Dear Language Nerd,
Ok, your article on Gangnam Style has convinced me that Korean is a language I need to know. How does the alphabet work?
I kind of adore hangeul, the Korean writing system, because all the letter shapes explain how to say the sounds. It’s the best alphabet in the history of writing. Really, good choice for language learning, because it takes like 4 minutes to learn. Srsly. So beautiful.
ㄱ is g. The shape is a tongue hitting the back of the mouth. Imagine the nose is pointing off towards the left there, the flat line is the roof of the mouth, the vertical line represents the tongue.
ㅋ is k. Same shape, but an extra line to show more air coming out. (Voiceless/voiced pair, anyone?)
ㄴ is n. The tongue’s lying flat on the mouth and then pointing up at the front.
ㄷ is d. Same as n, but showing strong contact with the roof of the mouth.
ㅌ is t. Same as d, but an extra line to show more air coming out. Isn’t this amazing?! It is
hard for me to explain how happy this makes me.
ㄹ is r/l. Same thing again but with an extra bit to show the tongue kind of flapping around.
ㅁ is m. No longer in side view, this is two lips pressed together.
ㅂ is b. Same as m, but with air coming out.
ㅍ is p. The only real breakdown, it’s been stylized over the years. Bah. Memorize this one, you can do it.
ㅅ is s. Now we’re back inside the mouth, but switching perspectives. This is like a tooth imprint, if your teeth were really pointy at the front for some reason. This is for “s” because you put your tongue right behind your teeth to make the ssssssss sound.
ㅈ is j. Same as s, but a line to show contact with the roof of the mouth. Notice a pattern? Notice THE BEST pattern?
ㅊ is ch. Same again, with an extra line to show more air coming out (SO LOGICAL!! AHHH!!!)
ㆁor ㅇ is ng (as in “ring”). A throat shape. But at the beginning of a syllable, it’s silent – just like English, you can’t start a word with ng.
ㅎ is h. Throat with air coming out. And now you know your consonants! BAM!!!
Ok, there are five doubled consonants too, ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅆ and ㅉ , but they’re not too common. The doubling means they’re tensed, which has to do with how you hold your muscles in the throat. Pro tip: if you’re learning Korean just to get around for a bit, then say the doubled consonants louder and everything will be fine. So “bang” is “room” and “BBang!!” is “bread.” If you’re learning Korean for serious, get ready for a lot of practice at tensing your throat muscles properly.
Korean vowels are not as sensible as the consonants, but they’re still not bad. I do not adore them in quite the same way, but nevertheless, here we go. Like I mentioned earlier, having aㅇ at the beginning of a syllable means there’s no consonant sound, just the vowel. So if you want to write just a vowel, you put that before it. If you want to add a consonant, you just switch it out with theㅇ. 아 is “a,” 가 is “ga.”
I’ll start off with the two peskiest, the only ones not found in English. They’re especially tiresome because the romanization has no relation to the sound you’re supposed to make.
First up is 어. Koreans consider this to be the most natural vowel sound. You just open your mouth and let everything hang slack and make an “aw” or “uh” sound. Just leave everything loose and pour some air out. This is, for some reason, romanized as the completely irrelevant “eo,” leading to Seoul, 서울, which is pronounced “sawh-ool,” being said as “see-oh-ul” or just “soul” by us English-speaking dorks.
The other pest is 으, which handily explains its sound with its shape, like a consonant, though accidentally this time. You pull your mouth flat, making your lips thin, and make a “u” sound. It’s romanized “eu,” as in my old apartment, 늘푸른Neulpureun. (Note that I switch between using r and l there for ㄹ. The actual sound is in-between r and l, so I’m using whichever is closer in a given syllable. Once again, if you’re gonna learn this language for real for real, you’ll need to learn a proper ㄹ.)
On to the easier ones!
아 is “a” as in “father.”
오 is “o” as in “open.”
우 is “oo” as in “school,” also often romanized with “u.”
이 is “i” as in… um, well, as in “eeeee.” “i” like it’s used in Romance languages.
애 and에 are both “eh,” like a Canadian. 애 is sometimes written “ae” and 에 usually just “e,” but they’re said the same.
Okay, get ready for a crazy twist! 6 of these vowels can also be said with a “y” sound first, ya yoo ye yo. 6 more characters to learn? Not so much! Korean has your back. You just write two little lines instead of one. Thus:
얘 and예 “ye”
and 여, said “yaw,” though spelled “yeo.”
Almost done! The last thing is that you can sometimes put two vowels together, first “o” or “u” or “eu” and then something else, and the “o” or “u” makes a “w” sound. So:
와 is “wa”
워 is “waw”
and 의 is “wee.”
The rest, 왜 위 웨 and 외, all make a “weh” sound.
Now you can read!! Isn’t that amazing? If you’ve never taught an eight-month series on English phonics or tried to memorize one bjillion kanji for Japanese then it might not be as apparent how incredibly awesome this writing system is. And HOW did it get to be so awesome? Well, back in the Joseon dynasty, the most outstanding King Sejong decided that using Chinese characters for spelling made no sense for Korean phonology (it didn’t) and also it would be nice if it took ten minutes to learn to spell instead of years and years of calligraphy study (the peasants came out for this development, the entrenched educated aristocrats against). And how did he decide to build his new writing system? By first learning the linguistics, then applying the linguistics. Outcome: one hell of a clever orthography, and the most-used constructed language in the world. I KIND OF LOVE YOU KING SEJONG, WE SHOULD TOTES HANG OUT SOMETIME.
And now, here are some handy things that you can now read! Woohoo! Congratulations!
Ain’t life grand?
The Language Nerd
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