Home > Korean Lessons, Language Lessons > Learning the Korean Alphabet, Hangul (Part 0: An Introduction)

Learning the Korean Alphabet, Hangul (Part 0: An Introduction)

jalNote: There are lots of lessons out there for learning the Korean alphabet, but they all seem to miss something or other, so here’s my attempt! Use it to learn from scratch, or as a guide if you’re stuck on some letters. By the way, a PDF version of this is upcoming, which will look nicer and less cramped than this.

Part 1: Consonants | Part 2: Vowels | All parts in one article

First, I’ll give you some of the best news you’ll ever hear when learning to read a language that doesn’t use a script you’re familiar with: Hangul, the writing system of Korean, is very easy to learn and if you worked hard, you could probably do it in a few of hours – seriously.

I don’t mean that after a few hours you’ll read any Korean perfectly, much less pronounce it perfectly (which will take much more time and practice). However, you can learn all the letters very quickly, and the extra irregularities and quirks you may have to learn are actually very natural things that happen in many languages.

I learned it in one week of relaxed effort on my free time, and it took one more week to learn all the correct pronunciation. I sincerely believe if you set apart a few hours to learn, you can get this over with in one day.

A Quick Look at Hangul

Consonants

  • 9 Basic Consonants: ㄱ  ㄴ  ㄷ  ㄹ  ㅁ  ㅂ  ㅅ  ㅇ  ㅈ
  • 5 Aspirated Consonants:  ㅋ  ㅌ  ㅍ  ㅎ  ㅊ
  • 5 of them can be doubled, but are considered / treated as single letters: ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ  ㅆ  ㅉ
  • In addition, some can be combined to create 11 compound consonants. They are also treated as single letters: ㄳ ㄵ ㄶ ㄺ ㄻ ㄼ ㄽ ㄾ ㄿ ㅀ ㅄ

Vowels

  • 8 Basic Vowels: ㅏ  ㅓ  ㅗ  ㅜ  ㅐ  ㅔ  ㅡ  ㅣ
  • 6 of them can be given an extra line: ㅑ  ㅕ  ㅛ  ㅠ  ㅒ  ㅖ
  • In addition, they can be combined to create 7 compound vowels. They are also treated as single letters:  ㅘ ㅝ  ㅙ  ㅞ  ㅢ  ㅟ  ㅚ

Complete set of letters (This list is analogous to showing the 26 letters of the Latin Alphabet plus ch, ph, gh, ou, ao, etc.)

ㄱ  ㄴ  ㄷ  ㄹ  ㅁ  ㅂ  ㅅ  ㅇ  ㅈ  ㅋ  ㅌ  ㅍ  ㅎ  ㅊ  ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ  ㅆ  ㅉ
ㄳ ㄵ ㄶ ㄺ ㄻ ㄼ ㄽ ㄾ ㄿ ㅀ ㅄ
ㅏ  ㅓ  ㅗ  ㅜ  ㅐ  ㅔ  ㅡ  ㅣ  ㅑ  ㅕ  ㅛ  ㅠ  ㅒ  ㅖ
ㅘ ㅝ  ㅙ  ㅞ  ㅢ  ㅟ  ㅚ

So why is Hangul easy?

  • It’s an alphabet. People will count the letters differently, but I would say it is essentially 22 letters: 14 consonants and 8 vowels. From those letters, 6 of the vowels also have a version that signify their starting with a Y sound, some come together into 7 compound vowels / diphthongs which start with W or W-ish sound, and 5 consonants can be doubled.
  • It’s visual.* Mnemonics are always a good tool to remember things, and Korean has it built in, and the only thing up to you is to make the visual aspect as vivid and effective as possible for yourself. The consonants are pictures of your tongue, teeth, lips, or throat, while the vowels represents space and positions in the mouth. The latter is harder to visualize unless you understand linguistics, so you may have to tweak your memory aid as best serves you.

