-EDIT 14 June 2007 11:52 a.m.- If you would prefer a more interactive guide, try this link: http://langintro.com/kintro/ Thank you, J. David Eisenberg!
I'm interested in learning Korean although nobody encouraged me to do so! I wonder if you can help me explain Korean pronunciation, I've bought 2 different "teach yourself Korean" books but I can't seem to understand the pronunciation sections.
The Korean must warn everyone that he had never received formal education as to how to teach Korean to non-Korean speakers. Therefore, all the technical terminology that the Korean uses in this post (as well as in other Korean Language Series) are made up by the Korean. Additionally, the Korean will often be wrong about things. But hey, that’s the price you pay if you try to learn a foreign language from an amateur off a blog.
Korean alphabet, called Hanguel, was created by King Sejong and his scholars in the 15th Century, and it is extremely innovative. The entire alphabet has 40 characters, with 19 consonants and 21 vowels. (Technically it is 14 simple consonants, 5 compound consonants, 10 simple vowels, and 11 compound vowels.) First, let’s go over the basics of how a Korean letter is written. It sounds odd that you are learning to write before you can read, but it will make sense in the end.
Characters v. Letters
It’s important to distinguish between “characters” and “letters.” Each character alone cannot stand independently, because each character is either a single consonant or a single vowel. Instead, either two or three characters combine to form a pronounceable block, i.e. a “letter.”
So this is how a letter is formed: it is other “consonant + vowel”, or “consonant + vowel + consonant”. (Some of the letters are actually “consonant + vowel + consonant + consonant” in relatively rare cases. They are dealt in Advanced Stuff section.)
It sounds complicated written out like that, but the idea is simple. Think back to Sesame Street and how two shadowy people form a word. “H” plus “a” is “Ha”. “H” plus “a” plus “t” would be “Hat”. (The “A”s in the two words are pronounced differently in the two words, but you get the picture anyway. The Korean can’t help the fact that English alphabet is a screwed up one.)
The table of characters is linked later in the post. But hold your horses, and finish reading the post first.
“Okay, how do I write a letter?”
In order to form a letter out of the characters, pay attention to whether the vowel position is vertical, horizontal, or combined. It is really simple to do actually – vertical vowels stand tall, horizontal vowels are flat, and combined are vertical + horizontal vowels.
Step 1. Imagine filling up a square block. Write the consonant is the left half if the vowel is vertical; write the consonant on the top half if the vowel is horizontal. Write the consonant in the top left quarter if the vowel is combined.
Step 2. Write in the vowel.
Step 3. If there is a consonant following the vowel, that consonant goes on the bottom of the “consonant + vowel” combination that you just formed.
Let’s take a Korean word like “미국” (“America”). 미국 is made up of two letters, each letter making up one syllable. The letter 미 is made up of the consonant ㅁ and the vowel ㅣ. You can see that ㅣ is vertical, so write ㅁ in the left half the imaginary box, and put ㅣ next to it to form 미. The next one is trickier – it involves a second consonant. Since the vowel is ㅜ, you can see that it’s shaped flat and therefore has a horizontal position. So write the consonant ㄱ on top, put the vowel ㅜ on the bottom. Then put the last consonant ㄱ underneath the vowel. And there you have it, your first Korean word – God bless America!!
As an aside, notice that in Korean, there is never a free-standing consonant without a vowel attached to it. That’s why Korean people have such a hard time pronouncing such words like “school”. “s” in “school” does not have a vowel attached to it – “school” is one syllable in English. But Korean person trying to pronounce that word cannot process a consonant that does not have a vowel. So usually the best the Korean person can do is to pronounce it like “seu-kool”, in two syllables.
“Now I can write some exotic stuff I can’t read. Thanks, genius.”
Alright, we are finally ready to read. The chart of characters has pronunciation attached to it, but read this first. We are going to try reading 미국. First letter first: consonant ㅁ sounds like “m”. Vowel ㅣ sounds like “ee” as in “seek”. Therefore, 미 is pronounced like “mee”. Then the next letter: consonant ㄱ sounds like “g” as in “gate”. Vowel ㅜ sounds like “oo” as in “zoo”. So the pronunciation is: g + oo + g = goog. So “America” in Korean is mee-goog. Simple, right?
