Home > Korean Lessons, Language Lessons > Learning the Korean Alphabet, Hangul (Part 2: Learning the Vowels)

Learning the Korean Alphabet, Hangul (Part 2: Learning the Vowels)

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 1: Consonants | All parts in one article

Learning the Vowels

Kinds of Vowels

Group 1, basic vowels: Can be seen as hinting lip shape and tongue position / space in mouth:

ㅏ  ㅓ  ㅗ  ㅜ  ㅐ  ㅔ  ㅡ  ㅣ

Group 2: adding  the /j/ [y] sound: Contain an extra small line:

ㅑ  ㅕ  ㅛ  ㅠ  ㅒ  ㅖ

Group 3: adding W – like sound: Compound vowels that start with , , or .

ㅘ ㅝ  ㅙ  ㅞ  ㅢ  ㅟ  ㅚ

Vowels: Letter by Letter

Basic Vowels

Small horizontal line, meaning the tongue is low and the vertical space is quite open. In fact, your lips stay neutral and relaxed.

  • ㅏ- A: Shape is pushed toward the front of the mouth, so a vowel sounded in the front, with tongue low? /a/
  • ㅓ- EO: Tongue is still low, but opposite placement in the mouth; this is in the back: /ʌ/.

If you’re not too certain of this idea of front and back vowels, try it yourself! Sah “Aaah” and then say “Uhhh,” and then go back and forth “Ah Uh Ah Uh”  etc. Feel the difference? Feel how the Ah is in front while Uh is in the back?
Moving on, we can double the small line to do what? What does an extra line mean? The concept of more force. With a vowel, we do that by adding a Y before it.

  • ㅑ – YA
  • ㅕ – YEO

Small vertical line, indicating the vertical space isn’t so much, so the tongue is higher, just above the middle, actually. Despite length differences, the lines are a little more balanced than with&ㅓ, so use this to remember ㅗ and ㅜ require your lips to be rounded, NOT relaxed. To help me remember, I like to imagine and surrounded by a circle, so that it looks like a steering wheel!

  • ㅗ – O: Shape is pushed down, so this is the lower sound.
  • ㅜ – U: Shape pushed up, so this is the higher sound.

Again, feel it. Say O and U back and forth. Feel your tongue moving up and down?Double line again, meaning add Y.

  • ㅛ – YO
  • ㅠ – YU

Now we can go back and show what else can be done with &ㅓas well as others: since your lips are rounded for O and U, putting them before a vowels creates a W sound.

  • ㅘ – WA: U + A would natural make a WA sound.
  • ㅝ – WO: O + EO would also naturally make this WO sound.

Based off the previous set, no small line means the vertical space is at it’s smallest, so the tongue is at its highest. Perfectly straight lines, so can you guess the lip shape? Straight and wide.

  • ㅡ – EU: Consider this to be the true visual representation; tongue highest, just a tiny horizontal space. So front or back? Just memorize it’s in the back.
  • ㅣ- I: The only way to “flip” a straight line to show the opposite (front of the mouth) is a 90 degree rotation. Luckily, this looks like an I.

There are no Y-based versions of these (try it; they’d blend so much you’d barely here the Y anyway), but we can do W-based ones:

  • ㅟ – WI: U is rounded, so add a I and it all sounded like WI.
  • ㅢ – UI: Distinctly a U-like sounds + I sound because EU is NOT rounded!
  • ㅚ – OI: This is the only weird one. The ㅣ part is not pronounced as I, but instead like an E (ㅐor ㅔas seen below). It’s just how it’s come to be pronounced now. It takes a bit of work to do a perfectly rounded U and then a perfectly straight-lipped I, so this “corruption” of the sound may make sense.

Finally, what I found the hardest, are the only two vowels with TWO vertical lines. They are both “e”-like, and in fact they are commonly pronounced similarly if not exactly the same. Technically, there should be a difference, and I finally came up with a way to “see” it: The right-most line is the principle one telling you the tongue is low and the mouth is relaxed, just like in ㅏ (a) and ㅓ (eo). However, the tongue isn’t too low – otherwise they wouldn’t be modified.

  • ㅐ – AE: Has two verticals, so it emphasizes the open space. Thus, out of the two, the tongue is lowest for this sound.
  • ㅔ – E: The only place to go is up, so just the fact that its modified tells you so the tongue should go a little higher. That’s all there is to it!

And then again, an extra line to signify the addition of Y:

  • ㅖ – YAE: Just Y+AE
  • ㅒ – YE: Just Y+E

And the W-based ones:

  • ㅞ – WE: U + E
  • ㅙ – WAE: O + AE

As I said, I personally found and the hardest to differentiate. I ended up remembering them by corresponding the two lines of ㅐto the two vowels A and E linked together. You only need to figure out ONE; the other will simply be “the other one” left over by elimination.

Here’s another idea ㅒlooks like + = , which would romanize to A + I = AI, the vowel sound in said, which is relatively close.

And that’s it! That’s the whole alphabet! Here’s the link to all 3 parts in one, if you prefer it for reviewing.

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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