[KS] Multiple Languages on the Korean Peninsula

Jonathan Best jbest at wesleyan.edu
Fri May 27 14:08:29 EDT 2005

Just as a brief follow-up to Charles Mueller very helpful response to 
Rupert Atkinson's query regarding multiple languages in Korea, it is 
my recollection that the late third-century Sanguo zhi indicates that 
the Mahan and Chinhan populations spoke different languages, i.e., 
that they could communicate with one another orally.

>Rupert Atkinson brought up an interesting question about multiple
>languages on the Korean peninsula. Some people have speculated that the
>apparent lack of difficulty in communication between Korean kindgdoms
>suggest a common language. I find this highly unlikely. A common
>language requires signficant contact between people to prevent dialects
>from drifting apart and such contact is unlikely to have occurred in
>ancient times. I suspect the opposite is the case: people were so
>accustomed to having difficulties with communication whenever they
>traveled anywhere that it was not even considered an issue worthy of
>As for the multiplicity of languages, I'd be very suprised if there
>weren't a large number of languages--quite possibly from different or
>distant language families--on the Korean peninsula. Even two
>communities sharing a language will drift apart to the point that the
>languages are not longer identifiable as belonging to the same family
>after about 10,000 years. Since multiple migrations (of people not
>necessarily speaking the same language) came into Korea over a much
>longer period of time, and since their was no unification of the
>peninsula by a strong bureaucratic state (capable of imposing a common
>educational system) prior to the Shilla unification, there's no reason
>for the languages to be similar.
>My guess (purely speculative) is that Jeju Islanders spoke a completely
>different language unrelated to their current dialect and of a
>different language family than modern Korean. (This supposition is
>supported by early Chinese accounts.) Shilla undoubtedy spoke something
>pretty close to modern Korean, although in its early years, there were
>probably areas speaking different languages. Goguryeo, representing
>people more recently coming in from the north, probably spoke a
>different language of a different language family (or one that was at
>least beyond the 10,000 year horizon) and areas of Goguryeo, being
>populated by tribal groups that had been incorporated into Goguryeo,
>undoubtedly spoke their own languages--perhaps in the same language
>family as Goguryeo (or Manchurian?) but mutually unintelligible.
>Baekje, if historical records are to be believed, was probably settled
>by an offshoot of Goguryeo and would speak a related dialect or
>language. Areas such as Gaya, which were said to have links to Japan,
>may have spoken yet another language. And there may very well have been
>some pidgins used in such areas--simple trade languages which could
>have developed into full-fledged languages. I'm wary of saying that
>some Gaya people spoke "Japanese" since Japan itself would have had a
>large number of languages.
>The number six cited by Atkinson is as good a guess as any. My guess is
>that the current Korean peninsula, around the advent of the C.E., was
>probably home to more than six languages (==> languages mutually
>unintelligible) and that at least 3 or 4 of these, even if they were
>available, could not be reconstructed as part of the same family.
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Jonathan W. Best
Art History Program, CFA
Wesleyan University
Middletown, CT 06459-0442

Telephone: (860) 685-3025
FAX: (860) 685-2061
E-mail: jbest at wesleyan.edu
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