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Hanja's Intricate Influence on Korean Lexicon: A Comprehensive Review


The Korean language is characterized by its distinct and dual-script vocabulary, which consists of two separate writing systems: the native alphabetic script known as Hangul, in which symbols represent sounds, and the logographic script Hajna, which was adopted from Chinese and uses symbols to convey meanings. This article critically examines a groundbreaking study that employs an innovative priming paradigm to unravel the nuanced effects of Hanja on the visual word recognition of Hangul. The research yields new perspectives on the complex relationship between these writing systems and their significant role in shaping how the Korean language is mentally processed and represented.

The Multifaceted Korean Writing System

Figure 1. A representation of common character used and interpreted differently in the Hangul and Hanja lexicon (Yoolim Kim, 2021).

Central to the Korean linguistic landscape is its bi-scripted nature, setting it apart from many other languages. Hangul, introduced in the 15th century under the reign of King Sejong the Great, revolutionized literacy in Korea with its systematic and phonetic writing system. It comprises characters meticulously designed to represent speech sounds, offering a highly accessible means of written communication. (Yoolim Kim, 2021) In contrast, Hanja, stemming from Chinese characters, carries a rich historical legacy within Korean writing. Traditionally employed in scholarly and formal contexts, Hanja has left an indelible mark on the Korean language (Yoolim Kim, 2021). Despite Hangul's prominent status as the primary script in modern Korean, Hanja continues to exert its influence, particularly in academic, technical, and professional domains. It's worth noting that although all words can be expressed in Hangul, not all of them can be written in Hanja, as during the 20th century, Koreans primarily used Hanja to write words of Sino-Korean origin. Within Sino-Korean, approximately 440 unique syllable combinations out of a potential 2000 are employed. This results in a situation where the repetition of the same syllable can convey different meanings (Yoolim Kim, 2021). Such a phenomenon can give rise to ambiguity when using the two writing systems and leads to the question of whether distinct scripts can coexist within the same language. Notably, the only means of distinguishing homographs in this context is through Hanja.

Probing Hanja's Influence

The focal point of this study lies in its exploration of the relationship between Hangul and Hanja through an innovative priming paradigm. The study places particular emphasis on two pivotal facets: the impact of neighbourhood size, and the syllable position of Sino-Korean morphemes within the lexicon. Neighbourhood size, a cornerstone of lexical processing, quantifies the number of words that share a common beginning (initial) character or morpheme with the target word. Syllable position analysis dissects the precise placement of a Hanja character within a Sino-Korean word, distinguishing between initial, medial, and final positions.

Unveiling the Subtle Dynamics

The results of this study shed light on the complex interaction between Hangul and Hanja within the Korean language. Despite Hangul's dominance in everyday life and communication, literate native Korean speakers demonstrate a remarkable sensitivity to the subtle influence of Hanja. This cognitive duality in script usage creates a unique cognitive landscape. Critically, the imbalance in script prevalence does not diminish the pivotal role of Hanja in shaping the mental representation of Korean vocabulary. Moreover, additional studies have shown that heritage speakers of Korean are conscious of the different aspects of Hangul and Hajna, compared to the native speakers. It is hypothesised that heritage speakers of Korean may exhibit a distinct awareness of the various aspects of Hangul and Hanja compared to native speakers. It is suggested that heritage speakers might encounter slower processing times in comparison to individuals who have familiarity with the Hanja lexicon (Yoolim Kim, 2023).

Figure 2. An example of a Korean word, representing its multiple meanings and complexities. (Yoolim Kim, 2021).


In conclusion, this article highlights the complex aspects of the Korean writing system, marked by the presence of both Hangul and Hanja. The groundbreaking study discussed in this article contributes to our comprehension of the Korean vocabulary, shedding light on the complex interplay between these two writing systems. Through an examination of neighbourhood size and syllable position, this study unveils the profound connection between Hanja and the processing of Sino-Korean words, emphasizing the complex and diverse nature of the Korean linguistic journey. This research not only enhances our understanding of Korean linguistics but also provides valuable perspectives on the nuanced interaction between writing systems and language comprehension. Ultimately, it reaffirms the enduring importance and impact of Hanja in shaping the contemporary Korean linguistic environment, demonstrating the resilience of this distinctive dual-script tradition.


  1. Kim Yoolim, K. S. L. A., 2022. Disambiguating Effects of Syllable Position and Neighborhood Size: Contributions of Hanja During Sino-Korean Processing.. Journal of Psycholigistic Research .

  2. Yoolim Kim, A. C. R., 2023. Heritage learners are more sensitive to effects of script: Evidence from Korean. Language & Communication, pp. 2-4.

  3. Yoolim Kim, S. K. A. L., 2021. Is Hanja represented in the Korean mental lexicon?: Encoding cross-script semantic cohorts in the representation of Sino-Korean. Lingua, pp. 2-3.

This article is written by Koralia Hoti.


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