Home > Korean Lessons, Language Lessons > Learning the Korean Alphabet, Hangul (Part 1: Learning the Consonants)

Learning the Korean Alphabet, Hangul (Part 1: Learning the Consonants)

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 0: Introduction | Part 2: Vowels | All parts in one article

Learning the Consonants

Kinds of Consonants

For study purposes, I felt it was best to put the letters into groups.

The most important grouping is on how they are pronounced. There are 4 such groups, which I am numbering arbitrarily (don’t bother learning my made-up group numbers; learn their characteristics):

  • Group 1: Steady, sustainable, unchanging:

ㄴ ㅅ ㅁ ㅇ / n s m ng

(Letters are purely visual representations, as shown before. You can HOLD or hum these sounds.)

  • Group 2: Begin stopped, and then release:

ㄱ ㄷ ㄹ ㅂ ㅈ / g d r b j

(Since all but ㅂare sounded with the tongue first pressed to the roof of the mouth, the roof of the mouth is signified or represented by a top line (or roof). Therefore, some of these are Group 1 letters + a top line)

  • Group 3: Begin stopped, tense up,** then suddenly release:

ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ  ㅆ  ㅉ / gg dd bb ss jj

(Held and tensed**, so it makes sense to double the letter, right?)

  • Group 4: Begin stopped, then release forcefully and noisily:

ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㅊ / k t p h ch

(An additional line represents the extra air coming out ( is the exception). Note that all of these letters are previous ones with an additional line in the top or middle.)

There’s another way to group the letters: by where they are pronounced. There are 5 groups, based on two views of the mouth:

Side View
  • Group 1, “alveodentals”: Tongue pointed up to the space between the teeth and the fleshy bump behind it:

ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㅌ ㄹ / n d dd t r

(All based on ㄴ, showing where the tongue is, so tongue won’t move away)

  • Group 2, “dentals/sibilants”: Tongue barely or just touching the front teeth:

ㅅ ㅆ ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ / s ss j jj ch

(Note that all are based on ㅅ; The tongue in an English J is farther back than an S, so this is showing you the tongue stays in the same place for both S and J (and thus also CH) in Korean.

  • Group 3, “velars”: Tongue pulled to the back of the mouth:

ㄱ ㄲ ㅋ / g gg k

(ㄱ happens to also work purely visually, showing tongue pulled up and back.)

Did you notice something? No matter what letter you pronounce, the main part or blade of your tongue pretty much stays straight as a whole like ㅡ . The tip may pitch up \ or the back may pitch up / , but that rocking is the extent of it. It doesn’t curl back like the English R, or arch upwards like the SH or CH. Your tongue stays in place when speaking Korean. The tip of your tongue will always stay at the front of your mouth.

Front View
  • Group 4, “labials”: Lips:

ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅍ / m b bb p

(ㅁis a simple outline of the mouth or lips. Thus, ㅂ makes sense with the lips closer together. ㅍ has the expected extra line, but strangely drops the middle one!)

  • Group 5, “glottals”: Throat:

ㅇㅎ / ng h

(The mouth cavity and/or circle of the throat, so it makes sense that at the beginning of a syllable, ㅇ is silent (merely open throat), but at the end of a syllable it is the ng sound (blocking off the throat). Adding extra lines means you’re passing noisy air through an open throat: h.)

Don’t forget to keep these TWO grouping methods separate. If you’re trying to remember how to pronounce ㅌ, be careful if you trace the letter’s design too far back to ㄴ, because that will only tell you where to pronounce it. Maybe it will help, but is more similar in sound – in how it’s pronounced.

If that’s enough for you to understand the design and thus pronunciation of all the Korean letters, great! Otherwise, read on for more direct, individual explanations on why the letters look the way they do.


Consonants: Letter by Letter

Group 1: Sustainable sounds.

  • ㄴ – N:  Tongue tip curved up to touch the roof of the mouth. This image should be easy to visualize.
  • ㅅ – S: Incisors / front teeth. I believe everyone relates the S sound with teeth so I don’t need to explain it, but we need to make sure you know so that the related letters make sense. You don’t touch the teeth when you say S, but what happens is the tongue forces the air through a tight, narrow path focused through the teeth.
    PRO TIP: The Korean S is actually not as strong as the hiss-y, whistle-y English S. Pronounced slowly or on its own, it may sound like it, but in fast speech, it will sound like a lazy, lighter S. Sometimes you may barely hear it!
  • ㅁ – M: A simple outline of the mouth: top and bottom lines are thus the lips. The Chinese character for mouth is also a square.
  • ㅇ – NG: The space of the mouth and / or circle of the throat. Keeping the throat open is of course the required norm in speech, so this letter is silent at the beginning of a syllable. At the end of the syllable, it’s the opposite; throat closes so you get the ng sound.

