Are you tired of feeling like a confused deer when looking at those inscrutable Korean characters?
Do you want to end the tyranny of wholly depending on Romanizations?
Well then, this post is perfect for you!
You’ll finally get to learn Hangul and use it for whatever purpose you find fit—like writing that long-due proposal to your beloved K-Pop idol.
If that made your eyes glisten a little, then let’s continue.
What Is Hangul?
Okay, let’s open with some good news.
Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is easy to learn. Compared to the Japanese and Chinese writing systems, Hangul is infinitely manageable and straightforward.
Hangul began as the brainchild of King Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Chosun Dynasty. At that time, the Korean language was written with Chinese characters. As a result, only a few well-educated scholars were able to participate in putting the Korean national narrative in written form. (It took years to master the thousands of Chinese characters.)
King Sejong thought that if the whole country were to engage in nation-building and cultural development, everybody, especially the masses, should be able to write their own “stories.” So he tasked the members of the “Hall of Worthies,” Korea’s brain trust at that time, to create a writing system so easy that anybody could learn it.
From 1443 to 1444, this committee of the nation’s most brilliant minds hammered and framed a writing system with characters so easy that it’s been said of 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 10 days.”
So why is Hangul so easy? Because it was expressly designed that way! (Orders of the king.)
There are 14 consonants and 10 vowels in Hangul. And you combine them to get all those beautiful songs, scripts and stories that made the whole world take notice. In the next sections, you’ll not only get to meet each Hangul character, but you’ll also get some help in committing them to memory.
So let’s go!
Hurry Up and Learn Hangul: The Quick and Easy Guide to the Korean Alphabet
We’re headed for some wordplay and visualizations here, so get ready. The hope is that when you see these Hangul characters “in the wild,” you’ll remember the associations we’ve made with them and remember what they sound like.
We’re going to use mnemonics to help us identify each character. I do have to warn you that sometimes, we might get a little weird and “out there.” But that’s actually a good thing: Unusual things are memorable, and that’s the whole point of this exercise.
After you read through this guide a few times, you’ll be ready to start practicing your Korean reading and writing skills. We recommend writing each character down in a place where you can easily find them, and having FluentU open as you read so you can check the Hangul in action.
To use FluentU to study Hangul, take advantage of the interactive subtitles that come with each video. At first, you can have both the Korean and the English translation turned on. As you get more comfortable with reading, you can turn off the English translations. Not sure what a word means? Just hover over it to see a definition, sample sentence and even clips of other videos using the word for more context.
FluentU also comes with multimedia flashcards, adaptive quizzes and so much more. Immerse yourself in Korean with FluentU and master the language and its writing system with ease!
Korean Consonants in Hangul
In this section, we’re going to run through the 14 different consonants in Hangul. Many of these consonants have sounds that are similar to the English alphabet, so what we’re going to do here is study each one by associating them with the letters that they sound like in English.
Here we go: Hangul consonants, coming right up!
ㄱ giyok — G
“Stop, or I’m going to shoot!” Doesn’t this thing look like a gun?
A gun! Be at the business end of giyok and you’ll be glistening with sweat. Hope the bullets just graze your glorious guts. What an image, right? You’d better start groveling for your life.
Oh, by the way, the sound of this Hangul character is G as in “gun.” (Depending on the font used, sometimes the vertical line curves a little to the left, like the number seven.)
ㅋ kieuk — K
If you add a notch to ㄱ, and make it ㅋ, it’s like using a bigger gun barrel. This time, there’s intent to kill. Karate won’t do anybody any good when you’re going against a double-barrel gun. (How’s your karma these days, by the way?)
ㄴ nieun — N
The Hangul character here looks like a “nook”—a nice little corner. (Nobody’s waving any guns at you this time.)
Having your own nook is you saying “No!” to the world. You’re saying no to all the world’s noise. You’re saying no to the naysayers, the nasty, the naughty and the narcissistic. It’s just you in your nice little nook, rewarding yourself with a well-deserved nap.
ㄷ digeut — D
Doesn’t it look like the handle of a drawer? The drawer might be part of your desk, where you store dozens of documents and files. Or, the drawer might be part of your dresser, which contains all the dresses and clothes that you use to drape and decorate your drop-dead gorgeous body.
ㅌ tieut — T
Think of the trident. Or, if you’re hungry, you might just see a triple-tined fork. Or, if you’re really out there, think of the tiny hands of the T-rex.
ㄹ rieul — R / L
This thing reminds me of the “Snake” game that came with those old Nokia phones where you bump into blocks to make your snake ever longer. The snake, in turn, reminds me of another game called “Snakes & Ladders.”
