If you’ve read much about the Korean language, you’ve probably heard the word hanja. We heard it for the first time four-plus years ago when our Korean teacher asked what the hanja was for our son’s Korean name.
Hanja is the Korean word for the Chinese characters that have been borrowed and incorporated into the Korean language. These characters might be written the same as they are in Chinese, but they have a Korean pronunciation.
In the past it was necessary for Koreans to know hanja to be literate since most of Korean literature and documents were written in hanja. But today hangul reigns so the purposes of hanja has changed.
Scholars who study Korean history must know hanja, since the historical records were recorded using Chinese characters. Today hanja is mostly used to clarify the meanings of certain words (for example if two words sound the same and are spelled the same in hangul, hanja might be used to clarify which word is meant). And Korean names are often based on hanja, although not all (which is the case for our son’s Korean name). If the name is composed of hanja characters, it’s still common for both the hangul and the hanja to be recorded on official documents.
Our son’s Korean name is a mixture. The first character, or syllable, is a word based in hanja. But the second syllable is a purely Korean word.
So if you see characters that don’t look quite like the Korean characters you’ve been learning, you might be looking at hanja.