Are you thinking of translation into Chinese or Japanese? To an average person from Europe or North America, Chinese, Japanese and Korean may all look similar. Westerners are more used to studying and coming into contact with European languages like Spanish, German, or Russian, and the more exotic ones, such as Eastern Asian languages, all seem to blend together. They tend to be considered confusing, complicated, and anyone bold enough to study them crazy. And while all these statements may be true, these languages definitely differ more than meets the eye. In this article I would like to give people with no or little knowledge about the topic a general idea of what makes Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters different.

The easiest way to introduce this topic is with a short history lesson. Chinese language to Asia is kind of what Latin is to Europe. Most European languages use the Latin alphabet, because people tend to be lazy and instead of coming up with their own writing system they would rather just borrow an existing one and then adapt it to their own language. Many Asian countries attempted to do the same with Chinese characters, however the difference is that while Latin is an alphabet and can be very easily modified with diacritics or digraphs to write down any sounds absent in the original language, Chinese writing is a logography, meaning each character expresses an idea rather than a sound. So while Chinese characters work well for Chinese, they don’t really work for other languages. I mean, how can you write down things like past tense suffixes, if there are no Chinese characters expressing past tense, since Chinese has no need for such characters?

That doesn’t mean that other countries haven’t tried adapting Chinese writing. In fact, both Japanese and Korean languages have. And both realized at some point that it simply just doesn’t work. Koreans were lucky enough to have a very generous king called Sejong the Great. He wanted to improve the literacy rate by inventing a very simple alphabet that even the simple folk could learn. And he succeeded. Later rulers wanted to ban the alphabet because they wanted to reinforce the barrier between the upper and lower classes and they felt Sejong’s invention made people too smart. However, the alphabet he created, called hangul, is still used as the official writing systems of Korean in both South and North Korea. The way it works is a bit different from alphabets like Latin or Cyrillic – while every character stands for one sound, they aren’t just written left to right, but rather assembled into syllable blocks, which are then written left to right. Apart from that, unlike Chinese and Japanese, Korean uses spaces and Western-style punctuation. It also features circular characters absent in the Chinese logography.

The path that Japanese took was quite different and resulted in a system which I would consider the polar opposite of Korean – while hangul is simple and elegant, the Japanese writing system is convoluted and full of strange quirks and irregularities. The Japanese, too, invented their own writing system, a syllabary (a system in which each character stands for one syllable like ka, shi or yu) developed from simplified forms of Chinese characters used for their pronunciations. In fact, they developed two syllabaries – hiragana, historically used by women, and katakana, used by men in official documents in a mixed script with Chinese characters. In Modern Japanese, Chinese characters are used for word roots (nouns, verb and adjective stems), hiragana is used for conjugatable endings and function words such as particles and pronouns, and katakana is used for loan words, onomatopoeia and Japanese words not covered by Chinese characters. Ultimately Japanese ended up with three writing systems used concurrently, two of which are used to represent sounds and the third used to represent ideas. I hope that last sentence is enough to give you an idea of why Japanese writing is a pain to study for both learners of Japanese and Japanese people themselves.

In addition, Chinese characters has changed over time. While the Japanese were more conservative with spelling reforms, the government of the People’s Republic of China decided to introduce simplified characters in the mid-20th century to improve literacy. As it turns out, even Chinese people found Chinese characters difficult. However, there is an ongoing dispute on the subject of simplifying Chinese characters, with some people believing that it is an attempt by the government to cut people off from their culture and history. In areas such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, traditional characters are more commonly used than simplified ones.

tekst w języku koreańskim

In conclusion, differentiating between Chinese, Korean and Japanese is not difficult if you look at a few details:



Chinese – complex, blocky characters with straight or curved lines.


Japanese – mixed script with both blocky, complex characters and simple ones with curves and loops.

저는 폴란드 사람입니다.

Korean – simple characters made of straight lines and circles, spacing and Western-style punctuation.

That’s why you need to be careful when choosing your target language for translation into Chinse or Japanese or Korean. Don’t confuse them!:-)


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