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1. Grammar and Spelling
2. Punctuation
3. Measurements and Abbreviations
4. Hyphenation
5. Miscellaneous Peculiarities
6. Geographic Distribution
7. Character Set

Section One – Grammar and Spelling

The Korean language is vaguely classified as a Ural-Altaic language, a group which also includes Mongolian, Hungarian, and Finnish. The Korean character system, han-g/l, which is not a semantic or ideographic language like Chinese, but a phonetic language like English, is completely different from and independent of Chinese and Japanese. Han-g/l was created in 1443. It is composed of 10 vowels and 14 consonants. But there are some vowel and consonant sounds that English does not have. In addition, there is no difference in pronunciation between 'l' and 'r', and between 'b' and 'v'.

The Korean character set includes several compound Roman expressions that are displayed or printed as single, wide characters. They include:

- Numbers up to 30, variously circled, boxed or printed white on black
- Upper case letters encircled
- Upper case letters enclosed in parentheses
- Upper and lower case letters followed by right parentheses
- Upper and lower case letters followed by full stops

There is no upper/lower case distinction in Korean. Therefore headings, titles and bullet points are given extra import by the use of italics, underlining or bold, and are sometimes parenthesised using '[ ]'or '( )'.

The typical plural form is “” but singular and plural are not generally differentiated.

There are no cases or genders, and no definite or indefinite articles.

Korean follows the word order subject, object, verb.

Section Two Punctuation

Full stops are not used at the end of headings/titles/bullet points.

Speech marks are as English:
“Give me more work!”, shouted Chloe. >
“일 을 더 줘 !“ 라고클로가소리쳤다.

“Would anyone like some tea?” asked George. > “차더드실분있어요? 라고조지가물었다.

“I’m bored – can I go home now?”, Michala said. > “지겨워, 이제 집에 가도 될까? 라고.

Apostrophes, colons and semi-colons are not used in Korean, but ellipsis is used in the same way as in English.

Brackets are used in the same way as in English, but generally do not contain punctuation other than full stops.

Section Three Measurements and Abbreviations

1. Measurements: Metric measurements are the official standard in Korea, but inches are used for computer and television monitors.

Roman numerals (I, II, III and i, ii, iii…) are used.

The decimal point is used as in English, (3.7%) and numbers over 9999 are separated by a comma (16,000,000,000).

A space is usually left between a figure and its unit of measurement.

Time: the most common format is 10 am and 3 pm (or 10:00 AM and 03:00 PM).

Noon: 정오 Midnight: 자정

Date: preferably yyyy/mm/dd or yy/mm/dd.
20 February 2004 2004
20th February 2004 2004220
20/02/2004 2004/02/20
February 20 2

45 euros 45 유로
$98 billion 98억 달러

2. Abbreviations:

Equivalent abbreviations:
- The tendency is not to use abbreviations.
- Certain engineering abbreviations such as cm² and µA are used.
- Occasionally No. can be used for 'number'.

N/a > 해당 없음
No. (nos.) > 번, 호
e.g. >예를 들어,
WxLxHxD > 폭x길이x높이x깊이
1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th > 첫번째 / 두번째 / 세번째 / 네번째
Mr. / Mrs. > 씨/부인
Messrs. > 여러분
Miss >
Dear Sir / Madam > 친애하는 신사 숙녀 여러분
m (for metre) > 미터
cm (for centimetre) > 센티미터
lb (for pound weight) > 파운드
g (for gram) > 그램
km (for kilometre) > 킬로미터
yr (for year) >
k (for 1000) >
EMEA (Europe, Middle-East & Asia) > 유럽, 중동 및 아시아(EMEA)
Days of the week: Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat, Sun > 월, 화, 수, 목, 금, 토, 일
Months: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec > 1월, 2월, 3월, 4월, 5월, 6월, 7월, 8월, 9월, 10월, 11월, 12월
Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (not normally abbreviated in
English) >
봄, 여름, 가을, 겨울

Section Four – Hyphenation

Although not ideal, if words must be broken up in Korean then this is acceptable. They may be separated at any point in the word, and without adding in a hyphen (-).