One more caveat – what the Korean just wrote above is not the standard Romanization of Korean characters. The chart below includes how each character is Romanized as well. For example, the correct Romanization of 미국 is “miguk”. From this point on, all Korean words will be in standard Romanization format.
Okay, you can take a look the chart now. The Korean will be waiting right here. (If your browser automatically re-sizes the image, save the image on your computer and read along.)
-EDIT- Here is the link for a pdf form of the chart. The earlier link is in a jpeg format in order to make sure that people without East Asian Language support can read it, but it does not print properly. If you wish to print the chart out, use the pdf link to print. Thank you Bonnie B. for pointing this out.
Welcome back. Your head spinning yet? Print the chart out and keep it next to you as we read on.
Let’s do one more example, the Ask A Korean! favorite – how to read 왕자. Consonant ㅇ is silent before the vowel, and sounds like “ng” after the vowel. The vowel ㅘ is a compound vowel, combining ㅗ (“o”) and ㅏ (“a”), so it sounds like “oa”, or “wa”. Consonant ㅈ sounds like “j”, and ㅏ sounds like “a”.
Put them all together: wa + ng / j + a = wangja, i.e. Prince Fielder’s neck tattoo.
The Korean would like to finish up with two points.
First, notice how fucked up English alphabet is. The Romanization of Korean is so complicated only because English alphabet is so messed up, and the Korean scholars who came up with it were trying to make Korean language to readable to English-speaking people somehow. English consonants and vowels often change sound randomly, although the letters – representation of the sound – never change. Thus we have the famous example of spelling “fish” as “ghoti” – “gh” from “tough”, “o” from “women”, and “ti” from “nation”.
Take a common Korean last name like 김. Under proper Romanization, it would be written as “gim”, and pronounced as such. But English speakers would pronounce it like “gym”, so Koreans had to adapt and bastardize the sound to the next closest sound, which is “kim”. The last name 박 is even worse. It would be properly Romanized as “bak”, but English speakers would read it like “back”. So Korean people added an “r”, turning it into “bark”. Then the connotation of the word became negative, so they switched it to next closest sound, which is “park”. So in reality, there are no Kims and Parks in Korea – only Gims and Baks.
Second, appreciate how beautifully designed Hangeul is in contrast. It is the only alphabet system in the world that has been designated as UNESCO World Heritage. The Korean can write 50 pages about the genius of Hangeul, but he will just give one example here: the amazing adaptability of the compound vowels. Although currently only 11 compound vowels are used in Korean language, technically any of the 5 horizontal vowels can combine with any of the 5 vertical vowels to form a new sound – 25 new sounds created in a snap, plus 4 exceptions where a vertical vowel combines with another vertical vowel. So out of 40 possible vowel sounds that Hangeul can represent (10 simple vowels + 30 compound vowels), nearly half of them (19) are not even in the Korean language!
In other words, Hangeul vowel characters can cover almost any vowel sound made in the world. (A big exception is vowel tones in tonal languages, for example Chinese.) No other alphabet in the world has a system that enables it to record a sound that does not exist in the language it represents. If aliens landed on Earth tomorrow, Hangeul would be the only reliable alphabet in the world that can consistently represent the vowel sounds that they make.
Advanced Stuff: Read Only If You Are Hardcore
Here are some more tips as to correctly pronouncing Korean characters and letters. The Korean is certain that he missed a lot of stuff, and wrong about some of the things here. Please email or comment if you notice anything.
Extremely useful tip for English speakers – whenever you read a Korean letter, pretend there is an “h” behind the vowel to get the consonant sound right. For example, if an English speaker read “sa”, she would pronounce the “s” like the “s” in “sin”, which is incorrect. (“s” in “sin” is Romanized as “ss”.) But if she tried to read “sah”, she would pronounce the “s” like the “s” in “snake”, which is the correct way. This rule applies across the board, no matter what the letters are.
