Use of Hanja

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Thomas F. O'Gara

Senior Member
English USA
While I have a pretty extensive knowledge of Chinese and Japanese, I don't know any Korean. I understand that in South Korea 1800 Chinese characters are still taught as part of the curriculum in the schools. This is close to the standard number of Kanji that are taught students in Japan.

However, I get the distinct impression that Hanja are used sparingly in modern written Korean, unlike Japanese Kanji. In fact, it seems that they are often not used at all. Can anybody give me some measure of the extent of usage of Hanja in everyday Korean?
  • VirtuousV

    Korean, (South) Korea
    I think the knowledge of Chinese characters (Hanja) for Korean is like that of Latin or ancient Greek for English or other European languages: it helps a lot to understand the roots of many words' meaning, but you can survive without any knowledge of it whatsoever.

    Knowing proper Hanja of a word can be quite important actually, because there are lots of homonyms in Korean with the same spelling in Korean characters (which means they sounds the same) but different Chinese characters (which means they have totally different meanings). This was the primary reason they taught Hanja in schools and wrote them along with Hangeul (Korean characters) in books and newspapers.

    Current consensus seems that the payoff of learning those complex characters is not worth the trouble, though. There are almost no instances to use only Hanja (without Hangeul) for a word, and even the most conservative writings (governmental documents or newspapers) rarely seem to use Hanja nowadays; they only use them in parentheses to clarify the meaning of a potentially confusing word. University entrance exams do not have questions on Chinese characters or ancient writings any more, so students do not care much about learning them.

    Thomas F. O'Gara

    Senior Member
    English USA
    Interesting! And thanks very much, VirtuousV. I know that in Japanese there are a large number of homonyms based on Chinese words too.

    Of course in Japanese the Kanji are used for native Japanese words too, and not just words derived from Chinese. I take it from what you say that Korean doesn't do this. Is that correct?


    New Member
    Korean, S. Korea
    Hello Thomas!

    In Korean, most if not all of our Hanja is 音讀, not read by meaning - although there are very rare exceptions.

    Also, we generally assign one sound per hanja, so that there is far less ambiguity (except in some cases such as 金, which can be pronounced either Kim or Kum).

    So no, we do not use Hanja like the Japanese use Kanji; we like to spell everything out in our own phonetic letters. And because Hangul is phonetic, there's no point in reading something the way it shouldn't be read.

    I don't know about how it used to be in the eighties (up until the late eighties, we did use Hanja very liberally - it was used just like Japanese Kanji), but this is the way things are now.

    Hope I helped :)
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