LINGUIST List 12.1931

Mon Jul 30 2001

Review: Sohn, The Korean Language (2nd review)

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  1. Robert Fouser, Review of Sohn, The Korean Language

Message 1: Review of Sohn, The Korean Language

Date: Tue, 31 Jul 2001 00:33:11 +0900
From: Robert Fouser <>
Subject: Review of Sohn, The Korean Language

Sohn, Ho-Min (1999). The Korean Language. Cambridge
University Press, 445 pages, hardback $69.95, paperback

Robert J. Fouser, Kagoshima University

[Another review of this book is posted at --Eds.]

Synopsis and Evaluation:

Korean occupies a special place in linguistics because
of hangul, its unique writing system. Almost all works on
writing systems devote considerable space to analyzing the
significance of hangul in the history of the development of
writing systems (Sampson, 1985; Kim-Renaud, 1997). Korean
is more than hangul, however, as readers of The Korean
Language soon discover. The book is a greatly expanded
version of the author's earlier introduction to Korean (Sohn,
1994) and is the most complete introduction to the Korean
language available in English today.

 This book is organized in a similar way to
other works in the Cambridge Language Survey series, which
makes it easier for readers who are familiar with works such
as The Languages of Japan (Shibatani, 1990) to follow.
Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the language, but
includes topics that have received little attention in other
surveys of Korean, such as teaching of Korean as a foreign
language. The subsection entitled "Salient Features of
Korean: An Overview" is the most concise five-page summary
of the language available.

 Chapters 2 and 3 focus on diachronic aspects of the
language. Chapter 2 provides a concise overview of
competing hypothesis regarding the genetic affiliation of
Korean. This chapter makes for fascinating reading when
read along with the similar chapter in Shibatani (1990).
Chapter 3 focuses on the historical development of Korean,
with a focus on Middle Korean (10th-16th centuries) and
Modern Korean (17th to nineteenth centuries. In both
chapters, the author cites Korean, Japanese, and Western-
language sources extensively, which can lead readers in a
number of interesting directions.

 Chapter 4 provides a refreshingly detailed discussion of
Korean dialects. The discussion of how Middle Korean forms
remain in certain dialects and of language policies in both
Korean states help put the "standard Korean" of South Korea
in its proper perspective: It is one of many dialects and
one of two standards. The only regret about this Chapter is
the relatively scant treatment of the dialect on Cheju
Island, which differs considerably from other mainland
dialects and retains a number of archaic forms.

 Except for the discussion of the writing system in
Chapter 6, the rest of the book evolves through synchronic
analysis of the standard Korean of South Korea. Chapter 5
provides an overview of the origin and structure of the
lexicon. Chapter 6 mixes diachronic and synchronic
approaches to explore the development of Korean writing
systems from the introduction of Chinese characters in the
4th century AD to the creation of hangul in 1443-6 and its
subsequent development. The discussion of current
orthographic differences between the Koreas is clear and

 Chapters 7, 8, and 9 focuses on core structural areas of
Korean that should be required reading for teachers and
learners of Korean. Chapter 7 provides an overview of
phonetics and phonology, and includes detailed information
on rhythmic patterns, a topic that is frequently overlooked
in the literature on Korean. The inclusion of IPA with
every example is most welcome because it allows readers who
do not know Korean to reproduce Korean pronunciation
accurately. Chapter 8 focuses on morphology and is
necessarily long because Korean is an agglutinating language.
 Covering 153 pages, Chapter 9 provides such a
comprehensive overview of Korean syntax that it could stand
alone as a separate book. The discussion of reduction
phenomena is most likely a first in English, but the
discussion of honorific forms seems somewhat truncated given
their significance in the language. The lack of IPA with
examples in Chapters 8 and 9 is understandably but
regrettable because the Yale system of romanization, which
is used throughout the book, is a one-to-one transliteration
of hangul orthography, not a phonetic representation. The
use of the Yale system is standard in Korean linguistics,
and readers who know Korean will find it more effective in
describing morphological and syntactic phenomena than other
Romanization systems.

 In addition to the chapters, The Korean Language has
three useful maps, two of which relate to dialect
distribution, and an extensive bibliography of works on
Korean, English, Japanese, and the major Western European
languages. Each Chapter has ample examples to explicate the
discussion. The lack of illustrations, such as samples of
different historical and contemporary forms of the writing
system, however, is regrettable because readers who have not
seen old Korean books may have difficulty understanding the
different systems and evolution of hangul discussed in
Chapter 6.

 The strength, then, of The Korean Language, lies in its
encyclopedic breadth of coverage and its scholarly attention
to detail. Finding fault with a book of this caliber is
difficult, but several issues emerge. First, the discussion
of writing system could have gone into greater detail about
changes in hangul orthography since the 19th century. Of
particular interest are alternatives to the current
morphophonemic orthography and recent computer-mediated
orthographic changes that have had a profound affect on the
orthographic practices of young people.

 Second, discussions of sociolinguistic, pragmatic, and
discourse areas of Korean are weak. The section on
honorifics in Chapter 9 provides a clear description of the
system of honorifics, but says less about how their use in
society. Differences in language use based on age, gender,
and social class are mentioned rarely, which gives the
impression of extreme uniformity in language use. Besides
hangul, one of the most interesting areas of Korean is the
diversity of linguistic forms that speakers can manipulate
to meet their needs.

 Third, despite the author's attempt to rectify the
dearth of information in English on language use in North
Korea, more information on North Korea could have been
included at various points throughout the book. Chapter 5
on the lexicon, for example, only mentions Russian loan
words in use in North Korea, but coverage of North Korea's
efforts to expunge foreign words from the lexicon and
replace them with words creative from native-Korean words
and morphemes would have been informative. Such movements
also exist in South Korea, but they have not received the
official sanction that they have in North Korea. Very
little has been written in English on language use in North
Korea, so including some coverage of this subject in a
broader discussion of language use in North Korea, even if
based only limited data, would have strengthened the book's
coverage of North Korea considerably.

 Finally, The Korean language could have benefited from
more information on computer processing of Korean, at least
in passing in relevant places in the text. Readers who
come from a background in corpus linguistics and natural
language processing might find information on, for example,
the contents of different Korean font codes and the
development of Korean corpora.

 None of these quibbles in any way reduces the
accomplishment of The Korean Language. Rather, they
represent areas of Korean that should be addressed in a
second edition of The Korean Language or another book on the
language. A more appropriate title for a book that
presents the diversity of the Korean language in full might
thus be "The Languages of Korea." Readers who know little
about Korean will find that the book is the most
authoritative introduction to the language available in
English. Readers who work with Korean will find that it an
invaluable resource on this most amazing language.


Kim-Renaud, Y.-K. (ed.) (1997). The Korean alphabet: Its
history and structure. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Sampson, G. (1985). Writing systems: A linguistic
introduction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Shibatani, M. (1990). The languages of Japan. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Sohn, H.-M. (1994). Korean. London: New York: Routledge.

About the reviewer:
Robert J. Fouser holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics from
Trinity College Dublin and conducts research on second- and
third-language acquisition as it relates to English,
Japanese, and Korean. He is also the owner of A
Korean Studies Site (
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