Hanja, The Chinese in Korean
Did you ever wonder why you can use so many nouns with 하다 to create a brand new verb? Did it peak your curiosity that so many words with an inkling of similarity tend to have the same syllables? Perhaps you thought it was mere coincidence, but it isn’t. There is a very good reason for all of that and that reason has everything to do with Hanja (한자 – 漢字).
A Short History
Languages are things that are alive and they change and adapt depending their surroundings. Languages of one people is often influenced the language of an influential entity. This happened in Europe with ancient Greece and Rome. It happened in East Asia with the Chinese empire.
The ancient kingdoms of Korea were always connected to China. The strength of these bonds, of course, differed during the long course of history. It was, however, always present in one form or another. These bonds resulted in a cultural exchange. This exchange in turn was a driving factor for the introduction of Chinese characters or Hanja (한자 – 漢字) in Korean society.
The Korean nobility did not only learn Hanja to study and read ancient Chinese texts such as Thousand Character Classic (천자문 – 千字文), which was used as textbook to teach Chinese Characters to young Koreans for centuries. They also learned these Chinese characters to write their own language because at that time Korean did not have its own writing system.
For centuries Hanja was the only way to write Korean as Korean did not have its own writing system. It was not until King Sejong the Great introduced Hangeul (한글) that Korean had its own writing system. From then on Hanja and Hangeul existed side by side. The Korean nobility prefered Hanja seeing it as a more elegant writing system.It was not until King Sejong the Great introduced Hangeul (한글) that Korean had its own writing system.
However, Hanja would suffer a major blow in 1972. The South-Korean government then decided to abandon teaching Hanja to students. Though Hanja was still taught in separate, elective classes, separate from the standard curriculum. In 2013, however, the South-Korean government started to promote the education of hanja once more.
Hanja and Hanjaoe
Perhaps you have heard of the term Hanjaoe as well. It isn’t the same as Hanja. There difference between Hanja (한자 – 漢字) and Hanjaoe (한자어 – 漢字語). Hanja is the Korean word for the Chinese characters themselves. It is the name of the characters. Furthermore these characters are not meaningful as words. Some characters need to be used with other characters to truly become meaningful. Others on the other hand have a grammatical meaning such as representing particles.
Hanjaoe on the other hand is the name given to the practice of representing the Korean language using Hanja or Chinese characters. You can also name words Hanjaoe, meaning they are words derived from Chinese.
The Ins and Outs of Hanja
Now you might start wondering what is the point of Hanja when we have Hangeul? The reason is actually simple. Koreans did not just use the characters of China. Besides the characters, they also started many Chinese characters in their language. Without realizing it many beginning Korean learners have already learned quite a few Korean words. Words that Koreans took from the Chinese language. It is because they are taken from Chinese, that learning Hanja can be advantageous.
Resolving Homonym ConfusionThe Korean language is filled with true homonyms, creating plenty of confusion.
If you have been studying Korean for quite some time, you may have faced a few distinct problems. One problem you have discovered is the sheer amount of true homonyms Korea as to offer. For those who don’t know what a true homonym is; a true homonym are words with the exact same spelling and pronunciation, but they have different meanings. A simple example of this in English would be “arm”. You can use “Arm” either to refer to one of your limbs, but you can also use it in the sense of activating a bomb; “arm a bomb”.
As already stated, there are countless homonyms in Korean. They will even appear quite early on when you learn Korean. Basic words such as 눈 which means both “eye” and “snow”. Now 눈 as a homonym doesn’t cause a lot of issues . After all the context of the sentence will always make clear what you are talking about. However, not all homonyms will be so clear, especially when you are just reading a text. However, there is a solution.Writing words in Hanja removes any ambiguity where Hangeul may create it.
That solution is using Hanja. When writing these homonyms as Hanjaoe, the words will stop being true homonyms. This is because as Hanjaoe the ‘spelling’ of the words will always be unique. Thus it will remove any ambiguity in its reading, making what you meant clear.
However, Hanja can also be useful to you as a learner. Perhaps you have noticed that a lot of related words share certain common syllables. That is not by accident. They use those exact same syllables, because that syllable is a hanja all those words share. This is useful information for a language learner as it enables you to guess the meaning of a word you’ve never learned simply by looking at the hanja.If you know the meaning of certain Hanja, you can start intuitively knowing the meaning of unknown words.
Let us illustrate this, because this is a nifty trick once you start seeing some patterns. Let’s take the hanja 店. That character means “shop, store” and you read as 점 in a lot of words. I think you have seen a lot of words for different kinds of stores with that syllable in it, no? Let’s go over a few:
- 서점 – 書店 (book store)
- 백화점 – 百貨店 (Department store)
- 편의점 – 便宜店 (Convenience store)
- 점원 – 店員 (Sales clerk)
Just by knowing that 점 is 店, you can already assume that all those words have to do with something related to a store. Pretty nifty, no? Some people like to use Hanja as a way to build their vocabulary.
Still not convinced then watch an episode that will culminate in the sentence “Almost all university students at university take a poo.” thanks to Hanja.
PS: We are doing our own little Hanja word drills on this website. If you want to learn Korean vocabulary in a by these neat Chinese characters structured way, then our Hanja word Drills are there for you. We update the index and vocabulary lists of the characters with new content. Check out our index. It will help you slowly learn more Korean words!