The Korean alphabet is a very important syllabic system that’s mathematically accurate with an interesting historical background. Its foundations come from the Chinese system of writing but it has a portrayal all its own that dates as far back as the first Korean kingdom.
This is the complete guide to the Korean alphabet. We’ll take you through all the characters, also known as letters. This will include consonants, vowels and their combinations. With nearly 77 million speakers all over the globe, a boisterous study of it will have anyone catching on in no time.
Its inherent design intends for anyone, even those with very little education, to learn it quickly. In fact, the Koreans have a saying to reflect how easy it is. A wise man can understand the letters before morning ends, even a stupid man can learn the characters within 10 days.
In Hangul, there are 14 consonants along with 10 vowels. English, on the other hand, has four vowels (sometimes five if you include “y”) and 21 consonants (including “y”).
This alphabetical order is what Koreans call 가나다 순 (ganada sun), which as you can see, starts with all the consonants and their doubles followed by the vowels and their combinations.
Even though Hangeul has its roots in Chinese, it’s not nearly as complicated or involved. The strokes are easy to make and reading or writing is in the same order as English.
About the Korean Alphabet
Hangul, or Hangeul (한글), is the official alphabet and writing system of South Korea. It is a syllabic script describing its phonetic applications. This means each letter of the alphabet indicates the sound made when spoken. However, the sounds will change under specific patterns and rules.
North Korea uses the same system, but they call it Joseongeul or Chosŏn’gŭl (조선글), where it often borrows from Chinese words in ways Hangul doesn’t. It’s very scientific in nature and one of the world’s most efficient writing systems.
But, the tricky thing about learning this great alphabet is that it isn’t entirely consistent. Some pronunciations go way outside of the rules and the phonetics go in one direction. Ergo, hearing the words may be more difficult to pronounce once you read them.
This is because several consonants and vowels sound incredibly alike. Therefore, phonetic differentiation and pronouncing distinctions can be a very daunting task for newcomers to the language.
Comparing it to English
While Hangul is its own alphabetical system, it shares many similarities with the English alphabet. There are consonants and vowels that you can sound out, just as you would in English. This makes it very easy to learn. Knowing the Korean alphabet will also help with understanding grammatical structure and rules.
However, while there are many similarities, there is also a world of differences. Some sounds and native Korean words do not translate well into English. What’s more, they can be incredibly difficult to say. For example, the word for “cute” is 귀여운 (gwiyeoun).
As we will soon get into, it looks like you should pronounce it as, “gwee-yoh-oon.” But, it actually sounds like “hee-y-own.” So, when in doubt, refer to a site that features audio clips of how a word should sound when pronounced.
Total Number of Letters
There are fewer letters in Hangul than in English, 24 to 26 respectively. In Hangul, there are 14 consonants along with 10 vowels. English, on the other hand, has four vowels (sometimes five if you include “y”) and 21 consonants (including “y”).
But, very much unlike English, in Hangul, there are 40 letters in total because there are double consonants and vowel combos. This brings the total of consonants to 19 and 21 vowels. It’s here that the language can get additionally confusing. But, once learned, it becomes very simple in concept.
Learning Korean Is Easier
The Korean language and alphabet is much easier to learn than Chinese or Japanese. There is a specific stroke order that applies to all the letters and there are never more than five strokes. Each letter, especially with the consonants, reflects the speech organ required to pronounce the character.
These, and the vowels, modify in a systematic way to indicate phonetic specialization. While this may sound a little difficult, it’s not. But, it is a foreign language. So, it will take some time to learn it in full.
This is especially true when you compare it to Japanese or Chinese. Either of these can have 15 or more strokes and thousands of characters. Indeed, it takes non-native speakers several years to learn these Asian tongues. Korean, on the other hand, is much easier and simpler to digest.
History & Origins
The Korean alphabet comes from King Sejong the Great about 500 years ago in 1443. It bases itself on Chinese characters. While some of the characters in the Korean alphabet look Chinese, they are their own script and pronunciation.
An earlier Korean writing system used classic Chinese writing and their own version of phonetic writing for it. These included Gugyeol, Idu, Gakpil and Hyangchal. Only nobles and people of a higher social status had allowance to use these. Regardless, it began the promotion of literacy as a practical application for writing and reading.
As a derivative of the Chinese writing system, Hangul translates from the characters Han (韓), which means “Korean,” and gul (㐎), which means “letter.” When you put it together, it equals “Korean Letter.”
However, there is yet another writing system used in both North and South Korea called Hanja (한자). This comprises Chinese characters, but its pronunciation and usage is purely Korean. It’s been part of the culture since the very first kingdom, so it has ancient and ancestral associations.
