Most English speakers think Korean has thousands of characters, like Chinese, but it actually has a very simple and logical alphabet, which you can learn in a few minutes. Learning the Korean alphabet is not as difficult as it may seem there are 14 basic consonants and 10 basic vowels which is basically less letters than in the English alphabet. Moreover, Korean culture is in the mainstream nowadays. Korean pop songs (k-pop) and drama (k-drama) become popular all over the world that learning the Korean alphabet can be very helpful to be totally immersed in their culture.
This article will teach you all you need to know to read any Korean word.
The Origins of the Korean Alphabet
Koreans primarily wrote using Classical Chinese alongside native phonetic writing systems that predate Hangul by hundreds of years, including Idu script, Hyangchal, Gugyeol and Gakpil. However, many lower class uneducated Koreans were illiterate due to the difficulty of learning the Korean and Chinese languages, as well as the large number of Chinese characters that are used.
The Eonmun, known as Hangul in South Korea and Chosŏn’gŭl in North Korea, is a writing system for the Korean language first created by King Sejong the Great in 1443. The letters for the five basic consonants reflect the shape of the speech organs used to pronounce them, and they are systematically modified to indicate phonetic features; similarly, the vowel letters are systematically modified for related sounds, making Hangul a featural writing system. The Korean alphabet was designed so that people with little education could learn to read and write. A popular saying about the alphabet is, “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; even a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”
The Korean Alphabet: Structure
The Korean Hangul alphabet uses a phonetic (of a system of writing having a direct correspondence between symbols and sounds) script. Each letter represents a specific sound and sounds change due to specific rules and patterns. The pronunciation of written Korean isn’t entirely consistent, though, and sometimes words are pronounced while disregarding the rules. Hangul is also only phonetic in one direction, meaning that writing words after hearing them may be more difficult than pronouncing words after reading. This is due to several letters having similar, or almost similar sounds.
The Korean alphabet or Hangul consists of 24 basic letters: 14 consonants (ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ) and 10 vowels (ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ). Additionally, as you’ll dive into it, you’ll discover that there are in fact 19 complex letters with 5 tense consonants (ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅉ ㅆ) and 11 complex vowels (ㅢ ㅚ ㅐ ㅟ ㅔ ㅒ ㅖ ㅘ ㅝ ㅙ ㅞ) formed by combining the basic letters.
Simple Vowels in Korean
Simple Consonants in Korean
ㄱ : [g/k] (audio recording)
ㄴ : [n] (audio recording)
ㄷ: [d/t] (audio recording)
ㄹ: [r/l] (audio recording)
ㅁ: [m] (audio recording)
ㅂ: [b/p] (audio recording)
ㅅ: [s] (audio recording)
ㅇ: [ng] (audio recording)
ㅈ: [j] (audio recording)
ㅊ: [ch] (audio recording)
ㅋ: [k] (audio recording)
ㅌ: [t] (audio recording)
ㅍ: [p] (audio recording)
ㅎ: [h] (audio recording)
Korean Double Consonants
There are five double consonants: ㄲ (kk), ㄸ (tt), ㅃ(pp), ㅆ(ss) and ㅉ(jj).
They already look very familiar to you because they’re “twice” the consonants ㄱ (g/k), ㄷ (d/t), ㅂ (b/p), ㅅ(s) and ㅈ (j) respectively.
As double consonants, these are pronounced with a little more stress compared to the single consonant ones.
“ㄱ” (which sounds like a “K”) now approximates the sound of “G” as “ㄲ”
“ㄷ” (which sounds like a “T”) now approximates the sound of “D” as “ㄸ”
“ㅂ” (which sounds like a “P”) now approximates the sound of “B” as “ㅃ”
“ㅅ” (which sounds like an “S”) now approximates the sound of the longer “SS” as “ㅆ”
“ㅈ” (which sounds like a “CH”) now approximates the sound of “J” as “ㅉ”
ㄲ : [kk]
ㄸ : [tt]
ㅃ : [pp]
ㅆ : [ss]
ㅉ : [jj]
Korean Vowel Combinations
Looking at the Korean alphabet, we can make many combinations among the vowels and the consonants, however there are also 11 commonly used combined vowels which is added to the 10 regular vowels.