If you don’t feel very sure of the benefit of visual mnemonics, here’s this article: Any Phonetic Script can be Learned in Just a Few Hours.

  • It’s laid-out efficiently. Korean is written in blocks of 2 to 4 letters. Not only is this space-efficient, but it also separates parts of words such as syllables based on Chinese characters, and reflects certain aspects of Korean pronunciation. I will not be covering this aspect in this article.
  • It’s simple to draw. Not counting the compound and double letters, only one letter takes 4 strokes to write. All others require 1 to 3 strokes. Possible strokes are simply straight lines, two simple curves, and a circle.

Recommended Resources

I write lessons like this because I want to do better than what I’ve seen so far, so I try not to rewrite or redo stuff that’s already written and I think is satisfactory.

Regarding the YouTube playlist, I organized the hangul videos like this:
  • SweetAndTasty / “Professor Oh”: She doesn’t explain things too well, but gives a good overview of the pronunciation, going through all of them straight through, relatively quickly. She does other videos on Korean that are very good.
  • KoreanSimplyPut: These are more involved, and cover the complete alphabet and how Hangul is put together.
  • VortexXman’s “Korean Hangeul Vowels” video is to show that while Professor Oh said there are 3 diphthongs all pronounced as “wae,” this guy says one of them may actually be a bit different.
  • Seemile “The Korean Writing System”: The final video goes over the basic letters and combinations more quickly, so it may be good as review while learning some random but good basic vocabulary (although I don’t believe “spider” and “foot” are all that useful).
  • DavidnKimchi’s “Learn How to Read Korean”: Just an extra video. Shows full table and goes over some vocabulary to show letters coming together.

On Romanization

Hangul is officially romanized using Revised Romanization (RR). That is what you should use if you ever want to write with the Latin Alphabet. Any time I use a Latin letter to represent a Korean sound, it will be following RR.

Despite not being proper, a few “conventions” have remained. For example, Hangul should be written as Hangeul in RR, but it’s still commonly seen as “Hangul” – which I will tend to do as well. I guess if we start changing to Hangeul, it’ll make it harder for new students trying to search for help! It is, however, not proper in RR.

How To Learn Hangul?

Hangul is an alphabet. You can learn in the same way you may study the Russian, Greek, or Vietnamese alphabets, and you can find many resources and videos on how to learn it in a conventional way. However, Hangul is unique because relevant visual elements make up the letters. So while seeing the picture of an ox that originally became the letter A  doesn’t directly help you learn its sound, the image of the tongue that makes up the letter has much more of a potential to be useful.

Because it is innate, and part of what makes Hangul so special, I decide to focus on it in my article. You don’t have to learn it this way. You may give up on this method and choose another. That’s ok. In fact, I gave you a couple of links above just for that reason – so that you can see other methods and learning aids. But I hope you will try this way, to  learn Hangul by how it truly works and using their own design to help you remember and pronounce them: by visualizing the images in the letters and consequently feeling them in your mouth, by looking at the obvious, purposeful relationships between many letters.

Full disclosure / disclaimer: Everything I explain on the design of the consonants is true – in the sense that I’ve read this from various sources and am not making it up. The only exception is with the b and p; they are exceptions themselves, so I’m stretching what I remember and making it make sense.

The vowels are supposedly also visual, but I almost consider that a rumor since I’ve seen nothing complete nor definitive. Therefore, I pretty much made up the visual system I explain for the vowels. Luckily, it works – so maybe I solved it instead of made it up? :D

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Footnotes

*I say it’s visual, and it is, but you will see there are at least 2 other theories as to how the writing system developed. I have no interest in arguing which is true, because the main 3 all seem likely and believable. One is that they are pictures of different features of the mouth. Another is that the vowels (at least) are philosophically based, representing, ground, man, and heaven. The third is that the consonants (at least) naturally developed from earlier scripts. Regardless, the 1st is the one most valuable to us as a study aid.
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