The two countries are next to each other on the map, Japanese and Korean may be similar to each other in terms of their syntax and morphology, but they differ significantly in vocabulary and writing. The reason for the number of similarities being so big may be the fact that both countries have been influencing each other: Korea in a way connects Japan to continental Asia, and Japan had been controlling Korea for a significant amount of history.

Additionally, some linguists theorize whether Korean and Japanese have originated from the same source. At the beginning of the adventure with Asian languages, many people wonder which one to choose; perhaps, they ask others which of the languages is easier, more interesting, or more profitable and search for comparisons of the two to make the best decision.

Comparative March – webinars

In the “Comparative March” series, I have organized a set of four webinars, during which I compared Asian languages: Japanese and Korean, Japanese and Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese, Chinese and Vietnamese; I have decided to create blog posts to summarize the comparisons. In this post, I will compare Japanese and Korean along with pointing out both their similarities and differences.

1. Writing systems

There are four writing systems (Kanji, hiragana, katakana, rōmaji) in Japanese and two (hangul, hanja) in Korean. The connecting element is the presence of Chinese signs in both languages: traditional (or similar to traditional), instead of the simplified version used in continental China. Their pronunciation and meaning may, but do not have to, differ from their equivalents used in Chinese. While kanji is an essential part of Japanese, in Korean you do not have to be familiar with the signs. In the past, 100% of writing consisted of the signs and later, the mixed script was used; currently, South Korea uses signs mainly for an aesthetic value, in official documents or to differentiate homophones. North Korea, following the juche ideology, which promotes independence and self-sufficiency, has got rid of them entirely.

2. Agglutination

Japanese and Korean belong to the category of agglutinative languages, meaning that the syntax of words in a sentence is determined by various affixes added to the end of the word’s root, with the examples of 이/가 and 은/는 particles added to mark the subject, or 을/를 marking the object. In Japanese, verbs such as 書 (“to write”) are inflected through adding different endings, like ます or た, which functions include tense change or honorification.

3. Sentence structure

Both languages use the SOV sentence order, that is Subject + Object + Verb. To present such a sentence structure in English, the words in the sentence “I’m watching a movie” would change their order to “I’m a movie watching”; it would translate to “映画を見ます。” (“eiga wo mimasu”) in Japanese and  “저는 영화를 봐요” (“joneun yonghwareul bwayo”) in Korean.

4. Tenses in Korean and Japanese

Korean operates on three standard tenses: past, present and future, but in Japanese, only two are used: past and non-past. The future is differentiated from the present by adding terms referring to a specific point in the future, such as “tomorrow” or “next week”.

In Korean:
  • “영화를 봤어요” (“yonghwareul bwassoyo”) I watched a movie.
  • “영화를 봐요” (“yonghwareul bwayo”) I’m watching a movie.
  • “영화를 볼 거예요” (“yonghwareul bol goeyo”) I will watch a movie.
In Japanese:
  • “(昨日)映画を見ました”  (“kinou eiga wo mimashita”) (yesterday) I watched a movie.
  • “今映画を見ます”  (ima eiga wo mimasu) I’m watching a movie now.
  • “明日映画を見ます”  (ashita eiga wo mimasu) I will watch a movie tomorrow.

Additionally, in Japanese there is also a continuous tense; therefore, “I’m watching a movie now” can also be written with the use of the “-te” form, with the sentence above also being correct. That’s why it has been accepted for Japanese to officially use two tenses, although it is necessary to remember that one sentence can be said in many ways. 

5. Honorification

Many Asian languages use a well-developed honorification system that influences both lexis and grammar. Depending on the situation, social status or the age of the speaker, our ways of communicating will differ. It is a very important element that requires paying special attention to, as we don’t want to offend the person we speak to with our ignorance. To list a few examples: in Korean, while speaking to our grandpa, we should use the noun 진지 instead of 밥 when we talk about a meal or 드시다 instead of 먹다, meaning “to eat”. In Japanese, the plain form of “to eat” is 食べる; meanwhile, the more polite form is 食べます and the most polite form is 召し上がります.

6. Vocabulary

During the webinar, my guest and I have analyzed selected vocabulary, including native words, words that were sinocized and borrowings. The process of sinofication differed in both languages, and it’s no use trying to spot similarities in pronunciations. In terms of borrowing from other languages the similarities appear more often, however, they are still quite new and originate from non-Asian languages. 

Native and sinocized vocabulary:

I/me 私 – watashi 저 – jeo / 나 – na
Japan 日本 – nihon 일본 – Ilbon 
Korea 韓国 – kankoku 한국 – Han-guk 
Japanese person日本人 – nihonjin 일본인 – Ilbonin 
Korean person韓国人 – kankokujin한국인 – Han-gugin
dog 犬 – inu 개 – gae 
cat 猫 – neko 고양이 – goyang-i
music 音楽 – ongaku 음악 – eumak 
chair 椅子 – isu 의자 – uija 
book 本 – hon 책 – chaek 
car自動車 jidōsha/ 車 kuruma(자동)차 – (jadong)cha
train 電車 – densha 기차 – gicha 
tree 木 – ki 나무 – namu 
history 歴史 – rekishi 역사 – yeoksa 
human 人 – hito사람 – saram
ice creamアイスクリーム – aisukurīmu아이스크림 – aiseukeurim
cookieクッキー – kukkī쿠키 – kuki
computerコンピューター – konpyūtā컴퓨터 – keompyuteo
smartphoneスマホ – sumaho스마트폰 – seumateupon
the Internetインターネット – intānetto인터넷 – inteonet
juiceジュース – jūsu주스 – juseu
hamburgerハンバーガー – hanbāgā햄버거 – haembeogeo
McDonaldマック – Makku맥도널드 – Maekdoneoldeu
kangarooカンガルー – kangarū캥거루 – kaenggeoru

It’s noticeable that the parts of vocabulary borrowed from English are very similar due to their process of creation: trying to mimic the sounds of the borrowed word phonetically according to their own – Japanese and Korean – sounds; whereas other words lack further similarities. Grammar-wise, both languages show numerous similarities to each other, and there’s no doubt that the familiarity of one of these languages will help to learn the other one.

Korean and Japanese – which language to choose?

Both Korean and Japanese have complicated grammar, inflections of verbs and adjectives, many various structures and honorific elements which make them complicated in terms of grammar. What about the writing? In this case, Korean is way easier as we don’t need to learn ideographs – but reading and correct pronunciation are difficult. Which one to choose? Learning any of these languages will be a great choice and may lead to various opportunities. Make sure to check out our other posts if you want to know the reasons to learn Japanese or Korean.

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