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How to Learn the Korean Alphabet

Updated on November 23, 2015
The simplicity of the Korean alphabet makes Korean calligraphy striking different from the more well know Chinese call igraphy.
The simplicity of the Korean alphabet makes Korean calligraphy striking different from the more well know Chinese call igraphy. | Source

History

The unique Korean alphabet is call Hangul, which can also be romanized as Hanguel. It was invented in the Chosun Dynasty (1393-1910) by King Sejong. Before Hangul was invented, the only writing system that the Korean people used was Chinese characters, which are complicated and generally take formal education to learn.Therefore many of the ordinary working class were illiterate because they did not have to the time or resources to study such a time consuming form of writing. This limited written communication in Korea to the wealthy upper class. King Sejong wanted his people to be able to communicate, therefor he invented a unique simple scientific alphabet tailored to the Korean language.

The Basics

The Korean alphabet is based on simplicity. It has 21 vowels and 19 consonants all together. However these are made up of 8 basic vowels and 10 basic consonants.

Have you previously studied Korean?

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Vowels

Vowels are comprised of three basic symbols: a dot, a horizontal stick (ㅡ), and a vertical stick (ㅣ). The dot symbolizes the heavens. The horizontal stick represents the earth, and the vertical stick is a representation of man. The dot is written as a smaller stick, attached to a larger stick. I.e. ㅣ+ㅇ=ㅏ

There are 8 basic vowels that are used by themselves or combined with other vowels to create 13 other diphthongs. The basic vowels are ㅏ(ah),ㅓ(uh), ㅗ (o), ㅜ(oo), ㅡ(uhh this is a sound unique to the Korean language), ㅣ(ee), ㅐ(ay), and ㅔ(ey). The last two vowels sound extremely similar.

These basic vowels are then combined to form "y" vowels and "w" vowels. The Y vowels are : ㅑ,ㅕ, ㅛ, ㅠ, ㅒ, and ㅖ. The W vowels are ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅞ, and ㅟ.

Consonants

Whereas the letter representing a vowel is based on symbolic shapes, the letters for consonants are based loosely on the shape of the mouth, tongue, and lips, as the sound is produced. When aspiration, or a strong puff of air, is added, the written consonant is similar to the original letter, but with 1-2 more strokes added.

The basic consonants are: ㄱ (g/k), ㄴ (n), ㄷ (d), ㄹ (r/l), ㅁ (m), ㅂ (b), ㅅ (s), ㅇ (ng/placeholder), ㅈ (j/ch), ㅎ (h). There are then the aspirated and glottal versions of these consonants. The aspirated letters are: ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ, and the glottal letters are: ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ.

This is a chart that shows how Korean letters are written when paired with other letters.
This is a chart that shows how Korean letters are written when paired with other letters.

Writing Korean - How to Pair Letters

Korean syllables are formed by combining consonant and letters, and each letter can appear slightly different depending on what it is paired with. These differences are especially magnified with handwriting.

Use the chart above to learn how to combine Korean letters.

It's important to remember that although both South and North Korea speak Korean, due to North Korea's self imposed seclusion, there are large differences between the Korean that they speak.
It's important to remember that although both South and North Korea speak Korean, due to North Korea's self imposed seclusion, there are large differences between the Korean that they speak.

Learning Languages Using the Internet

Not everyone can successfully learn a language through a classroom setting, for others they believe that the only way to become fluent is by completing a traditional language learning class, however studies have shown that by using multiple learning techniques the information will be easier to recall.

The internet is a wonderful gift for learning new languages, because it allows access to any type of help that a student may need. There are plenty of language learning communities, Youtube videos, native language news sources, and websites dedicated to just about any languages vocabulary and grammar.

Since these options are mostly free (or low cost in comparison to traditional methods) it's easy to mix and match them for the student's unique needs.

Plus with the magic of the internet it's possible to buy learning material for even the most obscure languages.

A Cultural Note on Native Korean Teachers

It is always important when learning a language to have as much interaction with a native speaker as possible, especially when the language is so different from your own native language.

It is important to keep in mind though, that in Korea all students do is study, for up to 16 hours a day. They go to school, then after normal school attend "cram schools." They sometimes study and do homework while eating, or doing day to day activities.

It became so out of control that they have laws set that limits how late schools can hold classes.

Keep this in mind if you are attending a traditional class with a native Korean as your teacher. They are use to students studying constantly, and tend to be very demanding.

This is of course a generalization, and there are always exceptions to everything, but don not let this deter you from learning Korean. It is a beautiful and fun language to learn, paired with a magnificent culture, and very yummy food.

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