korean spoke similar languages that were possibility dialects derived from a singular language.
The only remaining texts of the Three Kingdoms era are inscriptions, while some literary texts in the Goryeo, spoken by Goguryeo and other states, survive. The Three Kingdoms texts used Chinese characters. Over time, a unified scribal system emerged whereby the Chinese characters expressed the Korean language phonetically.
Middle Korean (1000 BCE to 1500 BCE)
Middle Korean was spoken from the Gorveo era to mid-Joseon era.
The dialect of Kaesong was prominent during this period due to the capital city of the Gorveo Dynasty located in the northern Korean peninsula. During the 1300's the capital was relocated to Seoul. The proximity of the two areas meant the dialect of Kaesong was not affected.
Surviving texts from this period include 25 poems written in Sillian, known as hyangga, from the 10th century BCE and early Middle Korean words written with a phonetic alphabet composed of Chinese symbols that represent words or speech sounds during the 12th century BCE. The poems have not been decisively deciphered because of limitations of Chinese characters to reproduce sounds from other languages.
Korean script was created between 1443 and 1446 and called Hunmin Chong-um.
Modern Korean (1501 BCE to present)
Korea suffered two invasions by Japan between 1592 and 1598 in what is known as the Seven Year War. In 1876, Japan once again became interested in obtaining Korea under the Japanese imperialist expansion. From 1910 to 1945, Korea was occupied by Japan under an annexation treaty.
During the forced occupation of Korea by Japan, national standard language guidelines were drafted by scholars in defiance of the occupying regime's objective of eradicating Korea's culture, including the language.
Korean is spoken in several regional dialects, with the standard language of South Korea based on the Seoul dialect and North Korean derived from the P'yŏngyan dialect. North Korean dialects are, in general, mutually intelligible. The mutual intelligibility results from the language of the capital permeating Korea for a 1,000 years.
North and South Korea both follow the standards set by the Korean Language Research Society in 1933, but have differing spelling, alphabetization and vocabulary choices.
Korean has thousands of loanwords from Chinese, obtained primarily from Confucius. Despite the high number of Chinese loanwords, Korean is distinct from Chinese.