Are you interested in learning more about the similarities and differences between the Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages? There is so much we can talk about when analysing these three languages, however in this article we will focus on a brief history and the basic features of these unique languages, plus how they can be differentiated from each other. So let’s begin!
We’ll start with Chinese, since it is the oldest out of the three languages. In fact, the land of the red dragon has the oldest spoken language currently being used in the world. We are talking about a language that dates back to over 3,000 years ago!
China has several spoken languages, hundreds of dialects, and only one written system.
The standard Chinese written language was created in 1913, a year after China was proclaimed a republic. As crazy as it seems, there was no common spoken language back then, and something had to be done to unify the language. After surviving millennia it finally had a standard written form, and is now one of the most spoken languages in the world!
So Chinese predates both Japanese and Korean, and, interestingly, it had a big influence on both.
Whilst in English (and other alphabet-based language systems) we put letters together to form words to express ideas, the Chinese script is made up of characters that carry individual meanings (called “logograms”, or “logographs”).
Before the 4th Century AD, Japan did not have a writing system of its own and it gradually began to adopt the Chinese script, merging the Chinese characters into their own Japanese style.
The Japanese language used Chinese characters while keeping its own grammar.
Later on, Japan evolved its language by creating two other scripts: Katakana and Hiragana.
Korea is located geographically close to China and therefore it is no surprise that the Korean language adopted Chinese characters, too. Some characters were taken on for their sound values, others for their meaning, and some for both their sound and meaning. Korea did have its own spoken language, but not a writing system, and hence Korean ended up “borrowing” Chinese characters.
If this all sounds a rather confusing situation, one open to ambiguity, then you’d be right! By the 15th Century this led to Korea creating its own written language in an effort to promote literacy amongst common people.
It was not an overnight success, however, and people in Korea carried on using Chinese characters for a prolonged period.
The Korean language only really started being used more widely in the 20th Century. Economic growth is one of the reasons for this, especially as the Korean language is easier to use and to learn than Chinese. Whilst there are thousands of Chinese characters, the Korean alphabet consists of 14 main consonants and 10 main vowels.
How to differentiate the three languages
The Chinese language (at the risk of stating the obvious) is a very complex language, but a simple way to identify Chinese characters is that they are square and not curvy. Japanese characters look rounder and more curvy.
Visually, both Japanese and Korean are also more open and spacious than Chinese, which is denser.
Another way to recognise the Korean alphabet is from the main circular shapes it features, which are unique to it and are not found in Japanese or Chinese.
Ancient Chinese used to be written from up and down, right to left, but after the cultural revolution in China, Traditional Chinese has become more modernised and it is now written horizontally.
Likewise, the Japanese direction of writing took inspiration from Chinese, traditionally also being written in the “up and down” format, but now also being written horizontally.
Take a look at the three languages next to each other (each means “Creative Translation”!) and you’ll see the features described above:
At Creative Translation the differences and similarities of every language fascinate us. After all, this is our speciality! If you are looking to expand your business over to or from Asian countries such as Japan, China and South Korea, language is an important tool. Get in touch with us today to see how we can help you to expand your business into wider areas and reach new audiences. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our office on +44 (0)207 294 7710, and we’ll be happy to help!