Official Korean Alphabet
The large table below is the official Korean alphabet in its proper order. This indicates the Hangul character, its name in Korean, the Romanization of both the letter itself and its name along with the approximate pronunciation in English. Plus, there’s a mnemonic device to help you remember it.
This alphabetical order is what Koreans call 가나다 순 (ganada sun), which as you can see, starts with all the consonants and their doubles followed by the vowels and their combinations. As we’ll get into later, there are double consonants and you can find these after their single counterparts.
Consonants vs Vowels
You’ll notice that there are names for the consonants but not the vowels. This is because vowels are pure sound and do not require a name. Using the names for the consonants can be useful when you need to spell out words or discuss the leung, a special character without a sound.
In terms of the English approximations, these are neither official nor are they exact. Other letters can work as well, it depends on the usage situation. This is because Hangul is a unique script of its own accord, having special sounds not heard in English.
This is also true for the Romanization; they are not a precise display of the way a letter or word sounds. It’s advisable you look up a pronunciation guide, like on DuoLingo or other Korean learning platform to get an exact understanding. Therefore, do not solely rely on the Romanization.
Using Mnemonic Devices
Because these letters are brand new, you must be able to associate them with things you already know. Called mnemonic devices, there are some provided for your use in the rightmost column in the table. Mnemonic devices are tools you use to make learning languages easier by remembering better.
Some of these reflect the image of the character while others indicate the sound the letter makes. The ones that don’t have a mnemonic device included are obvious English comparisons or we just couldn’t think of a good one. Therefore, you don’t have to go with any of these if you don’t like the association or it isn’t something you associate.
The point of this is to get your brain linking these characters and their sounds with things you can identify. Devise your own strategies to make it personalized, which will lend itself to remembering them. In fact, it’s advisable you take an active role in creating your own mnemonic devices.
Other Things to Know
Unfortunately, not all the letters have an English approximation and some do not have a mnemonic device. Therefore, you should definitely come up with your own as you learn each letter. Here’s where creating flashcards will come in handy.
|Hangul||Consonant/Vowel||Character Name||Romanization||English Approx.||Mnemonic Device|
|ㄱ||Consonant||기역||g/k – Giyeok||G or K||Gun|
|ㄲ||Double Consonant||쌍기역||kk – Ssangiyeok||Hard G/K||Giggle|
|ㄷ||Consonant||미음||d/t – Digeut||D||Deck|
|ㄸ||Double Consonant||디귿||tt – Ssangdigeut||D||Double Deck|
|ㄹ||Consonant||쌍디귿||r/l – Rieul||L or R||Ladder/Rise|
|ㅁ||Consonant||리을||m – Mieum||M||Mom|
|ㄴ||Consonant||니은||n – Nieun||N||Nine|
|ㅂ||Consonant||비읍||b/p – Bieup||B, P or V||Boat/Port/Votive|
|ㅃ||Double Consonant||쌍비읍||pp – Ssangbieup||Hard P||Pop|
|ㅅ||Consonant||시옷||s/t – Siot||S||Stand|
|ㅆ||Double Consonant||쌍시옷||ss – Ssangsiot||Long S||Serpent/Snake|
|ㅇ||Special Character||이응||ng – Leung||-ing||No sound|
|ㅈ||Consonant||지읒||j – Jieut||J, X or Z||Jacks/Jazz|
|ㅉ||Double Consonant||쌍지읒||jj – Ssangjieut|
|ㅊ||Consonant||치읓||Ch – Chieut||CH||Church|
|ㅋ||Consonant||키읔||K – Kieuk||C, K or Q||Cake/Quake|
|ㅌ||Consonant||티읕||T – Tieut||T|
|ㅍ||Consonant||피읖||P – Pieup||F or P||Fort/Portal|
|ㅎ||Consonant||히읗||H – Hieut||H||Hat|
|ㅐ||Vowel Combo||Ae||E (eh)||Egg|
|ㅔ||Vowel Combo||E||E (eh)||Egg but longer|
|ㅝ||Vowel Combo||Wo||W (woe)||Whoah|
|ㅟ||Vowel Combo||Wi||W (wee)||Nintendo Wii|
|ㅣ||Vowel||I||I (ee)||EE (as in me)|
There are no consonant sounds representing F, R, V or Z in Korean. While you can represent the rest of the consonants of the English alphabet, there are some caveats when it comes to annunciating Q, W, X and Y sounds. In order to produce them, they must abide by two basic rules:
- Other consonant sounds must combine to create it (ie: X = K + S)
- They must accompany a vowel sound after (ie: ya or yo)
There a total of 14 consonants in Hangul. They stand on their own and produce a unique sound. The list below reflects what the table above indicates:
- ㄱ: g/k
- ㄴ: n
- ㄷ: d/t
- ㄹ: r/l
- ㅁ: m
- ㅂ: b/p
- ㅅ: s
- ㅇ: ng
- ㅈ: j
- ㅊ: ch
- ㅋ: k
- ㅌ: t
- ㅍ: p
- ㅎ: h
In the Korean alphabet, there’s a difference in consonant sounds: aspirated versus non-aspirated. Aspirated means you pronounce the letter with a strong puff of air. However, even the non-aspirated consonants can take on an aspirated effect.
