LINGUIST List 12.484

Wed Feb 21 2001

Review: Sohn, The Korean Language

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  1. Eun-Kyong Paek, Review of Sohn, The Korean Language

Message 1: Review of Sohn, The Korean Language

Date: Thu, 15 Feb 2001 09:48:32 -0800 (PST)
From: Eun-Kyong Paek <>
Subject: Review of Sohn, The Korean Language

Sohn, Ho-Min (1999) The Korean Language, Cambridge
University Press, 445 pp.

Eun-Kyong Paek, Zi Corporation

Synopsis and Evaluation

The book under review covers general aspects of the
Korean language and Korean linguistics. Thus, this
book would be a good introduction for graduate
students in Korean studies and Korean linguistics. It
will also be a valuable reference for linguists who
search for data for cross-linguistic analysis.
Overall, this book offers many interesting data and
issues in Korean linguistics. The organization of the
book is excellent; each chapter starts with an
overview of the chapter. Moreover, each chapter is
divided in many subsections, so that it is easy to
follow and choose the sections corresponding to the
reader's immediate interest. However, it would have
been useful if the author had provided examples with
Hankul characters, since the romanization of Korean is
still quite controversial among Korean linguists. The
reviewer will focus on discussing the contents of each
chapter and evaluate the book accordingly.

 This book is divided into nine chapters. Chapter one
to four deal with the general discussion on the
development of the Korean language, such as its
linguistic affiliation, historical development, and
regional dialects. Chapters five to six cover the
lexicon of Korean and its writing system (Hankul: the
Korean alphabet). Chapters seven to nine discuss the
general linguistic aspect of the Korean language.
These three chapters are the heart of the book and
linguists will enjoy reading them.

 Chapter one is a general introduction and defines
the scope of the book.

 Chapter two discusses the genetic affiliation of the
Korean language. The most widely known hypothesis is
the Altaic hypothesis. According to the Altaic
hypothesis, the Koreans and Japanese were Altaic
people who migrated to Korea and Japan with basic
elements of their language (p.18-23). Note that
Korean, Japanese and Altaic languages manifest
striking syntactic similarities (i.e. SOV word order).
The other two hypotheses are the Austronesian and the
Dravidian hypotheses. The author also addresses the
issue of the linguistic relations between Korean and
Japanese. Historical linguists will enjoy the detailed
discussion of chapter two.

 Chapter three deals with the historical development
of the Korean language. Based on the written
documents, the author discusses the evolution of
Korean through successive stages: prehistoric times,
Old Korean, Middle Korean, Modern and Contemporary
Korean. For example, the major phonological changes
that occurred from Middle Korean to contemporary
Korean are as follows:
1.Word-initial consonant clusters reduced to tensed
consonants; syllable structure became simplified.
2.The voiced fricative phoneme [z] disappeared in the
early part of 17th century.

 Chapter four concerns the regional dialects in the
Korean peninsula. There are seven dialectal zones in
Korea: HamKyeng, Phyengan, Central, Chwungcheng,
Kyengsang, Cenla, and Ceywu zone. Korean dialects are
distinguished by the isoglosses of representative
phonological, morphological, lexical, syntactic, and
discoursal features (p. 60). The representative
isoglosses (boundary of linguistic feature) are tones
and vowel length. While Middle Korean was a tone
language with high, rising, and low tones, tonemes
have since disappeared in the central and other
dialects, except in the Kyengsang and Hamkyeng
dialectal zones (p.60). Moreover, the author points
out areas of major linguistic divergence between North
Korean and South Korean:
1. In North Korean, l occurs freely in the
word-initial position, whereas in South Korean, the
word initial [l] is omitted before [i] and [y] and
replaced by [n].
2. Vowel harmony is strictly observed in North Korean,
whereas there is a slight deviation in South Korean.
3. Pronunciations and spellings of loan words are
considerably different.
The reviewer appreciates the author's discussion on
the linguistic comparison between the North and the
South, since there is little literature on North
Korean in English.

 Chapter five deals with the composition of the
lexicon. The Korean vocabulary is constituted of
native words, Sino-Korean words, and loan words.
According to the Korean Language Society, the
distribution of the contemporary Korean lexicon is 35%
of native words, 60% Sino-Korean, and 5% loan words
(p.87). Native words have a variety of native
hierarchical honorific expressions, which encompasses
address-reference terms, personal pronouns, nouns,
verbs, adjectives, adverbs, case particles, and
suffixes. Also, it can be characterized by the
proliferation of sound symbolic words in the native
stratum. Sino-Korean words are predominant in science
magazines as well as in the social columns of
newspapers, whereas native words are prevalent in
novels and popular magazines as well as in the social
columns of newspapers. Loan words are widespread in
magazines and newspapers on sports, cooking, fashion,
technology, and other aspects of recently imported

 Chapter six discusses the writing system of Korean,
the development of Hankul and the historical overview
of writing systems adopted before Hankul had been
devised. Seycong (1397-1450), the fourth king of the
Cosen dynasty, directed the research of the design of
the Hankul. In addition, Hankul is the fruition of
rigorous phonological analysis of Korean sound
patterns. For example, one Hankul character consists
of three components: syllable-initial sounds
(syllable-onset consonants), syllable-medial sounds
(syllable-nuclear vowels and diphthongs), and
syllable-final sounds (syllable-coda consonants). The
author points out that Hankul (the Korean alphabet) is
the main writing system used to represent native,
Sino-Korean, and loan words, while Chinese characters
are optionally used to represent only Sino-Korean
words (p.121). In this chapter, the author provided
Hankul orthography with the romanization.

