The Korean alphabet (Han-geul) itself is easy to learn. There are a total of 14 basic consonants and 5 additional consonants for a total of 19 consonants. There are 10 basic vowels and 11 additional vowels for a total of 21 vowel pronunciations.
By “additional consonant” and “additional vowel” we mean that two or more basic characters are combined together to create a different sound. In English the equivalent would be the combinations that produce sh, th, ea, or oo.
Korean Vowels & Consonants
The first step in learning to speak Korean, it is necessary to understand the vowels and consonants.
The vowel consists of three components “ㅣ,” “ ㅡ ,” and “ ` .” All of the vowels are made up using only these three but in several different combinations.
For example, the vowel “ㅏ,” created by combining the components “ㅣ” and “ ` ” is pronounced as ah. On the other hand, the vowel “ㅓ,” uses the same combination of components, but with “ ` ” placed before “ㅣ,” and is pronounced as uh. This example illustrates that the placement of one component relative to another changes how each vowel should be pronounced.
In the case of consonants, there are five basic components from which other consonants derive their shape and sound: “ ㄱ ;” ” ㄴ ;” ” ㅁ ;” ” ㅅ’ ” and “ ㅇ .” They are pronounced as g, n, m, s, and ng respectively in their English equivalent.
There are many websites that outline the Korean alphabet and each pronunciation into detail. As this article covers only the basics, you will find more comprehensive material from these resources on our Learn Online page.
After memorizing the handful of characters in the Korean alphabet, the next step is to understand how these characters are used to construct syllables. These syllables then are the building blocks of Korean words.
In Korean, the characters are combined to form each syllable of each word. For example, if the word “pencil” were a Korean word, it would be written as two letters: 펜 (pen) & 씰 (ssil). These two letters combined make a single word: 펜씰 which would be pronounced phonetically as pencil. As you can see in the construction of each syllable, and in a complete departure from English word structure, the consonant that comes after the vowel ”ᄂ” (n) is underneath the combination of consonant ”ᄑ” (p) and vowel ”에“ (e), becoming the syllable ”펜” (pen).
Also a significant departure from English-style pronunciation, which separates each word with a space, Korean merges prepositions with its object. As an example, if the sentence “Give this present to her” were written as a Korean phrase, it would appear as “Give this present toher.” (To be precise the preposition goes after the object and should be written as “herto” instead).
Importance of space and pause
In Korean speech, some prefixes require space before the noun and some do not. Some can be used either way. However, space between the noun and the prefix will change the meaning of the phrase.
The phrase “suck eat” has two different meanings based on whether a pause is placed between each word. If there is a pause, “suck eat” means simply “suck” as in “I sucked on the candy.” If there is no pause, the phrase means to “leach on.” Similarly, the word “jib-an” has two meanings: “jib/an” means “household” whereas “jib an” means “inside a house.”
Therefore, a substantial amount of time and effort must be invested in learning the rules regarding the separation of Korean words. These rules are very tricky and even educated Koreans make mistakes with them.
Origin of Korean Words
Korean words are divided roughly between three origins: pure Korean; Korean based on Chinese traditional characters; and English words that have been adopted to fit the Korean pronunciation. All of these look alike, as written in terms of characters (they all use Hangeul). However, when spoken aloud, words that are based on Chinese traditional characters are easier to intuit the meaning. This makes sense, since these Chinese-based words share the same characters with Korean words with similar meaning.
For instance, the word “eyeball” in Korean is read as ahn-goo. The word “glasses” in Korean is read as ahn-gyung. As one may guess, ahn is a Chinese character-based letter, meaning “eye.” Whereas Goo in ahn-goo means “sphere.” Similarly, the worth “Earth” in Korean is read as Ji-goo by using the same Chinese characters to produce the Korean word.
It’s interesting to note that Chinese traditional characters make up more than 70% of the nouns in the Korean language. Whereas verb and adjective tend to have pure Korean origins.