How to tell written Chinese, Japanese and Korean apart

To many a Westerner, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are all but indistinguishable. The three languages are in fact unrelated, and after reading this post, you should have little to no problem recognizing between them.

Chinese characters venn diagram

The scripts

When it comes to computers, the Chinese, Japanese and Korean are often grouped together under the acronym CJK, and for a reason.

While they are linguistically unrelated, all three can be written borh horizontally and vertically, and all three use Chinese characters—hànzì in Chinese, kanji in Japanese, and hanja in Korean—which is one of the reasons for the confusion.

Chinese

The Chinese language is the only to rely on this script entirely, and even then, at least two different versions are in active use across the world; traditional and simplified..

Below is the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on colour orange in hànzì:

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 square and dense.
Chinese characters are the oldest continuously-used system of writing in the world, so don’t be surprised to meet handwritten texts which at first sight don’t even resemble the example above.

Japanese

Moving on to Japanese, the language has the highest 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 is now the main building block of the Japanese language, employed both for vocabulary and grammar.

Katakana—the manly, more angular script—is used mainly for loan words, onomatopeia, and transliteration of foreign words. Finally, romaji—the familiar Latin script you are used to from English and other Western languages—can be found everywhere, from product packaging to company names.

Below is the description of colour orange, employing katakana, hiragana, and kanji, 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 its use of hiragana & katakana, Japanese is slightly more airy and spacious than Chinese.

As a general rule of thumb, unlike Chinese and Korean, Japanese also doesn’t use any form of question or exclamation marks, but you may still meet them in some situations.

Korean

The Korean language, in 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.

Hangul is 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 characters.

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.

Notice the many circular shapes used in hangul—these are almost non-existent in the other two languages and so make the script easy to recognize.

Also, unlike Chinese and Japanese, Korean has completely adopted European punctuation marks, from commas to question marks, and space-delimits words and sentences.

Recap

A good strategy when it comes to distinguishing the written form of South-East-Asian languages is:

Latin characters with diacritics? Vietnamese. Square characters? -> Lots of ovals and circles? Korean. Dense and regular? Chinese An airy mix? Japanese

As you can see, you don’t really 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 happen to be impressively good at!

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