Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is your gateway to learning the Korean language.
With roots stretching back to the 15th Century, Hangul is still the official writing system of modern-day Korea. In this article, we'll quickly cover its origins and then teach you the more practical stuff: all of the letters, how they're pronounced, and some finer nuances that will help bring your accent to the next level.
We've included romanized versions of each letter of the Korean alphabet to help you get an idea of how it sounds, but you should try to get the hang of reading Hangul as soon as possible. Korean content doesn't come with romanization, and neither do the majority of Korean learning resources beyond the beginner level. If you don’t know the Hangul, you lose out on a lot of great content and resources!
(Note: Skip to the end of the article for a downloadable cheat sheet showing how to pronounce each letter of the Hangul alphabet.)
Why the Hangul were invented
Whereas as our alphabet passed through multiple languages and evolved slowly over the centuries, Korea's Hangul was intentionally created in the 15th century with a very specific goal in mind. Korean had been written with Chinese characters for nearly a thousand years, and this arrangement frankly wasn't working very well:
- Many Koreans were illiterate. It was difficult to learn Chinese, and there were thousands of characters.
- Chinese words (and characters) are immutable blocks and their sounds virtually never change. This made it impossible for them to adequately represent Korean words, which have many different forms.
King Sejong the Great wanted to create a new writing system that could adequately represent the Korean language and — more importantly — improve the country's literacy rate. He succeeded. Whereas it took years to learn the Hanja, this was said of the Hangul:
"A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; even a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days." — excerpt from the Hunminjeongeum Haerye
The Hangul were suppressed, banned, revived, and reformed many times before being declared Korean's official alphabet in 1946, after the country achieved independence from Japan. Nevertheless, the success and influence of the Hangul is clearly evident in modern times, as it's still the official writing system of both South and North Korea.
How Hangul work, in a nutshell
While Hangul quickly become very intuitive to use (I promise!), they do involve a lot of moving parts and can be difficult to wrap your head around at first. We'll cover all of these parts one-by-one down below.
For now, keep these three things in mind as you work through the below sections:
- Individual letters: Just like our alphabet, Hangul also consists of simple individual characters that represent specific sounds: when you seeㅏ, it is referring to the ahhh sound.
- Combine to make blocks: Hangul characters do not exist in isolation, but rather they get combined into "syllable blocks" — whereas we say hangul in English, in Korean, it's more like "Han" "Gul".
- Pronunciations can shift: Virtually all of Hangul's consonants can be pronounced in multiple (similar) ways. Which pronunciation you should use depends on what letters are nearby.
Here's that information in a visible format:
(In this case, ㄱ is pronounced as /g/ because it comes after ㄴ, and ㄹ is pronounced as /l/ because it ends a word.)
Korean consonants consist of:
- 10 plain consonants: ㄱㄴㄷㄹㅁㅂㅅㅇㅈㅎ
- 4 aspirated consonants: ㅊㅋㅌㅍ
- 5 tense consonants: ㄲㅆㄸㅃㅉ
The exact sound these letters make can depends on if they:
- Begin a syllable block
- End a syllable block
- Come before/after certain sounds
You'll correctly make many of these sound shifts naturally and unconsciously due to the physical reality how your tongue moves from one letter to another. That in mind, while it's good to understand what your tongue is doing, you can build that understanding over time as you listen to people speaking/singing Korean.
Note: ROM is short for romanization, which is a loose English approximation of how a consonant sounds. IPA is short for international phonetic alphabet, which is a specialized alphabet that can correctly represent the sounds of all languages.)
Advanced pronunciation notes:
- " below a letter — the letter is pronounced as a tense consonant. See the doubled/tense consonant section below for more information.
- Superscript h — the letter is pronounced as an aspirated consonant. See the aspirated consonant section below for more information.
- The ㄹ sound — /ɾ/, the flapped T, is the "tt" sound in the US pronunciation of butter / bottle; /ɭ/ is a retroflex L sound (say L as in love, but curl the tip of your tongue back towards the middle of the roof of your mouth).
- Superscript ̚ — this letter is pronounced without "releasing" the consonant (say top of and top priority. The P in top is "released" in top of but "unreleased" in top priority. To make an unreleased consonant, you make the correct mouth shape, but you don't make the "puff" that would realize/complete the sound. It's kind of like saying wan' intead of want [compare want to vs want a... these two phrases have the same rhythm because, in want to, the first t is "unreleased" and "merges" into the second t.])
