Last week on October 9th, South Korea celebrated Hangul Day, a holiday dedicated to the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangul (한글). Many fans of Korean pop music (K-pop) and Korean dramas (K-dramas) from around the world posted online their love for the Korean language and Korean pop culture.
Korea is a strong market for localization: despite being much smaller than its East Asian neighbors, China and Japan, South Korea has a competitive economy with a GDP per capita higher than China and a booming entertainment industry whose global influence arguably rivals that of both of its neighbors.
What are some key things to note about the Korean language for localization? Why does Hangul have it's own holiday? We'll explore those topics in the blog below.
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The Korean Writing System: From Hanja to Hangul
Prior to 1446 in Korea, Chinese characters known as Hanja (한자) were the only form of writing and were used almost exclusively by the elite, upper class in Korea. Similar to the issues faced with Japanese using Chinese characters, the classical Chinese script was poorly suited for Korean with its complex grammatical structure. Korean uses topic markers, particles, and a subject-object-verb sentence structure--all different from the relatively simple grammatical, subject-verb-object structure of Chinese. As a result, nearly all of the Korean common folk were illiterate.
“Saddened by this”, King Sejong (pictured above)—the ruler of Korea in 1446—said, “I have developed 28 new letters. It is my wish that people may learn these letters easily and that they be convenient for daily use." These letters, Hangul, whose invention is attributed to King Sejong and his administration, is considered by many as one of the most scientific and easiest writing systems to learn in the world. Hangul (then known as Hunmin Jeongeum, 훈민정음, "proper sounds for instructing the people"), was said to have been announced to the Korean public on October 9th, 1446 and thus henceforth October 9th was known as "Hangul Day." This may be the only holiday in the world dedicated to a writing system (if you know of another one, leave a comment below!).
Hangul would eventually be reduced to 24 letters and its use has been attributed to the exceptionally high literacy rate in North and South Korea that currently hovers around 99%. Over the centuries, Hangul eventually replaced Hanja, though Chinese characters are still used to read some documents written before the 1970s, to convey certain complex ideas in scientific and judiciary journals, as well as a short-hand to save space on newspaper headlines or signs. For subtitling and captioning in Korean, Hangul has its own special considerations (such as Unicode and double-byte language compatibility) that are covered in depth here.
Honorific Speech in the Korean Language
Another key aspect to the Korean language is honorific speech which determines what title is used to address someone and what verbal ending is used. The Korean language has low formal (2 levels), middle formal (3 levels), and high formal speech (2 levels) for a total of 7 levels of formality. The level of formality to use depends on the relationship and familiarity of the speaker and the listener.
Korean formal speech was developed from a strict, hereditary social class system in ancient Korea that was later influenced by Confucian ideals (15th century). Thus in ancient Korea, if a commoner were to address someone of a higher class, a higher level of formality would be used. Misuse of honorific speech would have severe repercussions from social ostracization to physical violence, consequences which unfortunately still happen to this day in Korea.
In modern times, Korea has become much more egalitarian; however, honorific speech remains and has evolved to incorporate other social rankings. Speech is adjusted based on the listener's age, education, occupational rank, seniority (if in the same company), familial relationship, and many other factors.
Localizing for Korea
Thus, when localizing for a Korean market with a source language that does not have set honorific speech rules, it can get especially tricky. For example, let's say we had a scene from an American movie of a 30-something-year-old male employee addressing his older, female boss and that we wanted to localize the scene for a South Korean audience. By age 30, most Korean men would have undergone mandatory military training where the most formal levels of speech are used. Being a professional setting and the boss being older, it would make sense that the male employee would use the highest formal level when addressing his boss.
This is why it's so important to have top-quality directors for Korean voice-over, the scene could be that the employee is trying to be familiar with the boss or is trying to strike up romantic interest with her. This would then change the level of formality used and which level to use might not be agreed upon between different native-Korean speakers. Thus, during the localization process, from translator to the director in discussion with the talent, the formality level might differ.
Languages, like English, have its own degrees of formality known as "register", however what makes Korean formal speech relatively more complex are the changes in the verbal endings of a sentence and how individuals are addressed. An intimate way to address an older sister would be "eonni" or "hyeong" for older brother, but these titles can also be used by friends that feel close to each other.
Reaching Korean Audiences
As you can see, localizing content for Korean audiences takes keen understanding of the written language, familiarity with all the different levels of honorific speech, and knowing who the intended audience is. We weren't able to go over all the intricacies of localizing for Korea, but have covered in a previous blog key things to know about video dubbing in Korean. As shown by Hangul Day, Koreans take pride in their language and culture. When localizing for Korea, the localization process should take care to reflect that pride and respect.
Want to localize your content for a Korean speaking audience? Make sure you don't miss a step by clicking our checklist below: