Guide to reading Korean letters – Hangeul 한글

So you want to learn Korean? But you don’t know where to start? How about starting with the basics: Learn the Korean alphabet, which is called hangeul (한글).

Over the past few weeks, there was a daily online class about the Korean alphabet on Instagram (part 1, part 2 and part 3). Since it was quite popular, I decided to upload the material on the homepage for easier reference and convenience! It’s completely free! Plus, I’m adding a few more details about the letters here.

In this simple class, every letter is introduced together with a food item. [It’s a perfect language class for foodies, right? 😆]

Here is an overview of this page’s content and the structure of the individual lessons:

  1. Introduction
  2. Vowels
  3. Consonants
  4. Double Consonants
  5. Compound Vowels
  6. Basic Reading Rules
  7. Motivation

Short Introduction

The Korean alphabet consists of 24 basic letters: 10 vowels and 14 consonants. In addition to that, there are a couple of letters which are combined to create another sound. Hence, there are also 5 double consonants and 11 compound vowels.

Here, the spelling of Korean using Roman letters is based on the official transcription rules called “Revised Romanization of Korean“. This system has been used in South Korea since the year 2000, and replaced the old McCune Reischauer system, which you may still come across in old literature. Because Korean language features sounds that do not exist in the Roman alphabet, certain hangeul letters are written with two or three Roman letters, although they represent a single sound. ❗️ Please note that the pronunciation of Romanized words is not identical with the pronunciation of English. ❗️ [Vowels like ㅏ, ㅔ, ㅣ, ㅗ, ㅜ are more similar to the pronunciation of “a, e, i, o, u” in German, Spanish, Italian etc.]

👉 Click on the videos to hear what each letter sounds like. 👁👂

Before we look at how Korean letters are assembled into syllables and words, let’s focus on their appearance and pronunciation first. [The most basic rules for reading Korean words are at the bottom of this post! 👇]

The Vowels

These are the basic vowels:

  • a
  • ya
  • eo
  • yeo
  • o
  • yo
  • u
  • yu
  • eu
  • i

The basic vowels are characterized either by a long horizontal stroke (ㅗㅛㅜㅠㅡ) or by a long vertical stroke (ㅏㅑㅓㅕㅣ). The horizontal vowels are written under the consonant, e.g. 무 mu (radish). The vertical vowels are written next to the consonant, e.g. 마 ma (Chinese yam).

The Consonants

These are the basic consonants:

  • g (called gi-yeok 기역)
  • n (called ni-eun 니은)
  • d (called di-geut 디귿)
  • r or l (called ri-eul 리을) ← At the beginning of a syllable, ㄹ is pronounced as “r“. At the end of a syllable, ㄹ is pronounced as “l“.
  • m (called mi-eum 미음)
  • b (called bi-eup 비읍)
  • s (called si-ot 시옷)
  • [no sound] or ng (called i-eung 이응) ← At the beginning of a syllable, ㅇ is silent. At the end of a syllable, ㅇ is pronounced as “ng“.
  • j (called ji-eut 지읒)
  • ch (called chi-eut 치읓)
  • k (called ki-euk 키읔)
  • t (called ti-eut 티읕)
  • p (called pi-eup 피읖)
  • h (called hi-eut 히읗)

Double Consonants

These are the double consonants:

  • kk ← double ㄱ (called ssang-gi-yeok 쌍기역)
  • tt ← double ㄷ (called ssang-di-geut 쌍디귿)
  • pp ← double ㅂ (called ssangbi-eup 쌍비읍)
  • ss ← double ㅅ (called ssang-si-ot 쌍시옷)
  • jj ← double ㅈ (called ssang-ji-eut 쌍지읒)

The double consonants are tenser than the single consonant. In addition to that, the vowel next to it is pronounced shorter and sharper.

Compound Vowels

These are the compound vowels:

  • ae ← consists of ㅏ + ㅣ
  • yae ← consists of ㅑ + ㅣ
  • e ← consists of ㅓ + ㅣ
  • ye ← consists of ㅕ + ㅣ
  • wa ← consists of ㅗ + ㅏ
  • wae ← consists of ㅗ + ㅏ + ㅣ
  • oe ← consists of ㅗ + ㅣ
  • wo ← consists of ㅜ + ㅓ
  • we ← consists of ㅜ + ㅓ + ㅣ
  • wi ← consists of ㅜ + ㅣ
  • ui ← consists of ㅡ + ㅣ

Certain vowels create new sounds in combination. Such compound vowels consist of either two or three basic vowels.

Some Basic Reading Rules

In Korean writing, the letters are arranged as syllables, which form a block-like structure: Every syllable begins with a consonant which is then followed by a vowel. One or two consonants may be added to the end of the syllable. As a consequence, a syllable consists of at least two letters.

Example:
ㅂ +ㅏ + ㅁ = 밤

Within a syllable, letters are read from ➡️ left to right and from ⬇️top to bottom. The next syllable, again, begins at the top and ends at the bottom. ➡️⬇️

Example:
바 + 나 + 나 = 바나나

In contemporary Korean, a text is also written from ➡️ left to right and from ⬇️top to bottom.* [Just like the English sentences in this text!]

❗️ There are cases in which the pronunciation of above letters deviates from their regular reading. 👇 ❗️

1️⃣ The letters ㅅ and ㅆ are pronounced like “sh” or respectively “ssh“, when the following vowel isㅣ, ㅑ, ㅕ, ㅛ, ㅠ, ㅒ, ㅖ, ㅟ or ㅞ.

Examples:

2️⃣ At the end of a syllable, certain consonants are pronounced simplified or “harder“. These are the respective consonants and this is how they are pronounced:

  • ㄱ, ㄲ, ㅋ, ㄳ, ㄺ → pronounced as “k
  • ㄹ, ㄼ, ㄽ, ㄾ, ㅀ → pronounced as “l
  • ㅁ, ㄻ → pronounced as “m
  • ㄴ, ㄵ, ㄶ → pronounced as “n
  • ㅇ → pronounced as “ng
  • ㅂ, ㅍ, ㅄ, ㄿ → pronounced as “p
  • ㄷ, ㅌ, ㅎ, ㅅ, ㅆ, ㅈ, ㅊ → pronounced as “t

Examples:

❗️ Note that there may be exceptions.

Special case: When the next syllable begins with ㅇ, the pronunciation of the final consonant does not change to the “harder” version. Because ㅇ is silent at the beginning of a syllable, the consonant at the end of the preceding syllable is pronounced instead.

Examples:

  • “수박이 달아요.” (“The watermelon is sweet.”) is pronounced as “subagi darayo” [수바기 다라요]. Compare this to the individual words:
    수박 (watermelon) is pronounced as “subak“.
    달다 (to be sweet) is pronounced as “dalda“.

3️⃣ If a certain consonant at the end of a syllable is followed by a certain other consonant, the pronunciation of both consonants may change. These are the consonants in which this is the case:

  • ㄹ + ㄹ → pronounced as “ll
  • ㄴ + ㄹ → pronounced as “ll” (sometimes as “nn“)
  • ㄹ + ㄴ → pronounced as “ll

  • ㅇ + ㄹ → pronounced as “ngn
  • ㄱ + ㄹ → pronounced as “ngn
  • ㄱ + ㄴ → pronounced as “ngn
  • ㄱ + ㅁ → pronounced as “ngm
  • ㅂ + ㄴ → pronounced as “mn
  • ㅂ + ㄹ → pronounced as “mn
  • ㅂ + ㅁ → pronounced as “mm

❗️ Note that there may be exceptions.

Example:

  • “입맛이 없어요.” (“I have no appetite.”) is pronounced as [임마시 업서요] “immasi eobseoyo“. Compare this to the individual words:
    입 (mouth) is pronounced as “ip“.
    맛 (taste) is pronounced as “mat“.
    없다 (to not exist) is pronounced as “eopda“.

Final Words of Motivation

That’s basically it. These are the fundamental principles of the Korean writing system. Are you overwhelmed now? If you are, don’t let that stop you from studying! 😜 Why?

The Korean alphabet contains fewer letters than the Roman alphabet (26 letters plus more, depending on the country). [And you’ve already mastered those! 🎉] Hangeul is also less complicated than other writing systems, for example of China (10.000+ hanzi characters) or Japan (46 hiragana and 48 katakana characters, plus 2000+ kanji). [By comparison, the Korean script is easy! ✅] In addition to that, you can combine Korean letters in a number of ways and technically write any sound or word. [I’m sure I’m not the only one who used Korean letters as a secret script when I was a child! 🕵️‍♂️]

Rather than trying to remember Korean spelled in another language’s writing, learning the original letters makes things simple. Trust me, it’s easier to understand a language if you know its alphabet! The pronunciation and spelling will be more precise as well! It’s a great foundation for doing other things! Regarding foodie life, here are a few examples of what you can do if you are able to read Korean letters: Check food labels [in particular, if you are allergic or vegan/vegetarian], identify restaurants in Korea, find the correct subway or bus stops, decipher original recipes, watch Korean cooking shows and much more…

By the way, most of the pronunciation rules have developed to make speaking easier! For example, reading 석류 (pomegranate) as “seongnyu” instead of “seokryu” sounds smoother, don’t you agree? [When saying those words, notice how your tongue moves less and you can say it faster!] Above videos are designed to help you memorize the sound of the letters, common food-related words as well as some extra rules of pronunciation!

After all, practice makes perfect. So here’s some training for you:

  1. Can you read this out aloud?
    하이!
    하우 아 유?
    아이 앰 [풑 유어 내임 히어].
  2. Can you spell your name using Korean letters?

[🧑‍🏫 Please write your answers in the comments below! 👇]

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Additional notes

*) In historical texts or nostalgic writings, however, the syllables are read from ⬇️ top to bottom and from ⬅️ right to left.

References: 국립국어원 표준국어 대사전, 20+ years of studying Korean (various universities and books), etc…

[This guide is being edited and more information may be added.]

17 thoughts on “Guide to reading Korean letters – Hangeul 한글

Add yours

  1. Woah! This is a whole lesson! Thanks for sharing all your knowledge! I actually never took the time to learn how to read the Korean alphabet like 니은 and 디귿 but this was super helpful, especially the videos. 고마워요 sesamesprinkles!

    Like

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