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While studying Japanese, it's very helpful that nearly all words of foreign origin are marked by using katakana (a syllabary separate from the usual mix of hiragana and Chinese characters) and words based on Chinese readings of characters are usually also recognizable by the absence of additional hiragana characters.

While this graphical distinction of words of different etymological background is absent in modern Korean writing, it might be possible nevertheless to guess which words are of (say) English or Chinese origin, by looking at the occurring sound combinations and orthographic features. For example, strong consonants and syllables with two final consonants seem to occur only in native Korean vocabulary, while words ending in eu (e.g. 테니스) are commonly derived from Western words ending in a consonant. Any other heuristics?

  • as an aside to this, since you'll probably find out there are not (known to me anyway) any heuristics for this, i've found that a good number of english words in korean are unknown as being english to many korean people. they just think it's a korean word, or don't think about it. it makes sense, only in rare cases do we think of the etymology of a word in english...we just use it. but other words, maybe "coup de tat" or something, are clearly derived from another language. – 제이 죤스톤 Apr 3 '17 at 16:34
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    Not really.. me personally, I just got used to seeing "foreign-looking" words & recognizing commonly used sounds in Chinese words (like how you start recognizing latin roots in English words once you know them). For example, for a word like 외출, knowing its meaning and some basic Chinese characters, I can easily assume that 외출 is a word based on Hanja. For words like 라디오, it looks very foreign and it doesn't take long to figure out its foreign etymology. – spicypumpkin Apr 3 '17 at 17:45
  • “What makes a word sound foreign?” It's hard to explain for me, but I'm pretty sure that there must be natives' internal rules learned over years to catch those words out. – Константин Ван Oct 2 '18 at 17:38
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I'd say "classical" hanja-eo (based on Middle Chinese eumhun readings) is quite easy to spot, although the accuracy is quite low. You've mentioned certain phonological and phonotactic features; there are a few more which I can go through:

  • lack of 쌍 consonants
  • restricted set of 받침: limited to those of Sino-Korean and corresponding to Middle Chinese's, i.e. ㄴ,ㅁ,ㅇ,ㄱ,ㄹ,ㅂ. No others are permitted in standard eumhun readings.
  • no double 받침
  • ㅡ is not a licit "open syllable" in (modern?) Sino-Korean eumhun readings

Some tendencies can also be gleaned:

  • a lot of iotated vowels (especially 여), more common than in native Korean (not that native Korean doesn't have any, just a frequency factor)
  • a lot more compound vowels (same frequency caveat

Plus modern Sino-Korean readings have been affected by certain sound changes and reforms in the 20th century:

  • ㄷ/ㅌ + ㅣ (including iotated vowels) has become ㅈ/ㅊ, so the former are no longer seen in Sino-Korean;
  • ㅅ no longer pairs with iotated vowels (there was a point where the palatalisation was non-phonemic, eliminating the distinction that was in Middle Chinese), although 시 itself is still fine.

For borrowings derived from English in modern South Korean (post-20th century):

  • ㅅ with iotated vowels, most often from English sh-. It is not supremely common in native Korean, where it is usually a verbal inflection.
  • 두음법칙, the initial sound rule, which applies only to standard modern South Korean (as opposed to standard North Korean), means that initial ㄹ is (overwhelmingly) likely to be from English r- or l-, and same with initial ㄴ in front of ㅣ or iotated vowels.
  • general lack of 쌍 consonants (however, less strict than Sino-Korean; also does not apply in the pre-modern period, e.g. 빵)
  • no double 받침
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    These heuristics fail on very common words that look to be Chinese-origin, but are actually native: 모두; 바다; 사랑; 생각; 새벽; 손목; 가장; 아침; 여보; 오직; 지난; 처음. I only figured it out while learning when I tried to look up the etymology of the words. Then there are some exceptional cases where 쌍 consonants are used for hanja—such as (雙) itself! The popular dish 짜장면 may also be an example (but could also be considered a transliteration). These heuristics are very useful for eliminating obvious cases from further scrutiny, but care must be taken to examine the suspects. – Kevin Li Apr 13 '17 at 13:07
  • @KevinLi Agreed. 쌍 雙 is a very well-known exception. For common words, their derivation should be learnt if one is interested (hence my statement the accuracy is quite low - haha!). – Michaelyus Apr 18 '17 at 9:48
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In addition to other good answers, there are also many common syllables that are never used for Hanja, so if you encounter them it's a good sign that the word is not Sino-Korean.

Some of the "gaps" are not easily explained (at least I don't know any explanation): it's just the way it is. Examples include 센, 더, 뭉. Note that slightly different syllables occur frequently for Sino-Korean: 세, 선, 거, 덕, 무, 묵, 웅.

Also keep in mind that these heuristics are not perfect: a lot of Koreans are surprised to learn that 비박 (= bivouac) and 목업 (= mockup) are not 한자어, but 차일 (遮日) and 도대체 (都大體) are!

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You're right there's no specific notation to denote that a word is based on Chinese characters vs. is pure Hangul. At times, in written text, the Korean word (i.e., in Hangul) is written and then the Chinese characters for the word are written in parentheses next to the word. This is in case there could be confusion regarding the meaning of the word. I've seen this sort of thing more in academic textbooks though.

I think the best way to start recognizing Hanja themselves is to learn the first few basic ones and then use the context of the situation to figure out whether the words are Hanja or not.

Learning words in Hanja isn’t really the same as learning individual vocabulary words, such as learning the word for cat or dog or the like. You asked about "spotting" words. I guess one way of "spotting" them is more like knowing some various basic characters and their meaning and trying to figure out whether it makes sense for those characters to be part of a word. It's like seeing Hanja as being made up of distinct parts.


The best way to see it is probably by example. So, for example, you can write the words for different languages like Chinese, Japanese, and German etc. fully in Hanja as 中國語, 一本語, 獨逸語, respectively.

You can also write those words in Hangul as 중국어, 일본어, 독일어.

The common thing you probably noticed is that all three words end in the Chinese character 語 , which is expressed in Hangul as 어, and which means language.

By knowing this one character, you'll probably be able to figure out other words that you might not have seen before more easily by context. For example, 한국어 means the Korean language. 단어 means language.

So, if you hear a word with 어 in it, and from the context it seems like something related to language, it's highly likely that the word can be expressed in Hanja. I guess this is some sort of heuristic if you want to call it that. Hope it helped!

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