On Hangul Supremacy & Exclusivity – On “Pure” Korean Words

Hangul Expo

This is one post in a series on Hangul Supremacy and Hangul Exclusivity. Hangul Supremacy (–優秀主義, 한글우수주의) is the widespread belief that Hangul is superior, especially in opposition to Chinese characters. Hangul Exclusivity (–專用, 한글전용) is closely related and refers to writing exclusively in Hangul. The purpose of these posts is to introduce Anglophone readers to the Korean debate over Hangul and Hanja. 

On “Pure” Korean Words and Korean Linguistic Purism

Claim: Koreans do not need to rely on Sino-Korean words. The Korean language can be “purified” of Sino-Korean words.

Rebuttal: Sino-Korean words are just as Korean as so-called “pure” Korean words. 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is made up of Sino-Korean words. Many Sino-Korean words are words used only in Korean. Furthermore, tons of so-called “pure” Korean words were originally Sino-Korean words whose pronunciations have deviated from their original pronunciations. Korean linguistic purism is misguided. It is completely natural for borrowing of this type.


Koreans have been using Hanja, or more accurately the pictogram predecessor to it, since the Neolithic Age. With being in close proximity to China, where Hanja originated, for such a long time, it should be no surprise — and is perfectly natural — that there are many words based on Hanja in the Korean language. In fact, it is estimated that 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is Sino-Korean words and in actual use within a sentence the rate can be as high as 90%. Only 25% of the Korean vocabulary is made up of so-called “pure” Korean words (純—, 순우리말).

As a comparison, approximately 60% of the English vocabulary is from Latinate sources and only 30% of the English vocabulary is from Germanic sources. Yet, unlike many Korean speakers, who think that just because a word is a Sino-Korean one that it is “Chinese” and therefore “foreign”, there is no strong prejudice against Latinate words among English speakers. The problem is that: (1) many Korean speakers cannot tell apart Sino-Korean words from “pure” Korean words; (2) many Sino-Korean words are of Korean coinage; and (3) many so-called “pure” Korean words were originally Sino-Korean words.

Difficulty of Telling Apart Sino-Korean Words from “Pure” Korean Words

Since Sino-Korean words fall largely in line with Korean phonology (i.e., how Korean naturally sounds), they are difficult to tell apart sometimes, even for Koreans who know Hanja. For instance, which of the following words are Sino-Korean or “pure” Korean?

  • Danggeun (당근) (“Carrot”)
  • Seopseophada (섭섭하다) (“To be disappointed”)
  • Goyohada (고요하다) (“To be quiet”)
  • Muri (무리) (“Group”)
  • Seorap (서랍) (“Drawer”)
  • Saenggak (생각) (“Thought”)

Cannot tell? None of them are Sino-Korean words. (The words Danggeun and Saenggak are theorized to be Sino-Korean words, but there is no conclusive evidence.) Sino-Korean words sound just like “pure” Korean words. The average Korean speaker has difficulty telling them apart too. Here is one Korean blogger that was shocked at finding out that the word “Dodaeche” (都大體, 도대체) meaning “what in the world” is a Sino-Korean word, not a “pure” Korean word. Up until researching for this post, even this blogger thought that the word “Horang’i” (虎狼-, 호랑이), meaning “tiger,” is a “pure” Korean word. There are very many similar articles in the Korean blogosphere and on Twitter of Korean speakers being surprised at which words were Sino-Korean and which were not. 

Sino-Korean Words Used Only in Korean

Regardless, the primary criticism of Sino-Korean words are that they are “foreign.” This is mostly because most Koreans have never bothered to study Chinese or Japanese. Those that have have been surprised that there are plenty of Sino-Korean words that are either only used in Korean or used quite differently from Chinese or Japanese. (This blogger is not too familiar with Mandarin, and is relying on other Korean sources.) There are plenty of Sino-Korean words that fall under this category:

  • Supyo (手票, 수표) (“Check”)
  • Yangmal (洋襪, 양말) (“Sock”)
  • Pyeonji (便紙, 편지) (“Letter”)
  • Chulshi (出市, 출시) (“To release [a product] into the market”)
  • Juyuso (注油所, 주유소) (“Gasoline stand”)
  • Pyeoneuijeom (便宜店, 편의점) (“Convenience store”)
  • Geupgiya (及其也, 급기야) (“In the end”)
  • Dodaeche (都大體, 도대체) (“What in the world” or “what the heck”)
  • Eochapi (於此彼, 어차피) (“Anyway”)
  • Hayeogan (何如間, 하여간) (“At any rate”)
  • Obiirak (烏飛梨落, 오비이락) (“As soon as the crow flies, the pear drops”)

