The Korean alphabet Hangul (or Chosŏn’gŭl in North Korea) was developed by King Sejong the Great in the 14th century.
Through this writing system, he was able to make his citizens more literate. After all, the Chinese language that they used then was tough to understand and memorize.
The King’s goal, which was to help a ‘stupid man’ learn Korean in ten days, is still applicable today.
To speak just like someone from South Korea, you need to learn the Korean alphabet and pronunciation basics.
Know the Korean Alphabet
To learn Hangul and read Korean, the first thing you need to do is memorize its consonants and vowels.
There are a total of 14 consonants in the Hangul alphabet.
Here are the mnemonics that can help you learn Korean quickly:
- ㄱ G
This Korean Hangul character looks like a gun — G as in giyok.
- ㅋ K
This adds another horizontal line — making it a gun that can kill – K as in kieuk.
- ㄴ N
This final consonant is shaped as a corner nook — N as in nieun.
- ㄷ D
This Hangul character looks like a drawer handle — D as in digeut.
- ㅌ T
When you look at this sideways, this letter mirrors a trident –– T as in tieut.
- ㄹ R / L
This character is reminiscent of the old ‘Snake’ game on mobile phones. Think about snakes and ladders — as rieul is used as either R or L.
- ㅁ M
Mieum — or the letter M — is drawn as an open mouth.
- ㅂ B
Bieup or B appears as an upside-down bed.
- ㅍ P
Pieup or P is drawn as a pillar.
- ㅅ S
Siot or S mirrors legs doing a split.
- ㅈ J
Jieut or J will remind you of a jousting lance.
- ㅊ CH
While it may seem morbid, chieut or CH is similar to a human body with the head chopped away.
- ㅎ H
Hieut or H is what appears to be a head with a hat.
- ㅇ (silent)
Nieung is spoken the way it is drawn — zero or no sound.
- ㄲ GG, ㄸ DD, ㅃ BB, ㅆ SS, and ㅉ JJ
For these double consonants, their pronunciation is more forceful compared to the Korean consonants above.
There are only ten Hangul vowel letters. Five of these vowels are drawn with a vertical line, while the five other Korean vowels are written using a horizontal line.
- ㅣ ee
This Hangul vowel is pronounced ‘ee’ as in tree. The character by itself is similar to a straight tree bark.
- ㅏ a
This letter has a small notch after the line. When pronounced,ㅏ sounds like the ‘a’ in father.
- ㅐ ae
This Korean Hangul character is pronounced as ‘eh’ as in egg.
- ㅒ yae
The Korean pronunciation for this vowel is ‘yeh’ as in ‘yes.’
- ㅓ eo
This vowel, which mirrors the letter a, is pronounced in English as ‘awe.’
- ㅑ ya
Pronounced as ‘ya’ as in yacht, it uses an additional notch toㅏ(a).
- ㅕ yeo
Again, this involves the addition of another notch to eo (ㅓ). This is pronounced ‘yaw’ as in yawn.
- ㅡ eu
This straight vertical mark has a unique pronunciation. As such, you need to listen to Korean audio if you want to hear this spoken.
- ㅗ o
This Korean vowel is similar to the ‘O’ sounds in the words ‘fork’ or ‘store.’
- ㅛ yo
As with the other vowels, the addition of another notch means adding the ‘Y’ sound. This is pronounced ‘yo’ as in York.
- ㅜ u
Its notch written underneath has an ‘OO’ pronunciation (as in ‘foot’).
- ㅠ yu
Given its additional notch, this vowel sounds as it is named – yu.
- ㅔ e
This Korean letter is pronounced as is and used in the words ‘dress’ or ‘set.’
- ㅘ wa
‘Wa’ sounds like the word ‘want.’
- ㅙ wae
This is pronounced ‘we’ as in ‘wet.’
Korean Language Rules
Now that you know the basics of the Korean alphabet and pronunciation, it’s time that you learn the rules of the language.
One block equals one syllable.
When you scribble the word kimchi, you don’t need to write six characters. Instead, you doodle them according to block, which means you only need to write two segments.
Each syllable must have a Korean consonant and vowel.
Most Korean words have both parts of the alphabet. However, if there is no consonant sound needed, the silent placeholder ㅇ can be written in place.
The consonant is always written before the vowel.
When you write Korean, you need to scribble the consonant letters first. And since the Korean language is read from left to right, the consonants will always be at the block’s upper left corner.
The vowel letter decides the block orientation.
The way the Korean letter is written affects the orientation of the word. For example, when you write the letter ㅡ (eu), the alphabet that follows would be stacked from top to bottom.
As for a vertical alphabet letter such as ㅏ (a), the Korean word is written from left to right.
Korean syllables should have two or three letters.
The pattern for writing is consonant-vowel-consonant. The pronunciation of the word will depend on the letter placement.
Take the character ㅇ or ieung. It is silent when placed in the beginning but pronounced as NG when found at the end of the syllable.
While the rules for learning Korean letters may be confusing at first, you’re sure to get by with practice. By following these tips, you are sure to speak like a homegrown Korean in no time!