Learning Hangul(한글)

Hang-Cool 1

The Korean alphabet (Hangul) is – so far – my favourite writing system. It is logical and efficient. It pleases my sense of style. Since starting this post over a month ago I took up learning Mandarin so my feelings towards Hanzi are liable to threaten Hangul’s dominance in the future, but for now I side with space-robot alphabet. Because that’s what Hangul is.

See? Space robots.
See? Space robots.

At first glance one may assume that Hangul consists of logograms – characters representing words rather than phonemes, but this is not the case. The alphabet is very much phonetic. Each “block” is a single syllable, so for example Hangul(한글) is Han(한)+gul(글).

Since syllables are made of phonemes, it is not surprising that the blocks consist of sub-components representing these phonemes. (It was surprising the first time I learned of this, because such an elegant solution to written language had not occurred to me – though upon further reflection, the trick is just “writing words more compactly” so it’s not as novel as it is aesthetically pleasing.) Some insane person wrote a Wikipedia page documenting every possible syllabic block in Korean, so all you need to do is memorise all ten thousand of these (give or take a few thousand) and reading Korean will become trivial. End of post. If this idea is appealing to you, I might suggest going to Cambridge to do Part III of the Mathematical Tripos.

The more elegant solution is to learn the alphabet. Each letter is called a “jamo”, but they only occur inside blocks, sort of like quarks. Unlike quarks, we can still look at them individually. I’ll include the IPA in [], and a ‘translation’ of IPA into my accent (mileage may vary). For pronunciation purposes, text is no replacement for audio, so I would suggest finding some videos, like this one, for example.

Simple vowels: Simple vowels are made of horizontal or vertical lines and short strokes.

ㅣ [i] (“ee” in “tree”)
ㅏ [a] (“a” in “mad”)
ㅓ [ʌ] (“u” in “mud”)

ㅡ [ɯ] (somewhere between the “oo” in “cool” and the “eu” in “eugh” – I have a really hard time differentiating this from ㅜ)
ㅗ [o] (“o” in “bowl”)
ㅜ [u] (“oo” in “too”)

Complex vowels: Combinations of simple vowels (including diphthongs). I’m not going to include all combinations because many of them are self-evident given the simple vowels.

These ones are less obvious:
ㅐ [ɛ] (“e” in “bed”)
ㅔ [e] (“e” in “grey”)

Generally, ㅗ or ㅜ combined with another vowel gives a “w-” sound, so for example ㅘ is “wah”, ㅙ is “weh”, and ㅟ is “wee”.

There’s no letter for “y” in Korean, so if you want to “y” up a vowel, double up on short strokes (I believe this process is called ‘iotation’. You can do something similar in Slavic languages with ь – Cyrillic comes a close second in the space-robot race.) This produces
ㅑ [ja] (“yah”)
ㅕ [] (“yuh”)
ㅛ [jo] (“yoh”)
ㅠ [ju] (“yoo”)

We can extend this to the complex vowels, to get ㅒ for “yeh” and ㅖ for a slightly different “yeh”.


Syllables are usually a consonant-vowel sandwich, so consonants can be “initial”, “medial”, or “final” (I’ll write [i/m/f]), and the placement makes a (small) difference to the pronunciation of the letter.

ㄱ [k/g/k̚] (“k” as in “Kant”, “g” as in “gravity”, “k̚” as in “quark”)
ㄴ [n/n/n] (“n” as in “neutron”)
ㄷ [t/d/t̚] (“t” as in “tachyon”, “d” as in “down”, “t̚” as in “cat”)
ㅅ [s/s/t̚] (“s” as in “strange”)
ㅁ [m/m/m] (“m” as in “mass”)
ㅂ [p/b/p̚] (“p” as in “point”, “b” as in “baryon”, “p̚” as in “top”)
ㅇ [-/ŋ/ŋ] (This is just a silent placeholder in the initial position. In all others it’s “ng”, as in “ping”)
ㄹ [ɾ/ɾ/l] (“ɾ” as in “alveolar tap”, a sound which is neither “r” nor “l”)

Some consonants are obtained from others by aspiration. Aspiration is basically just adding air to the sound – so imagine trying to sneak a “h-” sound in after the consonant. In Hangul, the addition of a horizontal line seems to denote this aspiration, or a general ‘softening’ or alteration of the sound (in the case of the letter I like to think of as “j”). This produces:
ㄱ > ㅋ [kʰ/kʰ/k̚] (“kʰ” is an aspirated “k”, oddly enough)
ㄷ > ㅌ [tʰ/tʰ/t̚]
ㅅ > ㅈ [tɕ/dʑ/t̚] (“tɕ” as in “charm”, “dʑ” as in “jam”)
ㅈ > ㅊ [tɕʰ/tɕʰ/t̚] (“tɕʰ” as in “oh god send help”)
ㅂ > ㅍ [pʰ/pʰ/p̚] (“pʰ” as in *strangling noises*)
ㅇ > ㅎ [h/ɦ/-] (“h” as in “hello”, “ɦ” as in “cool whip”)

There are also “double letters”: ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ which are “tense”, so they’re pronounced a bit like you’re after spending the last hour reading articles about phonetics and just realised it’s too late to watch Breaking Bad. “Damn it!” ~ “땀읻!”

I should stress that this entire post has very little to do with the Korean language. I don’t know any Korean, but transliteration can be fun, and this article was largely about IPA. Trying to cram English into a foreign language really makes you appreciate phonetic differences.


피탤퍼이팰챜앧아퍀어퍀랟페펤… (curse you lack of “ɘ”!)


5 thoughts on “Learning Hangul(한글)

  1. I love the Korean alphabet just because it’s phonetic lol But I do admit the spelling can get a little difficult at times. Like spelling the word yes. I thought it would be spelled 내, but it’s actually spelled 네. And those two vowels have the same sound but written differently. I guess that’s where memorization comes it haha

    1. I’m not sure how bad Korean is for it, but certainly English is absolutely riddled with exceptions when it comes to spelling. There probably isn’t much to do but memorise them, which sucks, but at least spelling errors don’t tend to interfere greatly with understanding. If you can write it down phonetically, a native speaker can probably understand it.

  2. they should write lojban using hangul. i tried inventing an alphabet for random fantasy/RP stuff back in high school, and it came out similar to hangul – each syllable taking up the same amount of space (a block) with the consonants and vowels in consistent positions for each block. never completed the project but it was funny finding out how hangul worked afterwards.

    1. What’s even more wonderful about it is that (apparently), the shapes of the characters also translate somehow roughly into the shape of the mouth/tongue while making them. If this is actually the case, all it needs is some indication of tone and Hangul is the closest translation of actual speech I know of.

  3. Looks like you’re trying to write out “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” at the end there. Here’s how they would probably write that in Konglish (Korean/English):

    피터 파이퍼 픽트 어 팩 어브 피클드 페퍼스.

    Anyway, looks like you’re having fun with it, so keep up the good work~

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