“Ladder” seems to be an appropriate mnemonic for ㄹ because it contains both the letters L and R. In Korean, these two sounds are interchangeable and depending on where rieul is located, the character could either sound more of an L or more of an R. If ㄹ is located at the beginning or end of the word, it’ll sound more like an L. But it’s between two vowels, it’ll sound more like an R.
ㅁ mieum — M
The figure looks like a mouth. And who do you know in your life that has the biggest mouth? That’s right, mom. She murmurs, and mumbles and mutters with her mouth. Not only that, but she also munches and masticates meals like a hungry mammal. But you still love her, because she’s your momma and there’s nothing in this world that can change that.
ㅂ bieup — B
There’s no sadder picture in this world than a mug of beer that’s almost empty—which is what the figure above looks like. So bottoms up, and promptly get a refill of your bubbly beverage or full-bodied brew.
ㅍ pieup — P
Think of a pillar. You’re going to need that to lean on during a bout of panic attack. You could be experiencing pain in the chest and become very pale. But don’t succumb to paranoia. Pace your breathing. Say a little prayer. With that, you’ll feel perfect peace slowly come back to your soul.
ㅅ siot — S
Look at the figure: It’s like two legs trying to do a split. Tread carefully, though, and don’t overdo it. Your legs may snap. You’re no Simone Biles.
Note: Siot doesn’t always carry the S sound. When paired with vowels likeㅣ, ㅑ and ㅕ (ee, ya, yeo respectively), siot carries more of an SH sound. Also, when ㅅ is at the end of the syllable, like in 옷, the S sound becomes a T and 옷 is then pronounced as ot.
ㅈ jieut — J
This figure looks like a jousting lance… with just the tip. The tip, with jagged edges, is jabbed in place. Clearly, this is nobody’s idea of jest. (Well, maybe for the jaded joker.)
ㅊ chieut — CH
Well, what do you see in this picture? Since we’ve started with the gory stuff, (which is better because associations with the strange and unusual are more memorable), I see a chopped torso.
The head is missing, and I distinctly remember the body is from one of those stick figures I drew in chalk as a child.
(Depending on the computer font used, sometimes the “neck” portion of the torso is “broken” and becomes horizontal.)
ㅎ hieut — H
Oh my goodness, this is where the head went! And it still even has a hat on it. It’s a head held high, probably severed from an heir of the aristocratic class—a member of high society.
The police really need to hop on to it and solve this heinous crime.
ㅇ ieung — Placeholder / NG
And so we come to the last of the consonants. This one definitely looks like a zero. And that’s actually the sound it makes: Nada. Zilch. Ieung is a placeholder in Hangul, usually found at the beginning of the word. It’s there, but you don’t read it.
This character is silent unless you find it at the end of the word. Then, it’s sounded as NG—like the bang of the gong or the barking of the dog that keeps going and going ‘til early morning.
ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ and ㅉ — GG, DD, BB, SS and JJ
Oh, by the way, did you know that the sounds G, D, B, S and J have double consonant versions? Look at the figures above: They’re double the fun of their original versions. When you see them, you’ll have to adjust the pronunciation a bit.
Double consonants are pronounced a little bit more forcefully than the single versions—like they owe you a little bit of money. So for example, for the S sound ㅅ, 상 (reward) is pronounced sang, with a soft and simple S sound. On the other hand, in the double consonant S sound ㅆ like 싸다 (cheap) is pronounced ssada, with the S more emphasized, aspirated and tensed.
Before we get to the vowels, it’s important to remember that there isn’t a perfect correspondence between Korean sounds and the English language.
So, sometimes the Korean consonants are pronounced like they’re smack in the middle of two sounds like G and K, D and T, P and B, L and R. The Romanized version often reflects this, and so “kimchi” is sometimes written as “gimchi” because 김치 is ambiguous to non-native ears. (Remember that you can hear Korean in action on FluentU, as it’s used by native Korean speakers, to get a better sense of the sounds of the language.)
In the end, it’s better to learn the Hangul characters rather than lean on their Romanizations because then you’re dealing with the actual letters that make up the words.
That’s exactly what we’re doing here. And so, we continue…
Korean Vowels in Hangul
There are two basic forms for Hangul’s 10 vowels. The first five of them are oriented vertically, and the next five are oriented horizontally.
Let’s tackle the vertical vowels first.
This is called the ee vowel and sounds like the double e, EE. in “street” or “tree.” And look there, the straight line does look like a thin tree twig or those white crossing markings painted in the middle of the street.
