Chinese, Japanese, Korean… What’s the difference?

While the four countries may be close in proximity, the Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages are entirely unrelated to each other genetically. Let’s learn about the differences and unique features of the three languages!

CHINESE
The Chinese language is written using only Chinese ideogram characters. Also called hanzi, Chinese characters combine a very delicate and beautiful series of strokes derived from calligraphy techniques.
There are two different versions used across the world:

  • The traditional script is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
  • The simplified script is used in Mainland China. Some characters were simplified by reducing the number of strokes. Yet, not all characters have changed, and many have remained the same.
    Although they are written differently, corresponding characters in Traditional and Simplified Chinese are usually pronounced in the same way.
    Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. Each tone usually conveys a different meaning. The language has five tones: four basic tones and a fifth neutral tone. Each character is one syllable, and each character has one of these tones.

JAPANESE
The Japanese language has the highest number of official scripts in the world. Written Japanese is the combination of 3 different sets of characters:

  • Hiragana is a syllabary consisting of 48 base characters composed of curved lines. The Hiragana script is used to form the grammar of the sentence.
  • Katakana is the second syllabary consisting of 48 base characters. Unlike Hiragana, the Katakana script is primarily used to write words that have been imported from other languages.
  • Kanji is a system of symbols that represent words or ideas. The system mainly utilizes characters borrowed or adapted from traditional Chinese. Most words written in Kanji have different pronunciations in Japanese and Chinese.
    For example, 車 (“car” in both Chinese and Japanese) is pronounced kuruma in Japanese but pronounced chē in Chinese.
Jezael Melgoza | Unsplash
Stephan Valentin | Unsplash

KOREAN
The Korean language is written in a style of writing known as Hangul. Its connection to other languages such as Chinese and Japanese is unclear. Modern linguists generally classify Korean as a language isolate.

Developed in the 15th century, Hangul is now known as one of the most scientific writing systems in the world. The Korean alphabet is “scientific” since its letters correspond to the places of articulation in the mouth. Hangul uses 24 basic letters and 27 complex letters grouped into blocks.

The Korean language is easy to recognize due to the many circular shapes and the vertical and horizontal lines used in Hangul.

Example: The bicycle is behind the sofa.

自行車在沙發後面。(Chinese traditional)
自行车在沙发后面。(Chinese simplified)

자전거는 소파 뒤에 있습니다. (Korean)

自転車はソファの後ろにあります。(Japanese)

Lucile Guéguen

Sources:
Lingualift: How To Tell Written Chinese, Japanese and Korean Apart

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