Section Five – Miscellaneous Peculiarities

Surnames precede first names.

Section Six – Geographic Distribution

Korean is spoken in both North and South Korea by about 65 million people. There are also about 2 million speakers in China, 700,000 in Japan, and 600,000 in the United States. Korean's linguistic affiliation is uncertain, though in its grammatical structure it is most similar to Japanese. It is certainly not related to Chinese, although it has borrowed many Chinese words and has used the Chinese characters, together with the Korean alphabet, for many centuries. This latter practice was abolished in North Korea after World War II and is gradually being phased out in South Korea.

Korean is spoken/used in the following countries:
China, Guam (U.S.), Japan, Korea (North), Korea (South), United States of America.

Language Family
Family: Independent

Source: http://www.worldlanguage.com/Languages/Korean - Copyright © Kenneth Katzner, The Languages of the World, Published by Routledge.

Section Seven – Character Set

Simple Vowels

a o ŏ u i æ e


ya yo yu ye
wa wo we   wi

Consonants - Plain

k n t r m p s ng c

Consonants - Aspirated

c' k' t' p' h

Consonants - Glottalised

kk tt pp cc




By McElroy Translation Company,
Austin, Texas 78701 USA



McElroy is continuing this series of interviews that highlight some of the characteristics of languages used in doing business globally. This month, we look at Korean.

Korean is the official language of North Korea and South Korea. It is also one of the two official languages in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China. There are about 78 million Korean speakers, with large groups residing in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, the United States, CIS (post-Soviet states), and more recently the Philippines.

This month we dive into this language and learn some of the characteristics that are unique or different from English and/or other languages, pitfalls to avoid, and five tips for assessing professionally qualified translators.

What are some pitfalls specific to Korean to avoid that a client should be aware of when choosing a Korean language translator?

There are plenty of English-to-Korean translation services to be found. The biggest challenge for the translator is the effective handling of the huge differences, not only in the script but also in the culture. Effectively dealing with these differences is the task of a good translator.

The Korean language is traditionally written in a phonetic script also known as Hangul. It consists of 10 vowels and 14 consonants, a far cry from its Chinese and Japanese counterparts called Hanja, which is more complex and difficult. The Korean script is generally easier to understand and is rapidly gaining in popularity.

The top 5 tips for assessing professionally qualified translators:

  1. Second language issues: Opt for a translator or translation service where Korean is the translator's first language. Always ensure that your translator is very familiar and comfortable with both the Korean and English languages. This ensures greater fluency and hence a better quality translation.

  2. Technical expertise: Just as in any industry, translators too have their own niche. For example, some may be proficient with legal documents, while others may specialize in medical documents. Choose English-to-Korean translation services that have a healthy mix of subject matter experts. That will ensure their ability to cater to your organization's diverse needs.

  3. Quality: Incorrect or inaccurate translation can mean the difference between long-lasting business relationships and lost deals. Therefore, choosing high quality English-to-Korean translation services is absolutely essential. These translators will take care to ensure that all the translated documents have been proofread to ensure 100% accuracy. They will also typically have qualified editors who will add polish to the final document.

  4. Appropriate deadlines: Professional quality English-to-Korean translators will not only check the documents several times, but they will also set the final draft aside for a time, and then go back to it to fine-tune the style and word usage. Incorporating enough time for these multiple steps in your production schedule will go a long way toward ensuring high quality.

  5. Professional help: Nothing works better than hiring a professional. With well established English-to-Korean translation services available at cost-effective rates, it is easy to get the service you desire. Most of these firms have a vast database of diverse translators who have experience in several domains. This enables the service to choose suitable translators for any requirements the client may have. They also have sound editing, proofing and quality control systems in place, which provides greater accuracy and quality.