Again, these first 4 are steady sounds. Your tongue makes no movement to sound them. You place it and then sound them out.

Group 2: Remaining basic consonants with a horizontal line on top – a roof. This means you place your tongue on the roof of the mouth first, and then sound out the letter.

  • ㄷ – D: It is ㄴ+ a line on top, so the ㄴshape tells you WHERE to place the tongue, but not so much how to sound it. This is a soft, “unaspirated” T sound, romanized as D. It is the T in sTir, NOT the T in Tip.
  • ㄱ – G: This is the opposite of ㄴ. The tongue is instead pulled up and to the back of the mouth. Thus, it is a soft K sound, as in sKin, NOT Kin, romanized as a G.
  • ㄹ – R/L: Funky and twisted because your tongue curls and moves when you flap the R! How is it flapped? Bouncing off the the roof of the mouth (there fore, it has the top line again). At the beginning of a syllable, it’s this flapped R, much like a single R in Spanish, and certain double-D / double-T words in English, such as a buTTer, uDDer, buDDy, etc. At the end of a syllable it turns into a lazy L.
  • ㅈ – J: Carefully feel for where the tip of your tongue is when say the S sound. Now say the English J and CH sounds. It probably fell back a little bit, correct? Well, to pronounce the Korean , you cannot let your tongue fall back. Keep it very close to the teeth (see the visual relation to ㅅ?), exactly where you have it for an S, and say a J in that position. Don’t be lazy with that J-sound; even in English, it has a sharpness to it, like when you say JET or JIM, it’s like it begins with a little T sound. It will be the same here in Korean. Bonus pronunciation points if you widen your mouth like a smile when you pronounce – especially if it’s followed by the letter I. NOTE: Sometimes it seems to sound a bit like a Z. Although it won’t be romanized that way, it may sound like it. I wonder if this is why sometimes in K-pop I hear “magic” pronounced as “mazik.”

The last letter belongs to the front-view “family” of letters, so it doesn’t follow the top-line rule.

  • ㅂ – B: Fitting to the usual pattern, it would actually be a soft P like in sPit, and NOT Pit. Visually, you can still see the ㅁ for mouth, but what happened to the top and lower lips? They’re closer together, they’re tighter, and maybe you can even imagine the protruding lines as being the corners of the mouth wrinkling up a little as you tighten. Makes sense right? That’s what you need to do to pronounce a light P sound.

Group 3: Adding extra line to signify a noisy puff of air, which we call aspiration:

  • ㅊ – CH: See? It’s simply the ㅈ with an extra line. Thus, it’s a stronger sound, noisier like the English CH sound. Don’t forget to keep your tongue close to your ㅅ (teeth)!
  • ㅋ – K: It’s ㄱ with an extra line! So while is the K in sKin, ㅋ IS the K sound in Kin, Cat, etc. PRO TIP: since it’s noisy, it may not always release quickly, so it may sound like a slow and noisy kkkhh sound, especially if it precedes the letter I – which makes sense since the tongue can’t move much if it’s going to pronounce that I. See for yourself. Your release of the K sound in Cat goes by very quickly, but the K in Key is slower. There’s a distinctive hiss.
  • ㅌ – T: Same pattern of course. This IS the T in Tip. PRO TIP: At times,& may become a CH when followed by the letter I. That’s not so crazy as you might think. It will happen for the same reason no one asks “What’ya doing?” and they instead say “Whatcha doing?”
  • ㅍ – P: This IS the P in Pin. This does NOT seem to the follow the “extra line” trend here. However, you could still use the mnemonic that the lips are separated again – to the point that some fonts show the top line separately. So, imagine a noisy explosive sound: P.
  • ㅎ – H: Looky here! We saw at the beginning as ㅇ, which is no sound if at the beginning of the syllable. There’s no ㅇwith a single top line (there used to be, but it’s obsolete now), but it still fits the pattern: here it is with BOTH the top line and the extra line. So if you have a open throat of ㅇ and just push more air through, you get H.

