Asian Cultures, History, Languages

Chinese, Japanese and Korean: how are they different?

In 2015, 23% of global tourists to Norway were from Asia. The majority were Chinese, but Japan and Korea have a lot more connection with Norway than you might first think. Most Norwegians are no strangers to electronic brands like Sony, Samsung or Toyota and Hyndai, and perhaps even the animation producer Miyasaki and his studio Ghibli. It is also common knowledge that Chinese, Japanese and Korean are different languages, but as a reader of this blog, you may be interested to dig a little deeper about their origins.

Chinese oracles

In our last blogpost we talked about Chinese characters. The earliest written record of Chinese was found as carvings on the tortoise shells for the purpose of fortune telling. These characters are standardized drawings that show meanings. It is widely believed the characters were first carved on the shells as questions to god, then the shell was put above a fire until it cracked. The shapes of the cracks then showed god’s will, and the prophecies’ prediction would be put to test. The Chinese language has of course developed very far from this origin. With the accumulation and evolution of the language over two millennia, Chinese has developed a unique non-phonic writing system with an extensive collection of over 85,000 characters, and is also a tonal language. Due to its past as the most advanced and dominant dynasty in Asia for over a thousand years, its well-established characters were “borrowed” by its two eastern neighbours.

A tortoise shell with ancient Chinese writing

Japanese – three systems of writing in one language

Japanese Hiragana chart

Japanese has developed a complex system with two sets of phonetic alphabet, Hiragana and Katakana, in addition to Kanzi, Chinese characters which was used entirely in Japanese classical literature previously. By about 7 century AD when Hiragana was developed, the alphabet mostly used in common words, linguist recognised that Japanese started to become a language of its own. Katakana is a separate set of alphabet especially for names and foreign loan words, which Japanese has plenty including oranges, computers, and “arbeid”, among others. Kanzi are widely used in Japanese language, but they have adopted different pronunciations or even meaning from the original Chinese characters.

Korean – A humanistic origin

Korean language

Prior to its creation in the mid 15th century, the Korean language has been primarily an oral language amongst its inhabitant. The written language was exclusively for the elites who could afford to learn from its highly advanced neighbour at that time, the Chinese, in order to record the sounds of words. However, seeing the need for a written language closer to the common people, Emperor Sejong from the Yi Dynasty then devised a writing system called Hangul, using a set of geometric symbols to represent vowels and consonants, and is widely applauded by linguists as one of the most efficient and logical in the world.

In sum, it may be difficult to tell whether a face belongs to a Chinese, Japanese and Korean, but the three languages are far from similar. In greeting each other, a Chinese says, Ni Hao; a Japanese says Konichiwa; and a Korean says Anyonghaseiyo. It is true that they share some Chinese characters or words, but they differ fundamentally in terms of alphabets, writing system, grammar and pronunciations, in ways much more than many European languages are varied. While they are both greatly influenced by Chinese culture, both Japan and Korea did maintain their characters through preserving a unique language of their own – and East Asia is a more interesting place because of this.