The origin of the Japanese and Korean languages is still highly debated, as well as how much they are related. Some linguists estimate that both languages belong to the Altaic language family, maybe with influences from Malayo-Polynesian language family. Note that both languages have nothing in common with Chinese with regard to grammar.

Korean and Japanese share:

  • agglutinative morphology. For example, the verb stem may be followed by a number of particles and auxiliaries. This is a trait of Altaic languages.
  • a mark of focus. A special grammatical word indicates what the clause is speaking about (the theme or topic). It may be different from the subject, as in popular English speaking: "The car, I've bought it". This is a feature of Altaic languages.
  • word order. Both languages specify the subject first, followed by the object and the verb. Most Western languages use the subject-verb-object order. This is another feature of Altaic languages.
  • vocabulary: many words have approximately the same meaning and pronunciation. Both languages have borrowed a great amount of vocabulary from Chinese. However, the evolution of pronunciations has been important enough to make the languages sound quite differently (incidentally, this is not a criterium for differentiating two languages: Japanese and Spanish sound closer than English and German to someone who doesn't understand these languages).
  • the writing system: both languages use Chinese characters. However, Korea nowadays use most of the time a home-made alphabet, hangul. Japanese itself uses two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, in conjunction with the Chinese characters (kanji). Therefore a Korean text can be immediately distinguished from a Japanese text.
  • the absence of the letter r in word initial position: in Korean and Japanese, no native word starts with r, although it's the most frequent Japanese consonant in non-initial position. However, this characteristic is shared by many languages, including Altaic languages and Basque.

Korean and Japanese do not share:

  • intelligibility: a Korean will not understand a Japanese, and a Japanese will not understand a Korean. However, maybe they were able to understand each other a long time ago, around year 600.
  • intonation: Korean intonation tends to rise or remain equal at the very end of a rhythmic unit, while Japanese intonation tends to fall or remain equal.

Korean and Japanese share or do not share:

  • vowel harmony: both languages used to have it. While vowel harmony is still more or less a feature of the Korean language, the Japanese have abandoned it (more or less).

  • Thanks tongpoo and izubachi. An interesting source on the letter r in word initial position is

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