 Chapter seven deals with the sound patterns of
Korean. The phonetic inventory of consonants and
vowels is well explained in this chapter. Note that
there are three phonemic distinctions in Korean stop
consonants (lax, aspirated, and tensed). Korean has 19
consonants, 10 vowels, and two diphthongs. Korean
phonetic syllables have a relatively simple internal
structure. One and only one vowel can be present at
the peak or nucleus of syllable. The Korean syllable
structure is [(C) (G) V (C)]. Phonetic syllable
structure plays an important role in sound
alternation, because the function of certain
phonological rules is to preserve the syllable
structure. The author gives a good list of
phonological rules in Korean. One interesting rule is
Resyllabification, which maps [V (C) C.(G/h)V] into
[V(C). (G/h)V] (G stands for glide; h stands for [h]).
 This chapter would be beneficial for learners of
Korean language.

 Chapter eight discusses the classification of Korean
word, the formation of words, and the inflectional
morphology. Due to the agglutinative nature of the
Korean language, it is not simple to categorize its
part of speech. Nevertheless, the author adopts the
eight part of speech system based on its
morpho-syntactic and semantic properties: Noun,
pronoun, numeral, verb, adjective, determiner, adverb,
and particle. This chapter is a base for the in-depth
discussion of grammatical structure of Korean in
chapter nine.

 Finally, chapter nine discusses the syntactic and
semantic characteristics of contemporary standard
Korean. This chapter covers the structural essentials,
sentence types, syntactic relations, embedded clauses,
case marking, delimiter constructions, numeral
constructions, modality and tense-aspect, passive and
causative constructions, complex predicate
constructions, negation, adverbial constructions,
reduction phenomena, and honorifics and politeness
strategies. Interestingly, Korean allows sentential
elements to be omitted when the element can be
predictable from the discourse context or situation.
Note that Korean has the salient property of multiple
topic constructions, also refered to as multiple
subject, multiple nominative, or multiple topic
constructions (p.267). As illustrated in (1), the
sentence has three nominative markers.

(1) nay yangmal-i patak-i kwumeng-i sayngky-ess-e.
 my sock-NM bottom-NM hole-NM appear-PST-INT
 'The bottom of my sock has a hole'
 (Note: NM: nominative marker)
					(Sohn; 267)

Another salient property of Korean is the constraint
on predicates. In other words, all verbs and
adjectives are bound and unable to function without a
clause or sentence ender (Note that Korean has its
sentence ending to indicate the type of sentence. i.e.
declarative or interrogative) (p.267). Proliferation
of predicate compounding is also noteworthy; serial
verb and auxiliary-verb constructions are abundant
(p.267). Finally, Korean has a well-established
honorific system. The speaker-addressee perspective
and the speaker-reference perspective are
systematically manifested in the sentence structure
(p.268). The most interesting phenomenon of Korean is
the case marking. On one hand, cases are often omitted
in various discourse contexts (p.327). On the other
hand, a series of case particles can stack, as
illustrated in (2).

(2) yeki-eyse-puthe-ka wuli ttang i-a.
 here-at-starting from-NM our land is-INT
 'Our land starts from here'
 (Note: INT: intimate sentence ending)
The above example of case stacking reflects the
agglutinative nature of Korean. As a whole, this
chapter provides many interesting linguistic data and
thesis topics in Korean linguistics.

 To conclude, this book successfully delineated what
the Korean language is. This book will broaden the
horizon of the understanding of the Korean language.
Compared to the book published in 1994 by the same
author, this book aims for a more general readership.
This book will be a good reference book for
researchers and Korean linguists.

Chang, Suk-Jin (1996) Korean, London Oriental and
African Language Library, John Benjamins Publishing
Sohn, Ho-Min (1994) Korean, Routledge, London and New

Eun-Kyong Paek is a Computational Linguist at Zi
Corporation, Calgary, Canada. She has received her MA
at the University of Ottawa. Her MA thesis was on "The
Argument Structure of Locative verbs in Korean". Her
research interests lie in Lexical Semantics, Korean
language, Interface between Language and computer.

The review thanks Professor Paul Hirschb�hler at the
University of Ottawa and Richard Plana for 
constructive comments.
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