- /ɕ/, /tɕ/, and /dʑ/ — these sounds do not exist in English, so they'll be a bit tricky. They're similar to our sh (she), tch (catch), and j (jump) sounds. The key difference is that, in English, these sounds are made with the tip of the tongue placed near your alveolar ridge (the gummy bump just above your upper row of teeth [see chart]); in Korean, these sounds are made by (a) raising the middle of your tongue toward the roof of your mouth/your post-alveolar ridge (see chart) and (b) placing the tip of your tongue by the gums just below the inside of your bottom row of teeth. The result is a slightly higher-pitched sound that has more hiss.
- The letter ㅎ — When following a T / D / P / B consonant, it forces that consonant to become aspirated (see below section); when it comes after a N, M, or NG sound, it changes from a "silent" H to the "raspy" H sound as in loch
Theㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅈ come in three sets: plain, aspirated, and tense. In each case you're dealing with the same "base" sound, but are realizing it in a slightly different way. To make the aspirated consonants, you just need to let out a little puff of air (aspiration) when you say them.
Advanced pronunciation notes
You can actually make this distinction perfectly fine if you’re a native English speaker. Try holding your hand or a piece of paper in front of your mouth, then say the following two words very slowly:
- King (this K is aspirated, like ㅋ)
- Sky (this K is unaspirated, and more similar to ㄱ)
You should notice that there’s a puff of air hitting your hand when you say say the K in king, but not when you say the K in sky. If you can put your finger on this distinction, then you've got this set of sounds down! There is a tiny bit of aspiration with plain consonants, but it's much less prominent than with the aspirated consonants.
Double (or “tense”) consonants:
The second variation a of the ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅈ sounds is known as the doubled/"tense" consonants. This variation is easy to recognize upon sight, as it's just a pair of identical (“doubled”) consonant letters: ㄱ becomes ㄲ. Unfortunately, the difference between the plain and tense consonants isn't as easy to hear. (Having said that, it's super obvious to Koreans, and they might be confused if you say ㄱ when you should have asid ㄲ.)
In simple terms, these sounds called “tense” sounds because you tense/tighten certain muscles in your speech organ when pronouncing them.
Advanced pronunciation notes
It’s hard to put what "tense certain muscles in your speech organ" means into words, exactly. For starters, watch this great video from Talk To Me In Korean:
Then, here's a more hands-on way to learn to feel the difference between plain and tense sounds:
- - Say the word duck neutrally, as in I see a duck.
- Now, imagine that you’re screaming at someone to get down: duck!
- Go back and forth between the two sounds. Notice how when you say duck! your tongue and the area above your Adam’s apple feel kind of tight? This is tenseness.
- If you can't feel the tightness, try slowing things down, as if the scene is dramatic and happening in slow motion
- - Say the word sit and now say the word seat.
- Now isolate the vowel: ihh vs ea.
- Try to notice what changes in your mouth when you move from the ihh sound to the ea sound. It's subtle.
- You also might try simply preparing the mouth position to say each sound, but not actually making a sound. When I say ea, the area above my Adam's apple feels a bit tighter than it does whhen I say ihh.
And here are the concrete cues I listen for to differentiate plain and tense consonants by ear:
- Unlike their plain and aspirated counterparts, tense consonants are not aspirated at all
- The vowel following a tense consonant will be of a slightly higher pitch than normal (notice this in the popular BLACKPINK song DDU-DU DDU-DU: the u sound following the tense consonant ㄸ(dd) is higher in pitch than the one following the plain consonant ㄷ (d))
- Tensed consonants have a very low voice-onset time. This means that there is virtually no time/gap between when the consonant ends and when the following vowel begins. Say king very slowly: you should notice that there is the K sound, a puff of air, and then the ing sound. In other words, there is a gap between the consonant and the vowel. When you say Korean's tense consonants, try to minimize this gap as much as possible.
They're a little more difficult to say than basic consonants. However, once you use them more in word blocks, you will soon get the hang of the correct Korean pronunciation.
Korean vowels consist of:
- 10 basic vowels
- 11 double vowels
Basic Korean Vowels:
The ten basic vowels in the Korean alphabet are:
Advanced pronunciation notes
Smooshing vowels: Many native English speakers struggle with these “basic” vowels because, in English, we tend to double up our vowels.
- Say the word no very slowly in front of a mirror.
- You should notice your lips move/change shape: they start off as a sort of horizontal line for the N sound, become an oval for the O sound, and then, at the end of the word, they begin closing into an u sound.
- In other words, while no is spelled with two letters, it's actually pronounced with three sounds: /noʊ/
Got it? Great. Don’t smoosh your vowels together in Korean. When you say ㅗ, your lips make a little circlar shape. This shape shouldn't change until you begin making the next sound. ㅗ is one sound in Korean, not two.
A new sound: The trickiest sound for native Engish speakers here is ㅡ, as it's one that we don't have. The best way I've heard to describe the sound is that it's the sound you make when you suddenly get punched in the stomach: euhhh. Try listening to it on Forvo.
