Korean Vowels Explained: Unlocking the Basics of Hangul

Avatar photo
Published on:

Once you start to learn Korean, it’s crucial that you know the vowels. In this article, I’ll share the simple and compound vowels so you can start mastering Korean.

Let’s get started.

Introduction to Korean Vowels

As you embark on the journey of learning Korean, understanding its alphabet called Hangeul is imperative. In Korean, vowels play a crucial role as they are fundamental to forming syllables and words.


The Korean vowel system is composed of 10 basic vowels. Below is a list of these vowels with their respective Romanized approximations:


Each basic vowel is a standalone symbol that can combine with consonants to form syllables. Additionally, combined vowels, also known as diphthongs, are formed by joining two basic vowels. Korean has 11 of these combined vowels, expanding the range of sounds in the language.

Your understanding of these vowels will significantly enhance your pronunciation and your ability to read and write in Korean. 

Each vowel has a distinct sound, and mastery of these sounds is key as they are the building blocks of the language. Start familiarizing yourself with each shape and sound to lay a solid foundation for your Korean language skills.

Classification of Korean Vowels

In learning Korean, recognizing the distinctions between the various vowels is crucial for your understanding and pronunciation.

Simple Vowels

The foundation of the Korean vowel system includes 10 simple vowels. These vowels are single, distinct sounds that do not combine with other vowel sounds. Below is a list of these vowels with their respective Hangeul characters and Romanized representations:


Compound Vowels

Compound vowels, or double vowels, consist of 11 pairs that merge two simple vowel sounds. These vowels are essential in forming a wider array of Korean words and sounds. Presented here are the compound vowels alongside their Hangeul and Romanized forms:


As you familiarize yourself with these vowels, your ability to read and pronounce Korean will improve significantly.

The Hangul Alphabet and Vowel Characters

The Hangul writing system, integral to the Korean language, comprises an alphabet that is both unique and systematic. When you’re learning Hangul, understanding its vowels is essential, as they form the building blocks of words alongside consonants.

The Korean vowel system consists of 10 basic vowels: each vowel is distinct in sound and symbol. Here’s a breakdown of the vowels for your reference:


These vowels can combine to form compound vowels, expanding the range of sounds. For instance, ㅏ(a) and ㅣ(i) can join to create ㅐ(ae).

Your familiarity with these vowel characters is vital, as every syllable in Korean includes at least one vowel. They are used in conjunction with 14 consonants to form syllable blocks that can be arranged in different configurations: vertically, like , or horizontally, like .

Remember that Hangul vowels have specific pronunciations that may differ from the sounds you’re accustomed to in English. 

Regular listening and practice are the keys to mastering their sounds. Start by recognizing the shape and sound of each vowel, and keep in mind that their role is as crucial as consonants in the reading and writing of Korean.

Pronunciation of Korean Vowels

Korean vowels can be classified into two main categories: monophthongs, which are single, pure vowel sounds, and diphthongs, which are complex vowels consisting of two distinct sounds.


The Korean alphabet, known as Hangul, contains 10 basic monophthongs. Each vowel has a unique pronunciation that does not change. These vowels are:

alike ‘a’ in “father”
eosimilar to ‘u’ in “cup”
oas ‘o’ in “cone” (without the diphthong)
ulike ‘oo’ in “boot”
euno direct English equivalent, close to a neutral ‘eu’
ias ‘ee’ in “see”
yaas ‘ya’ in “yard”
yeoas ‘yeo’ in “yes”
yoas ‘yo’ in “yonder”
yuas ‘yoo’ in “you”

Pronouncing these sounds accurately may require practice, as some do not have direct equivalents in English.


Diphthongs in Korean are formed by combining the basic vowels listed above to create eleven complex sounds. Here are the combined vowels with their approximate pronunciations:

aeㅏ + ㅣas ‘a’ in “bat”
yaeㅑ + ㅣas ‘ya’ in “yard” + ‘e’ (similar to ‘ya’ in “yank”)
eㅓ + ㅣsomewhat like ‘e’ in “bet”
yeㅕ + ㅣas ‘ye’ in “yet”
waㅗ + ㅏas ‘wa’ in “water”
waeㅗ + ㅐas ‘wae’ (similar to ‘wa’ in “watt” + ‘e’)
oeㅗ + ㅣas ‘we’ in “we”
woㅜ + ㅓas ‘wo’ in “won”
weㅜ + ㅔas ‘we’ in “wet”
wiㅜ + ㅣas ‘wee’ in “weed”
uiㅡ + ㅣno direct English equivalent; ‘eu’ + ‘ee’

Each diphthong starts with the first vowel sound and moves smoothly to the second vowel sound, creating a new, unique vowel quality in the process. To master the pronunciation of these diphthongs, listening to native speakers and practicing the transitions between sounds is key.

Articulation of Korean Vowels

When you articulate Korean vowels, it’s imperative to understand the role of your tongue position and mouth shape. Korean vowels can be categorized into monophthongs, which consist of a single sound, and diphthongs, which are combinations of two vowel sounds.

Monophthongs are produced with a steady vocal tract shape, and they include:

  • (“a”) – Tongue low and front, mouth open.
  • (“eo”) – Tongue low and back, lips relaxed.
  • (“o”) – Tongue high and back, lips rounded.
  • (“u”) – Tongue high and back, lips tightly rounded.
  • (“eu”) – Tongue high and central, lips neutral.
  • (“i”) – Tongue high and front, mouth nearly closed.