When you add a notch on the right side of this vowel, you end up with this:
When the notch is written after the line, on the right side, it’s the A vowel. Remind yourself that A stands for “after.”
This vowel sounds like the A in the English word “father.”
When you place the notch before the vertical line, that is, on the left side, you have another vowel:
The figure above is called eo and sounds like the English word AWE. So remember, when the notch is written before the vertical, you stand in “awe before” the “father.”
Okay, but what if we’re feeling really giddy and want to add one more notch to either side of the line, making it two? Well, we’re essentially bringing the Y sound to these vowels.
Adding one more notch to ㅏ(a), we get this new vowel:
Like we said, double notches mean the Y sound comes into the picture. So this figure is called the ya vowel and has a sound like the YA in “yacht.”
Adding one more notch to ㅓ(eo), we get this new vowel:
This new figure will have the Y added and will sound like YAW in “yawn.”
And those are your five vertical vowels.
Your horizontal vowels start with the eu vowel, which looks like this:
There’s probably no word in the English language with a corresponding sound for the eu vowel, so let’s just have a listen here for how a native speaker might pronounce it.
Putting a stroke on top of this horizontal line, you get:
This is the o vowel and sounds like the O in the English word “orc.” So remember, when the stroke is on top or over the line, it’s the O vowel.
But, what if we place another notch on top, making it two?
Again, we bring in the Y sound and have the ㅛ (yo) vowel and which sounds like the YO in “New York.”
Alright, now let’s work below the horizontal.
Placing a notch below it gives us this figure:
This is called u when the notch is written under the horizontal line. The vowel sounds like the OO in “loot.”
Having two notches under the line means Y is added to the sound:
This is the yoo or yu vowel which sounds exactly like how you say the word “you.”
And so, we have the 10 basic vowels of Hangul.
Now, let’s learn how to combine these consonants and syllables into Korean words.
The 5 Basic Rules of Korean Syllabic Blocks
If you still haven’t noticed it, Hangul is written in blocks. Outline the different combinations of vowels and consonants, and you’ll see that they approximate a block. So how do you squish those figures in place? Here are five basic rules to get you started:
1. One block is one syllable.
With this rule, you know how many blocks you’d need to write words like Hangul, Kimchi or Gangnam. Since all of them have two syllables each, you’d need two blocks for them.
For example, “Gangnam” is composed of the syllables gang (강) and nam (남) to form the word 강남.
2. A syllable must be composed of a consonant and a vowel.
The rule is that you must have at least one consonant and one vowel per block. Now, this isn’t always the case for many Korean words because sometimes a consonant sound is just not needed. So the solution is writing the silent consonant ieung (ㅇ) in the place where a consonant should be. Again, ieung is silent. You don’t read it, but you see it. It’s just a placeholder.
So syllables like 아 and 오 are read as a and o, respectively.
3. The consonant must first come before the vowel.
In Hangul, the consonant comes before the vowel, even when it’s silent. So when you’re writing, you’ll always start scribbling the consonant first.
And because Hangul blocks are written from left to right and from top to bottom, you’ll always see consonants in the upper-left corner of your block.
4. The vowel plays a big role in block orientation.
In most cases, if the vowel is wide or horizontally oriented like ㅡ , then the rest of the characters adjust. The block will also have a horizontal orientation and the characters will be stacked from top to bottom.
If, on the other hand, the vowel is long or vertically oriented like ㅏ, the block will observe a vertical orientation and will be written side-by-side from left to right.
Complex vowels or diphthongs usually just wrap around the consonant.
For examples of and more information about block writing patterns, check out the visual guide on “Hangul, a National Language”.
5. Most Korean syllables are composed of two or three characters.
Hangul syllables are usually just composed of two or three elements. The three-letter syllables are the most common and are usually in the consonant-vowel-consonant pattern.
The second or final consonant is called the batchim. The batchim is important in terms of pronunciation because some letters might change their sound when written as the batchim or the final consonant.
For example, the ieung (ㅇ), which is a silent letter when used at the beginning of the block, will take on the NG sound when used as a final consonant. For instance, the syllable 앙 is read as ang: The first consonant is silent, but the final consonant is NG.
So, now you have the beginnings of your Hangul learning journey. You now know the basics of Hangul, its consonants and vowels. There’s still a lot to go, but at least you’ll now look less mortified when faced with those formerly inscrutable blocks of squares and circles.
Hope you don’t forget the memory aids we’ve built up in this piece.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Korean with real-world videos.