Chinese, Korean, And Japanese: Which is Which?

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.

The Scripts 

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, kanji 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.

Below is the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on the color orange in 

橙色,又稱橘色,為二次顏料色,是红色与黄色的混合,得名于橙的 颜色。

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.

オレンジ色は、果物のオレンジの実のような色。また、夕日に染ま る茜雲のような色。

As you can see, due to the use of katakana and hiragana, Japanese is slightly 
more airy and spacious than Chinese. As a general rule, unlike Chinese and 
Korean, Japanese also doesn’t use any form of question or exclamation marks, 
but you might still meet them in some situations.
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 

In South Korea, you can still meet hanja – Chinese characters – every once in a 
while, but the script is quickly becoming obsolete.

주황(Orange)은 색 중 하나이다. 이 색은 빨강과 노랑의 중간색이며.

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.
RecapA 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! |



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