Diphthongs combine two sounds, starting with one and gliding to another:

  • (“ae”) begins as ㅏ and moves towards ㅣ.
  • (“e”) starts with a sound similar to ㅓ and transitions to ㅣ.

Your mastery of vowel articulation is crucial as it can change the meaning of words. Korean vowels are also combined vertically or horizontally to create complex sounds, such as (“ui”).

Remember, Korean vowels each have their distinct positions within the oral cavity and require different tongue and lip configurations for accurate pronunciation. Practice each sound carefully, paying attention to subtle differences.

Usage in Korean Syllables

When you construct Korean syllables, you are essentially arranging characters in a specific format. Each syllable block begins with a consonant followed by a vowel. This creates the basic structure of a Korean syllable. The role of vowels is crucial; they provide the vocal sound for the syllables.

Here’s a simple breakdown of the syllable structure in Korean:

  • Initial Position: Occupied by a consonant.
  • Medial Position: Always contains one of the Korean vowels.

Korean vowels are not used in isolation; they always pair with at least one consonant to form a syllable block. For example, the vowel ㅏ (‘a’) combines with the consonant ㄱ (‘g’) to form the syllable 각 (‘gak’).

Korean Vowel Types

There are two types of vowels in Korean:

  1. Basic Vowels: These are single vowels that are the foundation for pronouncing syllables.

    Below are the 10 basic vowels in Korean:
    • ㅏ (a)
    • ㅑ (ya)
    • ㅓ (eo)
    • ㅕ (yeo)
    • ㅗ (o)
    • ㅛ (yo)
    • ㅜ (u)
    • ㅠ (yu)
    • ㅡ (eu)
    • ㅣ (i)
  2. Combined Vowels: Formed by combining basic vowels to produce a different sound.

    Here are some combined vowels:
    • ㅐ (ae)
    • ㅔ (e)
    • ㅚ (oe)
    • ㅟ (wi)

Your understanding of Korean vowels is key to correctly pronouncing and writing the language. As you learn, pay attention to how vowels influence the sound and meaning of syllables.

Historical Development of Vowels

The vowels of the Korean language have a rich historical tapestry that has evolved over time. Your exploration of the vowel system starts in the Middle Korean period, from which the language began transitioning to the Early Modern Korean era, and finally to the contemporary dialects you may be familiar with.

In the Middle Korean period, the vowel system was phonemically distinct, with a set of vowels that have since undergone substantial changes. You, as a reader, would notice that the foundational vowels laid down the groundwork for the shifts that followed. Your dive into the Early Modern Korean era would uncover a series of vowel shifts.

Notable Vowel Changes:

  • Historical texts indicate that vowels such as and shifted in pronunciation.
  • A centralization of certain vowels is historically documented, affecting the overall vowel distribution.

The contraction of vowel spaces in the language is another phenomenon that contributed to the present-day Korean vowel system. As you follow the language’s evolution, these contractions help explain some of the complexities in regional variations of Korean.

Your understanding of Korean vowels wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the influential studies by linguists like K.M. Lee and W.J. Kim, who highlight the intricacies of these phonetic shifts in their works. These shifts are often analyzed using theoretical frameworks like the contrastive hierarchy theory, which can offer insight into the systematic nature of this historical development.

By comprehending these shifts, you can appreciate the dynamic nature of Korean vowels and their role in shaping the language.

Common Mistakes in Pronunciation

When learning Korean vowels, you may encounter a few pronunciation challenges common among non-native speakers. Understanding these pitfalls can help you correct your pronunciation more efficiently.

Distinguishing Similar Vowels: A frequent error is confusing vowels that sound similar to non-native ears. For instance:

  • The distinction between /iː/ as in ‘see’ (시) and /ɪ/ as in ‘sit’ (싣). Your goal is to recognize and produce the subtle difference in vowel length and mouth position.

Incorrect Stress and Intonation: You might struggle with the rhythm of spoken Korean, applying an incorrect stress pattern to words or sentences, leading to misunderstandings.

Correct PatternCommon Mistake
Consistent and flatIncorrect stress on certain syllables

Mishandling Diphthongs: Diphthongs are combinations of vowels within the same syllable. Mixing their sounds can distort the intended word meaning.

  • Practice differentiating between vowel pairings like /oʊ/ as in ‘go’ (고) versus /ɔ/ as in ‘got’ (갓).

It’s also important to avoid applying English vowel pronunciation rules to Korean words, as this often leads to incorrect pronunciation. 

Pay close attention to the mouth shape and tongue positioning that native Korean speakers use, as this will greatly improve your ability to pronounce vowels correctly.

Usually during K-dramas you can see how they pronounce certain words, which you can replicate by yourself

Regular listening and speaking practice with native input will be invaluable for mastering the correct sounds.

What I also recommend is listening to podcasts.


After all, Korean vowels can’t be skipped over. It’s a must when you’re learning Korean and especially if you plan on becoming fluent. So, if you haven’t learned the consonants yet, make sure to check out this article.

Ready to start learning Korean?
Just follow the 4 steps below...

Step #1

If you haven't started yet, learn the Korean
alphabet, basic sentences,
grammar and watch tutorials.

Step #2

If you're already getting started
and want to a course that's
more advanced.

Step #3

Improve your Korean speaking,
reading, writing, and understanding.

Step #4

Join our FREE facebook group
for exclusive live webinars.

Learn Korean in 3 simple steps from home. Without reading boring textbooks, language learning apps, and stressing over complex grammar.

© 2023 HANGULHOUSE. All Rights Reserved. | Part of YNG DIGITAL