Korean Complex Vowels: Beginner’s Guide

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The Korean alphabet, known as Hangul, includes a set of complex vowels that’s similar to the language’s phonetic system. 

Complex vowels or also called diphthongs, are combinations of simple vowels that create distinct sounds.

For anyone who’s looking to gain proficiency in Korean, these complex vowels are crucial. (often distinguished words that would otherwise be homophones).

This may sound hard at first but once you’re familiar with these vowels, it’ll get easier and it’ll enhance your pronunciation and comprehension of Korean.

Let’s get started.

There are 11 complex vowels in Hangul – This process involves combining elements of the basic vowel sounds to create a new, blended sound.  These sounds are daunting at first but with everything you’ll get better at it over time.

Knowing the sounds of each complex vowel is essential when you’re on your way to fluency. 


  • Complex vowels are a fundamental aspect of the Korean language’s phonetic structure.
  • Also known as diphthongs or glides. (a simple change can lead to a different meaning)
  • There are several complex vowels in Korean, including combinations like ㅒ (yae), ㅙ (wae), and ㅞ (we)

The Korean Writing System

The Korean script, Hangul, is a unique writing system known for its scientific and systematic design. Not only does it consist of simple vowels and consonants but you’ll also find comex vowels/diphthongs, which are more used in pronunciation.

Hangul and Its Structure

Hangul is has a total of 24 basic letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Your usage of Hangul is built on the combination of these letters into syllable blocks. Each block forms a single syllable and contains at least one consonant and one vowel. 

These blocks can be arranged as one would build with Lego bricks—horizontally or vertically—to create a syllable.

It’s as you’re stacking different blocks on top of each other, the same goes for building these syllable blocks. – For example, the syllable block for the sound “ga” (가) is made by combining the consonant “ㄱ” (g) and the vowel “ㅏ” (a). 

Additional letters are added either to the right or beneath the initial consonant/vowel pair for syllables that include more sounds.

Fundamentals of Korean Vowels

In language learning it’s essential to learn the Korean vowels from the start, as you’re learning more and more words, you’ll recognize that starting from the basics is key. 

Basic Vowels

The Korean language features 10 basic vowels. These primary vowels are the building blocks for creating more complex vowel sounds. Below is a list of the basic vowels with their common English romanizations:

  • ㅏ (a)
  • ㅑ (ya)
  • ㅓ (eo)
  • ㅕ (yeo)
  • ㅗ (o)
  • ㅛ (yo)
  • ㅜ (u)
  • ㅠ (yu)
  • ㅡ (eu)
  • ㅣ (i)

Vowel Classification

Korean vowels are classified based on their physical articulation and visual shape. There are two main classifications: monophthongs and diphthongs/combinations.

Monophthongs are single, pure vowel sounds that are represented by the 10 basic vowels listed above. Diphthongs, on the other hand, are complex vowels created by combining two different basic vowels. 

Here is a list of some combined Korean vowels, often referred to as diphthongs:

Combined VowelHangulComponentsEnglish Approximation
aeㅏ + ㅣsomewhat like ‘a’ in “cat”
yaeㅑ + ㅣsomewhat like ‘ya’ in “yak”
eㅓ + ㅣsimilar to ‘e’ in “net”
yeㅕ + ㅣsimilar to ‘ye’ in “yet”
waㅗ + ㅏsimilar to ‘wa’ in “water”
waeㅗ + ㅐsimilar to ‘wae’ in “wet”
oeㅗ + ㅣsimilar to ‘we’ as in “went”

Complex Vowels in Korean

Complex vowels are components of Korean syllable blocks. 

Note: These are different from the regular vowels.

Definition and Formation

Complex vowels in Korean, also known as compound vowels, are created by combining two basic vowels. 

These vowels produce a distinct sound that is critical to mastering the Korean language. They are represented in Hangul by adding strokes to the basic vowel characters.

Here is a list of Korean complex vowels English romanization:

  • ㅐ (ae)
  • ㅒ (yae)
  • ㅔ (e)
  • ㅖ (ye)
  • ㅘ (wa)
  • ㅙ (wae)
  • ㅚ (oe)
  • ㅝ (wo)
  • ㅞ (we)
  • ㅟ (wi)
  • ㅢ (ui)

Each of these is a combination of simpler basic vowels such as ㅏ (a) and ㅣ (i).

Iotized Vowels

Iotized vowels are a specific type of complex vowel in Korean, formed by adding a y-sound to the basic vowels. 

They are important to distinguish because they change the way a word is pronounced and often its meaning.

The iotized complex vowels in Korean are:

  • ㅐ (ae)
  • ㅒ (yae)
  • ㅔ (e)
  • ㅖ (ye)

These vowels start with a brief ‘y’ sound before the main vowel sound.


Diphthongs in Korean are syllabic components made up of two vowel sounds that glide from one to the other within the same syllable. Mastery of diphthongs is essential for accurate pronunciation and understanding.

Below are examples of Korean diphthongs with their pronunciation patterns:

  • ㅘ (wa) glides from ‘w’ to ‘a’
  • ㅙ (wae) moves from ‘w’ to ‘ae’
  • ㅚ (oe) transitions from ‘o’ to ‘e’
  • ㅝ (wo) flows from ‘w’ to ‘o’
  • ㅞ (we) shifts from ‘w’ to ‘e’
  • ㅟ (wi) slides from ‘w’ to ‘i’

The correct articulation of these diphthongs is achieved by moving from the first to the second sound smoothly without breaking them into separate syllables.