What are other characteristics of Korean that are unique or different from English and/or other languages?

The significant differences between Korean and English, particularly in sentence structure and morphology (word structure), make it hard for most Korean ESL students to acquire English at the same rate as, for example, Dutch. The Korean alphabet is called hangul. It was introduced in the 15th century by King Sejong to replace the existing Chinese script (called hanja), which few Koreans could read. Hangul consists of 14 simple consonants and 6 simple vowels (together with consonant clusters and dipthongs). Hangul can be written horizontally or vertically, with the horizontal, Latin style, much more favored. Koreans are exposed in their daily lives to the Latin script and therefore have no particular difficulties with the English writing system.

  1. Phonology: Korean is a syllable-timed language in which individual word stress is insignificant. This is radically different from English and accounts for the 'flat' quality of much of the English spoken by Korean ESL students, particularly in extended spoken pieces such as presentations.

  2. The main problem in the pronunciation of individual words lies in the reproduction of consonants. Several English consonant sounds do not exist in Korean. The most significant of these are the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds in words such as then, thirteen and clothes, the /v/ sound, which is produced as a /b/, and the /f/ sound which leads, for example, to phone being pronounced pone. Differences in syllable structure between the two languages may lead to the addition of a short vowel sound to the end of English words that terminate with a consonant or within words containing consonant clusters.

  3. Grammar - Verb/Tense: Korean is an agglutinative language. This means, for example, that verb information such as tense, mood and the social relation between speaker and listener is added successively to the end of the verb. This is in contrast to English which makes extensive use of auxiliaries to convey verb meaning. It is to be expected, then, that some Korean learners will initially have problems in accurately producing English verb phrases.

  4. Korean does not conjugate verbs using agreement with the subject. This might explain why it takes some learners so long to remember the -s ending in English in the third person singular present simple tense: He like .. instead of he likes .. . Reference to the past in Korean is most often accomplished through a single past tense. Predictably enough, Korean learners may have trouble choosing the correct English tense from among the several possibilities (past simple, present perfect, past perfect continuous, etc.).

  5. Grammar - Other: Korean has a Subject-Object-Verb word order. Since personal reference is avoided, it is common to encounter Korean sentences consisting of the verb only. Korean ESL students have little difficulty adjusting to the fairly strict S-V-O word order that typifies English. However, they need training and practice in working within the permitted exceptions in order to avoid monotonous written text in which sentences all start with the subject.

  6. Grammatical categories in Korean have no clear correspondence with those of English. This often results in Korean learners using a noun or adjective where English would have an adjective or a noun. For example: My daughter can't come to school today because she is illness.

  7. Articles do not exist in Korean. Learners have significant and often permanent problems with the complexities of the English article system.

  8. Vocabulary: Due to the long-term American presence in South Korea, many (city-dwelling) Koreans are accustomed to seeing and hearing English on a daily basis. Korean has also borrowed some words directly from English. However, there is an absence of the significant number of cognates that help the German student, for example, quickly begin to understand much of what he or she hears and reads in English.

  9. Miscellaneous: Korean grammar is heavily influenced by honorifics. The status of the speaker or writer relative to the listener or reader dictates the verb endings and choice of nouns, adjectives or pronouns. Honorifics do not play a major part in the English language (except in conventions for addressing people as 'Professor' or 'Your Majesty'), which can make English much easier for Korean people to learn than vice versa. It may result, however, in the Korean learner struggling to convey the appropriate amount of deference or assertiveness in his or her dealings with English or Danish peers.

  10. Subjects are often omitted. One has to guess with context.

  11. Singular and plural do not exist.

  12. Verbs always come at the end of a sentence, which requires higher skill for simultaneous interpreting.

How do these characteristics make it important to use properly qualified, professional translators?