The main aspirated consonants are K (ㅋ), T (ㅌ), CH (ㅊ) and P (ㅍ). While in specific circumstances, they can sound non-aspirated, they do require an accompaniment of air when pronouncing them. For instance, the K sounds hard as in the word “kakistocracy “while CH may sound like “choose” or “church.”
The rest are non-aspirated consonants, but can aspirate in certain situations. This is because they can make softer or stronger sounds, as indicated in the table at the top of this article. The English approximations best illustrates these.
Also known as tense consonants, double consonants are two of the same consonant combined to create a strong, double sound based on its root. The use of the word “tense” refers to tensing up the tongue in order to pronounce them correctly.
What makes them somewhat tricky is that it is difficult to make a phonetic distinction when pronouncing the double consonant or its plain counterpart. This is particularly true of S and SS, where S is very short and brief but SS is much longer and drawn out. The double consonants are as follows:
- ㄲ: kk (sounds like a forceful but longer G)
- ㄸ: tt (sounds like a hard D with a bit of length)
- ㅃ: pp (sounds like B or hard P)
- ㅆ: ss (sounds like a long S)
- ㅉ: jj (sounds like J)
The Special Character – Leung
One letter without a real English equivalent in the table above is 0 (ㅇ). In Korean, they call it leung and this acts as a placeholder to create other sounds or start words with vowels and does not have a sound of its own. It’s a simple round shape similar to a zero but it has a very short line coming out from the top.
When you see this paired with a letter, it’s often silent. But, it creates a “ng” sound at the end of a word or syllable block just like adding –ing at the end of an English word. In most cases, though, you’ll see this as a placeholder for consonants and always appears with vowels. The silence denoted by this circular shape allows for vowels to start words.
Although a very small character, the leung is important in Hangul. Therefore, noting its use in every word you study will be invaluable to developing pronunciation.
As with simple consonants, there are also basic vowels that take on a sound and character in their own right. They are as indicated below:
- ㅏ: a (pronounced “ah”)
- ㅑ: ya (pronounced “yah”)
- ㅓ: eo (pronounced “oh”)
- ㅕ: yeo (pronounced “yo”)
- ㅗ: o (pronounced “ou”)
- ㅛ: yo (pronounced “yooh”)
- ㅜ: u (pronounced “oo”)
- ㅠ: yu (pronounced “you”)
- ㅡ: eu (pronounced “euh”; like beautiful)
- ㅣ: I (pronounced “ee”)
Even though there are 10 regular vowels, there are an additional 11 combo vowels for a total of 21. The easiest thing to understand about this is that the vowel combos come in two categories: A sounds and W sounds.
|A Sounds||W Sounds|
|ㅔ– e; ㅓ(eo) +ㅣ(ee) = eh as “egg”||ᅪ– wa; ㅗ (o) +ㅏ (a) = wah as “waffle”|
|ᅢ– ae; ㅓ(eo) +ㅣ(ee) = eh as “egg” but longer||ᅯ– wo; ㅜ(u) +ㅓ (eo) = woe as “whoa”|
|ㅖ– ye;ㅕ(yeo) + ㅣ(ee) = yeh as “yes”||ᅫ– wae; ㅗ(o) + ᅢ (ae) = way|
|ㅒ– yae;ㅑ(ya) +ㅣ(ee) = yah like “Yamaha”||ᅰ – we; ㅜ(u) + ㅔ(e) = weh as “wedding”|
|ᅬ – oe; ㅗ (o) + ㅣ(ee) = ooay but brief|
|ᅱ – wi; ㅜ (u) +ㅣ(ee) = wee as in “Nintendo Wii”|
|ᅴ – ui; ㅡ eu +ㅣ(ee) = ooey as “gooey”|
Writing in Korean
Now that you know something about Hangul, there are some important factors in understanding how to write in Korean. To do this you must create syllable boxes. These are groupings of individual letters, which string together with others to devise a term.
But, you have to understand stroke execution and how syllable boxes comprise individual letters along with how they come together to form a whole word. There is a specific order in Hangul, just like there is a letter order in English. You will do this left to right and top to bottom.
For example, G (or ㄱ) will begin with the top horizontal line starting at the left and then the vertical line beginning from the top. The best way to practice individual characters is by sounding out your name in Korean and then locating those individual characters. You can practice drawing these strokes to get you started.