Double vowels or "diphthongs"
If you look closely, you’ll notice that these vowels literally consist of two vowels smooshed together. For example, ㅘ is a combination of ㅗ andㅏ.
To pronounce these doubled sounds, simply pronounce the first character and then pronounce the second character. They should flow together, and you’ll notice your lips moving from the first sound to the second sound (except for ㅐandㅔ).
Advanced pronunciation notes
Whileㅐandㅔare technically different sounds, the distinction has largely been lost in modern standard Korean. To pronounce it:
- Say the word hey very slowly
- Notice that ey is another situation where English has smooshed two vowels together: there is an ehh sound that turns into an ee sound
- Isolate that first ehh sound; this is the sound ofㅐandㅔ
- Try listening to it on Forvo
The Korean writing system is built around blocks of syllables. While the Korean alphabet does feature solo letters, they never actually appear alone in words. Rather, you combine them into syllable “blocks.” Every single Korean word is built with a number of these syllable blocks.
As shown above, the word hangul in Korean consists of two syllable blocks: one for han and one for gul.
There are a few rules governing how to create these syllable blocks:
- Syllable block = 2+ letters: Each syllable block needs at least two letters, which together form one syllable.
- Syllable blocks must start with a consonant. In circumstances where a vowel is the first syllable of a word, the letter "ㅇ" is used as a silent placeholder for a consonant. This "ㅇ" is a dummy letter and its only purpose is to fulfill the above "syllable block = 2+ letters" rule. For example, baby is written not as ❌ㅏ기 but instead as ✅ 아기 (agi).
- Vertial vs horizontal syllable blocks: Last but not least, the placement of a vowel within a syllable block is very important. Ask yourself, is it a vertical vowel or a horizontal vowel?
Vertical vowels include ㅣ,ㅓ, and ㅏ. Place these beside the consonant:
- 세수 (sesu – wash your face)
- 네 (ne – yes)
Horizontal vowels include ㅗ, ㅜ, and ㅡ. Place these below the consonant:
- 크다 (keuda - to be big)
- 보통 (botong – usually)
As highlighted in the above consonant and vowel sections, each Korean letter has its own distinct sound. However, the pronunciation of most letters can change, depending on where it appears in a syllable block and the letters that appear around it. This is a bit intimidating at first, but a lot of the changes are very natural/ergonomic and simply make words easier to pronounce. You might even find yourself making the adjustments unconsciously, especially as you hear more Korean and learn more vocabulary words.
Wikipedia has a nice overview of all these changes, but it really just comes down to two main factors:
- What letter comes before or after [letter that changes sounds]
For example, ㅂ is generally pronounced as b/p. However, if it's followed by ㄴ (n), it is pronounced instead as an ㅁ (m). An example of this would be 죄송합니다 (sorry), which is pronounced "jwesonghamnida," not "jwesonghabnida." Again — this sounds complicated, but try saying habnida ten times fast. Chances are, unless you’re really trying to be strict with your pronunciation, that b sound will naturally become an m sound.
2. The placement of [letter that changes sounds] within a word
For example, ㅅ is generally pronounced as s, but it becomes an unreleased /t ̚/ when it appears at the end of the word. An example of this change can be seen in 옷 (clothes). Here, ㅅ is at the end of the word, so it's pronounced as ot, not os.
Bonus: Vowel lengthening:
Before Hangul was adopted, the Korean language had tones similar to the ones you hear in Chinese languages. While the tones have disappeared from modern standard Korean, they still actually have some (very, very limited) relevance to modern Korean pronunciation. This is noticeable with homonyms, words that are spelled the same but have different meanings.
For example, 눈 is how you write both snow and eye. However, the ㅜ vowel is pronounced a bit longer when 눈 means snow and a bit shorter when it means eye.
See this great video form GO! Billy on the topic:
See this as being more of a fun fact than anything. It's absolutely not something you have to be concerned about right now. Even if you had no idea that this phenonemon existed (and most learners don't), people would still find it easy enough to understand what you were saying because of context. You're hardly going to book an appointment with an optician to check on the snow, after all!
Hangul sure is a unique and interesting alphabet system to learn, and its simplistic design based on phonetics makes it much easier to learn than you may think at first glance. You could confidently be reading Korean in no time, and getting to grips with reading Hangul is vital.
Now that you've got a good idea of its alphabet, are you keen to take your Korean language skills further? Here's a few more articles that you might be interested in:
- The Top 10 Mistakes Made by Korean Learners
- How to Tell the Difference Between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean
- What “Squid Game” Can Teach Us about the Art of (Korean) Translation
- Follow us on YouTube / Instagram / Facebook / Twitter
And here's that cheat sheet for you!