So-Called “Pure” Korean Words

Kimchi Pic

In addition to Sino-Korean words only used in Korean, there are tons of so-called “pure” Korean words that were actually originally Sino-Korean words, whose pronunciations have deviated from their Hanja pronunciation. (Moreover, to this blogger’s knowledge, these words are not included in the 60-70% figure and seem to be often considered “pure” Korean or at least “native” vocabulary. If so, the 60-70% figure is lower and the 25% figure is higher than they should be.) The most famous of these words is Kimchi (김치), the pickled vegetables most associated with Korean cuisine. The original word was Timchae (沈菜, 팀채), which is of Korean coinage, meaning “soaked vegetables,” and would be pronounced Chimchae (침채) in Modern Korean. The word eventually morphed to Dimchae (딤채) and then Kimchi. Even the dialectal word for Kimchi used in some regions, Ji (지), was originally a Sino-Korean word, Jeo (菹, 저), meaning “pickled.” Here are some other “pure” Korean words that fall under this category. Many of these words concern food:

  • Gochu (고추) (“Red pepper”) ← Gocho (苦草, 고초) (“Bitter grass”)
  • Baechu (배추) (“Nappa cabbage”) ← Baekchae (白菜, 백채) (“White vegetable”)
  • Oksusu (옥수수) (“Corn”) ← Okchokseo (玉蜀黍, 옥촉서)
  • Gamja (감자) (“Potato”) ← Gamjeo (甘藷, 감저)
  • Ojingeo (오징어) (“Squid”)  ← Ojeokeo (烏賊魚, 오적어) (“The fish that crows steal”)
  • Bobae (보배) (“Treasure”) ← Bopae (寶貝, 보패)
  • Gage (가게) (“Store”) ← Gaga (假家, 가가) (“Temporarily built house”)
  • Seongnyang (성냥) (“Matchsticks”) ← Seokryuhwang (石硫黃, 석류황) (“Rock sulfur”)
  • Cheondung (천둥) (“Thunder”) ← Cheondong (天動, 천동) (“Heaven’s movements”)
  • Gwanyeok (과녁) (“Target”) ← Gwanhyeok (貫革, 관혁)
  • Jimseung (짐승) (“Beasts”) ← Jungsaeng (衆生, 중생)
  • Jireongi (지렁이) (“Worm”) ← Jiryong (地龍, 지룡)
  • Najung (나중) (“Later”) ← Naejong (乃終, 내종)
  • Ganan (가난) (“Poverty”) ← Gannan (艱難, 간난)
  • Sseolmae (썰매) (“Sled”)  ← Seolma (雪馬, 설마)
  1. Owen said:

    I believe that a number of the words in your pure Korean list above are at least partly of Chinese origin too. For example saenggak is thought to be the combination of a Korean word ‘saeng’ with the Chinese character 覺. Danggeun likewise probably includes the Chinese character 根.

    Very much enjoying your posts by the way.

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you.

      I looked into some of the words in that category to double check. Many “pure” Korean words were transcribed in Hanja, especially when Hangul did not exist. For instance, 서랍 was written as 舌盒. For “Saenggak” and “Danggeun,” I read that this might be also the case. Saenggak was written either as 生覺 (“to form a feeling”) or 省覺 (“To reflect on a feeling”). I did read a theory similar to what you said for Saenggak. Similarly, Danggeun was written as 唐根. There is one theory possibly comes from the word 紅唐무, but again I read that there is no proof.

  2. Very interesting! Especially the last section, hadn’t known that.

    • 歸源 said:

      Yes, it is. I didn’t include them in the post, but there are also half-native-half-Sino-Korean words. These include: 진짜(眞-), 애초(-初), and 처럼<-體로(체로).

      • Good to know, it’s very useful when learning the language.

  3. Owen said:

    I’m going to be pedantic again! I believe that the word 진짜 (like 가짜) belongs to another class of Sino-Korean words which are derived from vernacular Chinese and entered the Korean language probably in the Ming or Qing periods. They often seem to relate to food (like 배추) or perhaps trade. They are actually han’gul transliterations of baihua 白话 pronunciations.

  4. Sean said:

    Hi I’m a junior in high school who plans on pursuing a linguists major in college. I am a native speaker of Mandarin with a bit of Cantonese from my dad’s side. I’m taking Japanese at my high school and studying Korean on my own until college hopefully. I stumbled on your blog and I find it quite interesting so thanks! One thing though. 工夫 while it does have the meaning of time, it really includes a big emphasis on effort as well. The most common use I can think of is 下工夫 or to put time and effort into something. Interesting that 工夫 has a homophone 功夫 which is kungfu the martial art, something that requires much time and effort. Even more curious is the Japanese word for study. (勉強/勉强; べんきょう; 면강) is to study in Japanese but it means “to force (into doing something)” in Mandarin. For now though I hold the same disclaimer as you though haha. Sorry if there are typos I’m bad at typing on tablets and thanks again for this blog!