Korean (Hangul) combined vowels can be split into two sections the 4 A sound combined vowels and the 7 W sound combined vowels.
Firstly the A sound vowels, here is a chart showing how each one is created:
Source: Fresh Korean
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅓ (“eo” sound) and ㅣ (“ee” sound in spree)
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅕ (“yeo” sound) and ㅣ (“ee” sound in spree)
ㅒ – yae
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅑ (“ya” sound) and ㅣ (“ee” sound in spree)
Secondly the W sound combined vowels, once again here is a chart showing how each vowel is created:
Source: Fresh Korean
ᅪ – wa
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅗ (“o” sound) and ㅏ (“a” sound)
ᅯ – wo
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅜ (“u” sound) and ㅓ (“eo” sound in spree)
ᅫ – wae
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅗ (“o” sound) and ᅢ (“ae” sound in spree)
ᅰ – we
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅜ (“u” sound) and ㅔ (“e” sound in spree)
ᅬ – oe
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅗ (“o” sound) and ㅣ (“ee” sound in spree)
ᅱ – wi
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅜ (“u” sound) and ㅣ (“ee” sound in spree)
ᅴ – ui
Definition: Composed by the vowels ㅡ (“eu” sound) and ㅣ (“ee” sound in spree)
Creating a Syllable with Hangeul:
The Korean letters are written in syllabic (is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. It is typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel) with optional initial and final margins (typically, consonants) blocks with the alphabetic letters arranged in two dimensions. For example, Hangeul in Korean is written as 한글, not ㅎㅏㄴㄱㅡㄹ. The letters are grouped into syllable blocks containing an initial consonant (which may be silent or double), one or two vowels (below or to the right), and sometimes a final consonant (below).
Just like English, you read Korean left to right, top to bottom. However, the Hangul letters stick together, existing within small invisible “boxes”. Each one of these boxes can have up to four letters. Each little “box” is considered a Korean syllable. You can also think of them as syllable blocks.
Instead of reading Hangul straight across as we do in English, we read one Korean syllable (or syllable block) at a time. Within each syllable, we read using the rule left to right, top to bottom. Then we move to the next syllable block.
Every syllable must be composed of:
- At least 1 vowel and 1 consonant
One syllable can be made of 2 to 4 letters: Consonant + Vowel, Consonant + Vowel + Consonant, Consonant + Vowel + Consonant + Consonant
Training your Korean Writing Skills
Just like the English alphabet, the Hangul writing system also has a letter order (stroke order). While you can get by without it, taking the time to practice will help speed up your Korean writing abilities. However, one must forget the English writing method in learning to write in Korean because of the syllabic method that is used in Korean alphabet. Unlike writing in English, Korean writing system are written in syllables and is every syllable must be composed of 2 to 4 letters which have at least 1 vowel and 1 consonant. It’s also helpful to learn to write the Korean Alphabet letters if you’re going to travel to or live in Korea.
Trying to write your own name in Korean will be a good starting point to practice your Korean writing skills. It will be such a great and happy experience to write your own name in a different writing system and at the same time you are practicing and learning writing in Korean. Little things like this will help you to achieve your goal and be fluent in reading and writing Korean language.
After reaching a certain level you can now try to listen on Korean songs like K-pop and write down their lyrics by just listening to them. This process of learning the language will not only help you to practice Korean but you’ll learn about the culture, and vice versa.
For example, many people may hear about Korean dramas or movies and watch a few they like. Then they decide they want to understand the phrases, expressions, and dialogues better without subtitles
Other Korean Learning Tips:
- Download the Korean keyboard on your phone
- Watch K-drama
- Listen to (or Discover) Your Favorite K-Pop Artist
- Engage on people who are also learning Korean
- Download mobile application that teaches Korean
The Korean language is steadily on the rise as a popular language to learn for second language learners. With the rise of Korean entertainment, Korea is being put on a global scale, and many people are starting to learn Korean with keen interest. Furthermore, there are a lot of benefits behind learning the Korean alphabet specially those who are a fan of K-pop and K-drama. Learning Korean language will help them to enjoy listening and watching without subtitle. This will also help you to easily understand their culture and at the same time if you want to go to Korea learning their alphabet will be a huge help. Mastering the Korean alphabet will be an important step in your Korean learning journey.
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