From Jonathan Gardner's Korean Notebook
Hangul is Beautiful
Take a deep breath.
Okay, let it out.
Now say this with me, "Hangul is beautiful."
You are about to learn my favorite writing system in the whole world. It is beautiful in the same way math and physics is beautiful. It describes the way things really are, and it shows the symmetries that naturally occur in nature.
Alright, let's begin!
History and Culture
A very short note on history and culture: King Sejong the Great (1397 AD - 1450 AD) commissioned the development of the Hangul writing system. It draws on a variety of writing systems, bringing in the best parts and leaving out the rest.
Because of this gift, King Sejong is revered among all Koreans, North and South, with the revered title 대왕 (Great King). He is one of the only kings to receive such a title.
This shows the reverence that Koreans have for their writing system. They have every right to be proud of it.
Vowels are called 모음 (lit. mother-sound). Koreans love their vowels. If you can't pronounce the vowels, no one will understand you.
The 6 basic vowels are:
|ㅏ||a||"ah" as in "hot"|
|ㅜ||u||"oo" as in "boot"|
|ㅣ||i||"ee" as in "teeth"|
Note that some vowels (ㅏㅓㅣ) go up and down, while others (ㅗㅜㅡ) go left and right. This is important when you put syllables together.
(Don't worry too much about pronunciation. We cover that in phonology.)
Derived Vowels and Diphthongs
These combine in interesting ways:
|ㅏ + ㅣ||= ㅐ||ae||"eh" as in "wet"|
|ㅣ + ㅏ||= ㅑ||ya||"ya" as in "yacht"|
|ㅣ + ㅏ + ㅣ||= ㅒ||yae||"yeh" as in "yet"|
|ㅓ + ㅣ||= ㅔ||e||"a" as in "fate"|
|ㅣ + ㅓ||= ㅕ||yeo||"yo"|
|ㅣ + ㅓ + ㅣ||= ㅖ||ye||"ya" as in "yale"|
|ㅗ + ㅏ||= ㅘ||wa||"wa" as in "wash"|
|ㅗ + ㅏ + ㅣ||= ㅙ||we||"we" as in "wet"|
|ㅗ + ㅣ||= ㅚ||oi||"we" as in "wet"|
|ㅣ + ㅗ||= ㅛ||yo||"yo" as in "yo-yo"|
|ㅜ + ㅓ||= ㅝ||wo||"wo" as in "wonder"|
|ㅜ + ㅓ + ㅣ||= ㅞ||we||"wa" as in "wait"|
|ㅜ + ㅣ||= ㅟ||wi||"we" as in "week".|
|ㅣ + ㅜ||= ㅠ||yu||"yu" as in "you"|
|ㅡ + ㅣ||= ㅢ||eui||Varies: "eu-ee", or "ee" as in "meet", or "a" as in "fate"|
Again, these vowels pronunciations are difficult to master, and you can't hope to pronounce them right from the beginning. However, note how the vowels are really combining. There is a lot of order here. The one odd man out is ㅚ, and there is some evidence that that might have been pronounced as literally ㅗ -ㅣ at one time. ㅢ is also strange, but ㅡ is always strange.
Notice the shape. When you put a horizontal and vertical vowel, you end up with the bottom and right edges of a box. This is important when you draw syllables.
The dictionary order of the vowels are:
Which makes a lot of sense if you remember the order of the basic vowels:
and remember how they combine to form the other vowels.
Consonants are 자음 (lit. child-sounds) and play a supporting role in pronunciation.
These are the basis of all the other consonants.
Note that Korean's don't distinguish between "voiced" (g, d, b, j) and "unvoiced" (k, t, p, ch), so the consonants lie somewhere in between. I cover this in great detail in phonology.
All of the other consonants are derived from these.
Aspirated (Extra air)
An extra line on some of the consonants makes them aspirated. That means you force a lot of air out with them, almost as if you were trying to say "h" at the same time.
The more air, the better. If a little spittle comes out, you're doing it right (but maybe a bit too enthusiastically.)
Koreans distinguish between aspirated and normal consonants. Sometimes the normal consonants may seem a little unvoiced, but as long as it isn't aspirated, it doesn't matter. I don't think I've ever heard aspirated consonants with voice.
These consonants are pronounced as hard as the can be, bringing the air to a complete stop. These sometimes sound like the unvoiced consonants, but they're really not.
ㅆ is a special case. It is twice as long as a single ㅅ.
Another way to think of these double consonants is to imagine that you glue together the consonants such that there is no room for even a tiny vowel between them. For the "hard" consonants, this means the air must stop. For the ㅅ, it means you make a longer, tighter, more forceful hiss.
The consonants are ordered as follows:
Some dictionaries keep the doubled consonants at the same order as the single consonants. Others put them all behind the single consonants. You'll figure out rather quickly which way they do things when you go to look up a word.
This isn't a lesson on pronunciation, so I'm going to show you how to put the symbols together to make syllables.
With vertical vowels, you write the initial consonant to the left of the vowel.
Example: 라 (ra), 니 (ni), 겨 (gyeo), 제 (jae)
With horizontal vowels, you put the consonant on top.
Example: 오 (o), 듀 (dyu), 그 (keu), 뾰 (byo)
Horizontal-Vertical Vowel Combinations
When you have a horizontal-vertical vowel combination, you put the consonant in the upper-left corner.
Example: 의 (eui), 뛰 (ddui), 과 (gwa)
Sometimes you need final consonants to end the syllable. Just write them on the bottom.
Example: 간 (gan), 종 (jong), 뵙 (boaeb)
Sometimes these consonants are formed of two different consonants. While you won't pronounce both when the consonants are alone, they will be pronounced when the syllable is combined with others. See phonology for details on this.