Examples of localization mistakes occur frequently with improper translation into Korean, such as problems wit text expansion, date/time formats, counting errors, character encoding, etc., or mistakes with the translation itself.

Dates and times are usually expressed in the following formats:

  1. Date Sequence: Year/Month/Date
  2. Time Sequence: AM …O'clock; (or military time)

In Korean text, numerical values are not usually expressed in script, but rather in numbers.

The date and time are usually written in the beginning of the sentence where it is usually expressed at the end in English.

Korean does not have as many punctuation rules as English.

Examples abound that appear to be translated by translation software rather than by professionally qualified translators. The word order is jumbled, contents are missing and the meaning is confusing at best. Of course, it will take more time to proofread than to translate directly.

Do you know examples where translation or localization mistakes have occurred with Korean, such as problems with text expansion, date/time formats, counting errors, character encoding, etc., or mistakes with the translation itself? Perhaps, you've been asked to review a translation that did not seem to be the work of a properly qualified, professional translator.

Language translation is the act of rendering words, phrases or text into another language with an equivalent meaning. Translation must take into account constraints that include context, the rules of grammar of the two languages, their writing conventions, and their idioms. For example, certain colloquial phrases may have no meaning in another language and an equivalent expression must be found. Using a professional translation service means you will benefit from translation by a native-speaker who has an inherent grasp of one or more foreign languages. Also, the translator will usually be a specialist in a particular area, such as scientific or political terminology. This helps to facilitate translations into understandable, relevant, and culturally sensitive documents.

Relate an example or two where you found a website page or form difficult to use because it was poorly localized into Korean/locale. How might a business lose money, prestige, or incur legal risk due to an unprofessional translation?

The goal of translation is to accurately and appropriately communicate the client's "message" into the local language. This helps maintain a mutual understanding of business expectations when dealing with the native-language speaking population.

We have all encountered website pages, forms or operating manuals from overseas where the translation was comical, unintentionally offensive or just plain embarrassing. The quality of a translation is an important reflection of the quality of an organization.

When a business is going to the effort to market or communicate in a foreign market, it is vital that the message and the materials presented to the customer sound natural and effective. Many translations are accurate, but fail because they don't make contextual or cultural sense.

Language breakdowns resulting from poorly translated documents can be embarrassing and costly—jeopardizing customer relationships and brand identity, and even creating costly legal liabilities.

The US State Department estimates that US businesses lose $50 billion every year in potential sales due to the failure to provide professional quality translations of documents.

Compromising on the quality of the translation can cause more than embarrassing consequences; it can also cost dearly due to unintentionally offending customers. As an organization looking to expand its horizons, it makes sense to hire only the best English-to-Korean translation services.

If possible, provide one example of a particular phrase or concept that only a properly qualified, professional translator would be able to correctly communicate. (by incorporating the following concepts:)

Properly qualified professional translators are able to translate accurately and render the document easy to understand by the readers of the target language. When translating into Korean from English, the following concepts should be followed:

  1. Numbers: The Korean counting system is different from the English counting system. For example, in English, the number 10,000 is written in text as "ten thousand" where in Korean it is "man".

  2. Metric and Numeric Conversions: The qualified translator should not translate or convert Metric or Numeric Systems.

  3. Currency System: Since the exchange rate varies every day and the currency systems are different, monetary values should be expressed in terms of the original currency.

  4. Person's Name: In English, the family name is last, while it is first in Korea. When translating from Korean to English, the order is reversed. (Clue: Usually, Korean first names are longer than the last name…an opposite for some languages.)

  5. Addresses: In Korean, the address system is the opposite of English. When it is translated into English, it is translated phonetically in the reverse order.

  6. Polite forms: There are different levels of polite forms in Korean. The professional and qualified translator should know which forms of polite language are appropriate.

The above concepts should be properly mastered, so the translator can render his/her translation professionally so the client can communicate correctly with customers.


Published - October 2008

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