How does the Korean alphabet differ from Chinese? Is Japanese written with Chinese characters? To many Westerners, it’s impossible to distinguish between the three languages on paper. However, after reading this post, you should have no issues telling Chinese, Japanese, and Korean apart.
When it comes to computers, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are usually grouped together under the acronym CJK, and for good reason.
While they’re linguistically unrelated, all three can be written both vertically and horizontally, and all three use Chinese characters - hànzì in Chinese, hànzi in Japanese, and hanja in Korean – which is one of the main reasons for the confusion.
Let’s take a look at the difference between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean and see if we can tell them apart without having to learn any of the languages.
The Chinese language is the only one which entirely relies on this script, and even then, at least two different versions are in active use all over the world; traditional and simplified.
Note how most of the Chinese characters are very dense and square. Chinese characters are the oldest continuously-used systems of writing in the world, so don’t be surprised if you come across handwritten texts which at first sight don’t resemble the above example.
Moving to Japanese, this language has the largest number of official scripts in the world.
Kanji – Chinese characters – are used for most words of Chinese and Japanese origins. Hiragana, the curvy, feminine script, was originally used by women, but it’s now the main building block of the Japanese language – employed for both grammar and vocabulary.
Katakana, the manly, more angular script, is used mainly for loan words, onomatopoeia, and transliteration of foreign words. Finally, romaji, the familiar Latin script used in English and other Western languages, can be found everywhere, from product packaging to company names.
Below is the Wikipedia description of the color orange, employing katakana, kanji, and hiragana, all in the same sentence.
The Korean language, in the mid-15th century, transitioned to hangul – the only script in the world made by an individual, for which the theory and motives behind its creation have been fully set out and explained.
It’s known as one of the most scientific writing systems in the world, and is neither based on ancient written languages, nor an imitation of another set of characters.
In South Korea, you can still meet hanja – Chinese characters – every once in a while, but the script is quickly becoming obsolete.
Take note of the many circular shapes used in hangul – these are almost non-existent in the other two languages, thus making the script easy to recognize. Furthermore, unlike Chinese and Japanese, Korean has completely adopted European punctuation marks, from commas to question marks, and space-delimits words and sentences.
A great strategy to use when it comes to distinguishing between written forms of South-East Asian languages is:
As you can see, you don’t even need to learn the individual languages to distinguish between them. As is often the case with linguistics, it’s all about pattern recognition, something we humans tend to be really good at!