Group 4: Double consonants. Doubling makes sense. You need to stop, take your time, tense up, and make the consonant stronger** (Japanese also has this time lag with their double consonants, only they don’t make them sound stronger). There are called tense consonants. They are fairly unique sounds. Of the major languages, Korean is the only one that has them, but they’re actually not that hard – what’s difficult is getting over your own disbelief or uncertainty of pronunciation, since we don’t have these sounds but probably make them a lot at random times.

  • ㅃ – BB/PP: Try to push air out, but keep your lips tight so no air leaks. Then release it suddenly, like a balloon popping; no tearing, no hissing, just a sudden separation of the lips.
  • ㅉ – JJ: This can be a little tricky. Unlike the other sounds, your tongue doesn’t move completely away from the roof of your mouth for J or CH-like sounds; it stays close to make the noise. Thus, while it can already be difficult to tell , may also be difficult to distinguish and pronounce. It should definitely still be a more sudden, less noisy release, but sometime it sounds like a z and can be romanized as ZZ.
  • ㄸ – DD/TT:
  • ㄲ – GG/KK: This one can sound weird sometimes, especially in pop music where pronunciation may be modified or improper. I sometimes confuse it for a D sound. Not sure why!
  • ㅆ – SS: This is easy, since the S is a pretty tight sound in English. Make sure they hear you when you say ㅆ! Actually, English sometimes doubles consonant sounds too, particularly with the letter S. Misstep is not just written with two S’s, but you pronounce them both by making the sound longer. So if you want to practice the Korean ㅆ, listen to yourself pronounce “misstep” or note the difference between “ice stand” and “I stand.”

LISTENING TIP: Both the single and aspirated (extra line) versions of normally sound like soft and normal version of English P, T, and K to American ears. Double letters, however, due to their sudden and less noisy release, will sound more like B, D, and G, etc. So, using ㅂ as an example, I hear ㅂas a soft P, ㅃ as a strong B, and ㅍas a normal P.

Finally, the compounds that only come at the end of syllables. Although only one of the letters is pronounced, luckily, they’re easy because you simply pronounce the main one that blocks your pronunciation.

  • : Too hard to pronounce S after G, so just stop at G.
  • : Too hard to pronounce that J, so stop at N.
  • : Pretty much impossible to pronounce that H, so don’t.
  • : You pronounce both R and G, so ignore R and just land at G.
  • : Again, the R isn’t restricting you, so ignore it and just pronounce M.
  • : Just B.
  • : Just S.
  • . Just T.
  • : Just P.
  • : Just H.
  • : Again, B does not force you to stop, so ignore it and just pronounce S.

Once you’re confident with your consonants, move on to Part 2: Learning the Vowels

Remember: You Don’t Have to Learn It This Way

You may be better with more brute force methods. Flashcards, or just writing out the alphabet and syllables over and over (that’s how I learned Japanese kana). Again, the reason I show this method because if done right, this method CAN be helpful, and it shows one of the big reasons why the Korean alphabet is so special and unique.

This website (already listed above) shows one man’s personal mnemonics. You can see how silly some are, and some push the limits of how obvious or close the connection is, but it’s fine – it just goes to show you the kind of things you can up with on your own if you have to, as Benny Lewis’ article pointed out.

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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 is it philosophically based, representing, ground, man, and heaven. The third is that it naturally developed from earlier scripts. Regardless, the 1st is the one most valuable to us as a study aid.

**
So how do you make tense consonants? You build up more pressure in the mouth, squeeze a bit more, and release suddenly but not loudly or noisily – except for , which I’d say is more like the English s (while single is a soft S). It should be enough pressure to make the sound even if you did not breathe out any air.
“dinobuddy,” in a forum post I can no longer find, put this nicely when he said:
The best way to approach making these sounds: Pay attention to how your breath flows when you pronounce T, S, Ch and P. Much of the sound is the pressure of breath from your lungs. Now, [try your hardest] to re-create these sounds while holding your breath. You only need the air in your mouth to do this, but you’ll notice your tongue has to work extra hard to compensate for the lack of air from your lungs. You should have the sounds- now the trick is to integrate them into your speech!
When it comes to listening, I think , , and of course are easiest to distinguish because I would say that to an English-speaker’s ears, they sound like strong Bs, Ds, and Ss. can be easily heard as a G, but as I said before, it can sound weird. Don’t forget to watch the videos in my Korean YouTube playlist and take a good listen!
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