Pronunciation of Complex Vowels

Complex vowels in Korean, also known as diphthongs, blend two separate vowel sounds into a single syllable. Mastery of their pronunciation is essential for clear communication.

Articulation Points

You must understand that Korean complex vowels are formed by combining the basic “monophthong” vowels in specific ways. Korean has 11 complex vowels that are generally made by starting the sound at one articulation point and gliding to another within the same syllable. Below is a simplified representation to illustrate this concept:

  • ㅐ is formed by starting with the position of ㅏ (a) and gliding towards the position of ㅣ (i)
  • ㅘ combines ㅗ (o) and ㅏ (a), transitioning smoothly from one to the other.

Vowel Harmonization

When pronouncing these vowels, you need to pay attention to vowel harmonization, which is the consistency of vowel sounds within a word. 

Here’s how:

  • Vowels that start from the same position tend to harmonize. For example, in a word with the basic vowel ㅗ, a following complex vowel would typically start with ㅗ as well, like in the combination ㅚ (ㅗ + ㅣ).
  • Words attempt to maintain a balance between “bright” vowels (ㅏ, ㅓ, ㅗ, ㅜ) and “dark” vowels (ㅐ, ㅔ, ㅚ, ㅟ), although complex vowels can mix these qualities.

Understanding these articulation points and the rule of vowel harmonization allows you to vastly improve your pronunciation of Korean complex vowels.

Practical Applications

In this section, you’ll learn how understanding Korean complex vowels has direct implications for accurate spelling and clear pronunciation in Korean.

Standardized Spelling Rules

When you study Korean complex vowels, you embrace the standardized spelling rules essential for writing correctly in Korean. 

Complex vowels, such as (wa), (wo), and (wae), maintain consistent spelling combinations, allowing you to predictably spell words once you recognize the patterns. 

Here’s an example:

  • (oe) as in 되다 (doeda) meaning “to become”

Pronunciation Guides and Tips

Getting to grips with complex vowels not only aids in spelling but also improves your pronunciation. 

For instance, knowing that ㅟ (wi) is pronounced quickly will help you with words like 휘파람 (hwiparam), meaning “whistle”. 

Below are tips to guide your pronunciation:

  • Always start from the basic vowel sound, then glide into the additional one.
  • Practice the following combinations:
    • (ui): begin with an ee sound, then quickly add a slight y sound.
    • (wae): start with wa, then swiftly move to eh.

Try to get familiar with this so you can level up your speaking and pronunciation skills.

Teaching Korean Vowels

When approaching the Korean language and the entire alphabet, you can’t skip over the vowels since they are essential for speaking.

Educational Methods

As you learn more Korean vowels, interactive and repetitive learning techniques are essential.

A few strategies I LOVE:

  • Auditory Practice: Regularly listen to vowel sounds and try to mimic them. Use apps or websites that provide audio clips for pronunciation practice.
  • Visual Aids: Incorporate flashcards featuring the vowel symbols and associated images to reinforce memory.
  • Writing Exercises: Practice writing vowels meticulously; this kinesthetic activity supports memorization.
  • Mnemonic Devices: Create associations or stories with the shapes and sounds of vowels to aid recall.
  • Feedback Loops: Record your pronunciation and compare it with native speakers to correct and refine your abilities.

Learning Resources

Selecting the right resources can significantly impact your learning curve. Consider the following types of learning aids:

  1. Online Courses and Videos:
    • Access video tutorials explaining the pronunciation and use of complex vowels.
    • Participate in online courses with structured modules for progressive learning.
  2. Textbooks and Workbooks:
    • Utilize workbooks designed for vowel practice, which often include dictation and reading exercises.
    • Study textbooks that cover the Hangul alphabet in detail, providing ample examples and exercises.
  3. Mobile Apps:
    • Download language apps that offer interactive ways to learn vowels through games and quizzes.
    • Use apps with voice recognition to refine your vowel pronunciation.
  4. Tutoring:
    • Engage with a tutor for personalized guidance tailored to your learning pace and style.
    • Benefit from immediate feedback and support in mastering complex vowels.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, we address common inquiries about the Korean complex vowels, including their pronunciation, list, description in English terms, differences from consonants, and overall structure in the Korean language.

How do you pronounce complex vowels in the Korean language?

Pronouncing Korean complex vowels involves articulating two distinct vowel sounds in quick succession. Start by shaping your mouth for the first vowel and smoothly transitioning to the second, without a break in the sound.

What is the complete list of Korean complex vowels?

The Korean language has 11 complex vowels: ㅐ, ㅒ, ㅔ, ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, and ㅢ. These vowels combine elements of basic vowels for a richer pronunciation palette.

How can you describe Korean combined vowels in English terms?

Korean combined vowels can be described as pairs of simple vowels that create a blended sound. They are analogous to diphthongs in English, like the “oi” in “coin” or “ow” in “cow.”

What are the differences between Korean vowels and consonants?

Korean vowels, including complex ones, represent sounds made with an open vocal tract, whereas consonants are articulated with specific obstructions in the mouth or throat, like tongue placement or lip shape.

Can you provide a chart or diagram that explains the Korean complex vowel system?

While text-based descriptions provide great information, visual aids like charts or diagrams offer a clear representation. Unfortunately, a visual cannot be provided here, but such resources are widely available in Korean language textbooks.

How many vowels are there in the Korean language, and how are they categorized?

There are a total of 21 vowels in Korean: 10 basic vowels and 11 complex vowels. The vowels are categorized based on the shape your mouth makes when you pronounce them and whether they are articulated using just one sound or a blend of sounds.

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