Korean (or 韓國語 Hangugeo in South Korea/朝鮮語 Chosŏnŏ in North Korea) is the official language of North and South Korea. It is spoken by about 78 million people. It also has co-official status in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China, and is still the language of choice of many ethnic Korean communities throughout the world, including Australia, Canada, the United States, Japan and the Philippines.
The linguistic classification of Korean is still a matter of debate. Some scholars classify it an Altaic or Proto-Altaic language, in virtue of similarities with other languages of this family, i.e. lack of number, gender and articles. Other linguists prefer to consider Korean a language isolate, the definition assigned to idioms that have no demonstrable relationship with other living languages. Some relation with Japanese is plausible, given that both languages share cognates and very similar syntactical structure.
The simple conversion of one language into another, using a word processor and perhaps a dictionary, is the image of translation that commonly abounds. While this scenario has some links with real life, the translation process is, in fact, far more complicated. Using computer-assisted translation tools, online and hard copy reference material (lexicons, thesauruses, and grammatical guides), as well as conferring with colleagues over colloquialisms, the translation process is one that requires patience, attengion to detail, and above all, in-depth knowledge of both the source and the target language.
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The standard language of South Korea is the dialect spoken around Seoul, that of North Korea from around P'yŏngyang. These dialects are mutually intelligible. There are also eight officially recognized additional regional dialects. In South Korea, the standards of the Korean language are monitored, regulated and upheld by the National Institute of the Korean Language.
Early written records of Korean language are abundant. They are mainly epigraphs on stones and bamboo pieces, both functioning as early books. Although many of these works are in Chinese, some of them reveal the presence of an increasing number of Korean characters. Around the 7th century, Korean books printed with movable wooden blocks were already in circulation.
Most of the Korean vocabulary is made up of native Korean words, which, however, derive from Written Chinese. Some words have also been borrowed from Mongolian and Sanskrit and, in modern times, English, Japanese and even German. It must also be noted that North Korean is largely devoid of foreign borrowings, with the exception words deriving from a Sino-Korean tradition. Korean is mainly written in Hangul, the official alphabet promulgated in the 15th century. It replaced the Hanja, the old alphabet rich in Chinese characters.
Classical Korean literature is rooted in folk traditions; some works also incorporate spiritual themes, mainly Confucianism and Buddhism. Modern Korean literature dates back to the introduction of the Hangul system of writing and has increasingly incorporated Western traditions into indigenous themes. Since the 1960’s, following the Korean War and the creation two separate Koreas, literary production in the South largely became an exercise in escapism, a safe haven where authors could articulate their profound despair and alienation for the outcome of the war. Because of the scarce availability of translated texts, South Korean literature is relatively little known in the West. One of the best known Korean anthologies published in English is Flowers of Fire: Twentieth-Century Korean Stories.
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