Creating Syllable Boxes
To create syllable boxes, remember that these will always begin with a consonant, never a vowel. If a vowel sound begins a word, you can bet there’s a placeholder ahead of it. These syllables must also make up at least one consonant and one vowel. Syllable blocks can comprise two, three or four characters in each.
Understand that it’s rare for a word to comprise four syllables. They usually run from one to three but there is a fair collection of four syllables in which to familiarize yourself. Also, all syllable blocks in general do not have an actual line around them. The space encompassing them denotes separation. But individual characters make up a single block.
Two blocks indicate a single consonant and a vowel. Three means it will begin with a consonant, followed with a vowel and end with yet another consonant. If there are four syllable blocks, it will begin with a Consonant, then a vowel, then another consonant and end with an additional consonant.
To illustrate, take the Korean word for Hangul (한글). You would never see it written on a single line: ㅎㅏㄴㄱㅡㄹ. You can see that it groups into two syllable blocks. The first syllable has three letters: H, A and N. The second also has three letters: G, U, L. When you put them together it creates Hangul.
Reading Korean is just like English, in that you read from left to right and top to bottom. Yet, unlike English, you won’t read it straight across but rather individual block by block. Within each box/block, you’ll use the same reading rules of left to right and top to bottom, then moving onto the next block. Once completed, you will have an entire word.
This will be somewhat time consuming at first and you may lose the pronunciation throughout your translations. But, if you refer to the chart at the beginning of this article, you can help yourself pick it up more quickly. Creating flashcards will help you remember as well.
Some Example Words
To bring the point home, the Korean word for “tree” is 나무. This comprises two syllable blocks of two letters in each. The first block is N and A while the second is M and U. Therefore, you would pronounce it na-moo. Let’s try some other but more difficult words so you can get the hang of it.
- Fire (불): This is only one block but it comprises only B, U and L. You would pronounce it as bool.
- Moon (달): One syllable with D, A, L comes together to pronounce dahl.
- Money (돈): Three characters make up this one syllable block. D, OO and N phonetically combine to say it as doon.
- School (학교): This has two syllable boxes. The first is H, A and K while the second contains G and YO. Therefore, you pronounce “school” as hak-gyo.
- Coffee (커피): This comprises two blocks. The first one is K and EO while the second is P and I. This means you would pronounce it keo-pee.
- Candle (양초): A two-letter syllable, this box contains YA and NG as well as CH and O. But, you pronounce it yah-ng-choo.
- Table (테이블): Three syllable boxes comprise this word. The first has T and E. The second comprises the special placeholder alongside I and the third contains B, U and L. You would pronounce it teh-ee-bool. What’s great is that it sounds similar to English.
- Cat (고양이): Another three syllable box, the first has G and O with the second comprising YA and NG and the third has the leung and I. They come together to pronounce go-yang-ee. Both the second and the third display a great example for the leung to indicate vowel sounds.
- Sad (슬프다): A block comprising three syllables. The first is S, EU and L; second has P and EU; the last has D and A. You pronounce it seuhl-peuh-dah.
Four Syllable Words
So far, it’s been pretty simple, so let’s try some examples that are a little more difficult with four syllables.
임신하다 is the word for “pregnant.” This has four syllable boxes and it contains a placeholder in the first box. Because syllable boxes can only start with a consonant, the first has that special placeholder.
- First: 0 + I + M = eem
- Second: S + I + N = seen
- Third: H + A = hah
- Fourth: D + A = dah
Therefore, you would pronounce “pregnant” as eem-seen-hah-dah.
To describe a traffic accident, you’ll use the word 교통 사고. As you can see, there are no place holders on the last block, which breaks some of the rules around using the leung.
- First: G + YO = gyo
- Second: T + OU + NG = toong
- Third: S + AH = sah
- Fourth: G + OO = goo
String these together to pronounce gyoh-toong-sah-goo.
The Korean word for “beautiful” is 아름답다. The word begins with the leung to indicate that it starts only with a vowel sound.
- First: 0 + A = ah
- Second: R + EU + M = reuhm
- Third: D + A + P = dahp
- Fourth: D + A = dah
Now, put this in one term and you pronounce “beautiful” as ah-reuhm-dahp-dah.
Even though Hangul has its roots in Chinese, it’s not nearly as complicated or involved. The strokes are easy to make and reading or writing is in the same order as English. Also, the characters aren’t nearly as vast, where Chinese and Japanese have literally thousands.
However, learning the Korean alphabet is a little time consuming and somewhat involved but it’s not terribly difficult. With patience, practice and persistence, you should be able to grasp it within 10 days. After that, you’ll be able to read and write basic words. If you don’t know a word, you can at least identify the letters within any given syllable block.