Additional Romanization rule 1 – Under standard Romanization, one word in Korean is written as one word Romanized. So a sentence like 날씨가 좋습니다 (“the weather is good”) is Romanized as: “nalssiga jotseupnida”. However, if writing as one word is likely to produce a wrong pronunciation, hyphen can be added to separate the Korean letters. So the word 씨앗 (“seed”) is Romanized as “ssi-at”, since writing it as “ssiat” is likely to be pronounced wrong. Another example is the word 항아리 (“jug”), which is Romanized as “hang-ari”, since “hangari” would be pronounced like “han-ga-ri”.
Additional Romanization rule 2 – If the pronunciation is different from the way a word is spelled (following one of the “Advanced pronunciation rules” below”), the word is Romanized as it is pronounced, not as it is written.
Romanization exceptions – The current standard Romanization rule was introduced in 2000; prior to that, Korea used something called McCune-Reischauer Romanization System, which involved a lot of complicated additional notations on top of regular English alphabets to faithfully represent the Korean pronunciation. But outside of governmental and scholarly papers, McCune-Reischauer system was never popular in Korea because it was so complicated. Regular Korean people and Korean businesses Romanized their names more or less arbitrarily. Therefore, people’s names, if Romanized before 2000, stayed the same. Also, people may Romanize their name in any way they please.
For example, former president/dictator 박정희 would be written as “Bak Jeonghui” under the current Romanization system. But since he was born long before 2000, the Romanization of his name is “Park Chung-hee”. This rule also applies to well-established names of locations, like 서울 (which should be “Seo-ul” to prevent it from being pronounced like “soul”, but written as “Seoul”, merrily carrying on the mispronunciation.)
How to pronounce difficult sounds – let’s go over them one by one.
ㄹ – deceptively hard, because it’s neither L or R. Try pronouncing “Lola” very carefully. You will notice that you are actually sounding out “lol-la”, adding an extra consonant. Remember that ㄹ is Romanized with “r” in the first position and it’s easier to pronounce.
ㅅ and ㅆ – you have to realize that English “s” makes two different sounds. ㅅ is like “s” in “snake”. ㅆ is like “s” in “soon”.
ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ – if you know how to pronounce Spanish correctly, these should come pretty easily. As you can tell from their shapes, they are related to ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅅ, and ㅈ respectively. Let’s try with ㄸ first. Try sounding 다 (da) very carefully. Say it like da-da-da-da… and notice your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth. Now, stiffen your tongue a little harder when it touches the roof, and hold it for half a second longer, and “burst” the sound out. It should be 따. ㄲ and ㅉ can be sounded out in a similar way. ㅃ is different because the sound only involves your lips, but same mechanism. Say ba-ba-ba-ba… and stiffen your lips a little harder as they come together, hold it a bit longer, then burst out the sound.
ㅡ – this vowel sound is most easily made by the following way: clench your teeth and make a guttural noise. It’s not the right sound, but it’s pretty close. Alternatively, pull your lips out as if you are smiling, and make the sound that’s least difficult to make.
Advanced pronunciation rule 1 – The Korean said some Korean letters are “consonant + vowel + consonant + consonant”. Here is an example: 뷁. How do you read this? The rule is: Ignore the last consonant, and only pronounce the first bottom consonant (called “batchim” in Korean, meaning “bottom piece”). So the letter 뷁, standing alone, would be pronounced like 뷀, i.e. b + ue + l = buel. But letters of this kind rarely stand alone, and the second batchim usually affects the sound of the next following consonant. Read below.
Advanced pronunciation rule 1.1 – Take the word 넓다 (“broad”). Now we know the first letter is read as n + eo + l = neol, ignoring the last consonant ㅂ. But the last consonant doesn’t stand pat. Instead, it changes the sound of the next following consonant into the “stronger” sound, if possible. ㄱ changes into ㄲ; ㄷ into ㄸ; ㅂ into ㅃ; ㅅ into ㅆ, and; ㅈ into ㅉ. All other consonants’ sounds stay the same. So the word 넓다 is pronounced like 널따, i.e., n + eo + l / dd + a = neoldda. Make sure you follow this rule, because the same word without this rule would sound like 널다, which is a different word whose meaning is “to hang clothes to dry.” Conceptually, this rule is similar to the “batchim slide-over rule” described in Rule 2. Read on.