  5. Chris said:

    Korean is about 70% classical Chinese. It was introduced into Korea through formal education in the Chinese classics over the past at least 2000(!) years. The manner in which these words were adopted into Korean went through a “Koreanization” process that makes them thoroughly Korean. They selected the words they liked the most, mostly from the basic texts like the 1000 Character Classic and such, and of course got rid of any tonal accents. This means the Koreans made the Classical Chinese roots they chose into their own words in their own way. English did this with French and Latin. Chinese roots are natural and basic now to the Korean language, and any attempt to cut them out is counterproductive and self-harming.

    • 歸源 said:

      I have made this point again and again on my blog. It actually gets to 90% once you get into technical jargon (e.g., business, law, science).

  6. New Reader said:

    I find these posts most enlightening. Mayhaps you are able to answer me; how often can hanja be seen in script alongside hangul nowadays in modern korean society? i.e.: newspapers, magazines, television.
    And what is, if you are aware, the state of hanja education in the formal schooling system? Are the trends of past decades reversing?

    • 歸源 said:

      You can see in certain fields almost on a regular basis still (e.g., law and history), but seldom in others. As for popular press/media, you can see a few characters now and then, but they are usually very easy (e.g., 北 for North Korea, 英 for England, 曰 for “to say”).

      As for Hanja education, it has been on a see-saw decrease since the 1970s, when the Korean government actively attempted to ban it entirely. The most recent efforts, however, are the strongest I have ever seen. I am still a bit pessimistic as to whether it will reverse.

  7. Dimarco said:

    I think with the rise of China as an economic power Hanja education is going to come back into the vogue. However, I’m extremely biased in my view because when I studied Chinese in China, the vast majority of my classmates were Koreans, which is definitely not going to be representative of Koreans as a whole. I wish I knew more Korean so I could add more linguistic insight, but I find your posts fascinating anyway. I’m fluent and literate in Mandarin, conversational in Cantonese, and am currently studying Japanese. It’s always interesting to me how due to the different waves of linguistic diffusion, different pronunciations of characters come into the same language. For example 楷 in Mandarin has two pronunciations one goes along with the modern pronunciation ‘jie’ and one which is a throwback to ancient Chinese which is ‘kai’–which just happens to closely resemble the Cantonese pronunciation “gai” (Cantonese, as a side note, retains much more ancient pronunciation and is almost identical to standard Chinese as promulgated by the Tang dynasty).

  8. mal said:

    First off, great job to Kuiwon – you made me stay up all night to read the entire blog in one sitting. I’ve been intrigued by traditional chinese characters and the role it plays in East Asian languages since about 2 years ago and have read just about every english article there is on quora and wikipedia on this topic – yet this blog must be the single most in depth body of research by a single person, albeit an opinionated piece. I grew up in Hong Kong, where people converse in cantonese and use the traditional script exclusively. For whatever reasons I was english educated and had zero formal training in the chinese language, though I’m a native speaker of cantonese and can read and guess up to 95% of a tabloid newspaper article but sadly I’m unable to write more than 50 characters off the top of my head. It is the linkage between Cantonese – Japanese – Korean that intrigues me the most, and the most recent discovery which led me to your blog is the underlying classical chinese roots in all 3 languages – whether it being pronunciation, vocabulary, script, or even (possibly) grammar. I;m pretty convinced by your piece here that Korean vocabulary is made up of a majority of sino-korean loan words, just like japanese and cantonese. I understand these were mostly borrowed since ancient times circa Tang dynasty, and the sounds have been preserved by korean, japanese, and cantonese to a high level of similarity. I notice that standard chinese have diverged so badly from classical chinese that I find that when I try to guess-read a japanese wikipedia article I find the formal words and archaic sentence structure almost similar to the equivalent classical chinese version. Now I don’t have that privilege for korean wikipedia articles since I haven’t found anything written in mixed hanja-hangul script.

    • mal said:

      What I’m very curious about is your view on the linkage between the grammatical roots in these 3 languages – I’d like to theorize that that is the case and there is much more similarity between them than linguists put forward (typically cantonese would be under sino-tibetan and korean/japanese under altaic which I think is not right). Also as somebody pointed out earlier, is it more important for the script to convey semantics or phonetics, and would this in fact be more important in determining the linguistic origin of a given language, and if so can we argue that the three languages are actually one of the same family if they all derive substantially from classical chinese? I think the past 50 years have been history’s saddest period for East Asian languages as it seems like you said our east asian dictators have tried so hard to destroy the heart and core of their linguistic culture all for the sake of strengthening their own power – I now live in singapore and we can safely add the late LKY (plus chairman mao) to this list. However if korea is slowly reversing this trend, hong kong and taiwan stands strong to refuse penetration of communist simplified script, and japan remain staunch on preserving their cultural heritage, then perhaps one day the chinese will also realize the error of their ways and reintroduce the traditional characters in china. p.s. forgot about vietnam but the same applies – whenever I learn a new vietnamese word it is more likely than not for it to have the same or very close approximation to the cantonese equivalent – they must be having a crazy time working with a latinate script that is semantically dumb.

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