Advanced pronunciation rule 1.2 – There is one exception to this rule, and it’s when the last consonant is ㅎ. Instead of getting a “stronger” sound, the following consonant becomes “harsher” if possible. ㄱ turns into ㅋ; ㄷ into ㅌ; ㅈ into ㅊ, and ; ㅂ into ㅍ. So the word 많다 (“many”, “much”) is pronounced like 만타, which is m + a + n / t + a = manta.
Advanced pronunciation rule 2 – Remember consonant ㅇ was silent in the first position? So take a look at this word: 놀이 (“game” or “play”). Based on what you learned so far, it would be pronounced: n + o + l / i = nol-i. But that is incorrect. What happens is the batchim of the first letter slides over to the second letter, and takes over the empty space created by ㅇ. So the actual pronunciation of the word 놀이 is exactly the same as that of the word 노리, i.e. n + o / r + i = nori.
The rule: If the first character of a word has a second consonant after the vowel (batchim), and if the first character of the second letter in a word is ㅇ, the batchim slides over to the second letter and pronounced as if it is attached to the vowel of the second letter.
Advanced pronunciation rule 2.1 – Take a look at the chart, and you will realize that some of the consonants have different sounds depending on the position. For example, ㅊ is “ch” in the first position and “t” in the second position. So what happens if the sound-changing type of consonant slides over? Answer: That consonant recovers its first position sound.
Example: Take the word 볶음 (“stir fry”). The batchim ㄲ is pronounced identical to ㄱ as a batchim. But when it slides over, the word is pronounced like 보끔, i.e. b + o / kk + eu +m = bokkeum. This is important because the word 복음, pronounced like 보금, i.e. b + o / g + eu + m = bogeum, means “gospel”. Try not to order the gospel of chicken at a Korean restaurant.
Advanced pronunciation rule 2.2 – What about those pesky double batchim letters? Answer: only the last batchim slides over to the next word. So the word 넓이 (“breadth” or “width”) is pronounced like 널비, n + eo + l / b + i = neolbi.
Advanced pronunciation rule 3 – if a batchim is followed by ㅎ, the batchim is pronounced “harsher”. ㄱ turns into ㅋ; ㄷ and ㅈ into ㅊ, and ; ㅂ into ㅍ. (Technically, the “harsher” sound for ㄷ is ㅌ, but it turns into ㅊ in this situation only.) So the word 닫힌 (“closed”) is not pronounced like dat’hin, but like dachin, as if reading 다친.
Advanced pronunciation rule 4 – This rule is super-advanced, and Koreans themselves often get it wrong. The rule is: If two words combine to form a single new word, the first consonant of the second original word is pronounced “stronger” if possible (in order to signal that it is a compound word.) So again, ㄱ changes into ㄲ; ㄷ into ㄸ; ㅂ into ㅃ; ㅅ into ㅆ, and; ㅈ into ㅉ.
Example: the word 김밥 (Korean seaweed roll, variation of Japanese sushi roll) is made up of two words, 김 (“laver”, a type of seaweed) and 밥 (“steamed rice”). But the word 김밥 is not pronounced as “gim-bap”. Since it is a compound word made up of two words, it is properly pronounced “gim-bbap”. (Although many Koreans, including the Korean Father, pronounces is as gim-bap, forgetting the compound word rule.) Another example is the word 물병 (“water bottle”). It is not pronounced as “mul-byeong”; since the word is made up of the words 물 (“water”) and 병 (“bottle”), it is pronounced “mul-bbyeong”.
What if the stronger sound is not available for the following consonant? Then the following consonant is pronounced the same way. Thus, 물항아리 (“water jug”), although it is made up of the words 물 and 항아리, is pronounced as mul-hang-ari.
Last last words – The Korean has to warn you just one more time that he is just an amateur! If you see something wrong or missing, please tell him so that he can correct it.
Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.