What is the Korean alphabet? Meet Hangul

What is the Korean alphabet? Meet Hangul

Published: Feb 4, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver

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An introduction to Hangul: The fascinating history and evolution of the Korean Alphabet

There's a famous Korean saying about the Korean alphabet and learning Hangul characters: 

"A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.” 

This might seem to show that learning the Korean alphabet is easier than you would think. 

But, I have to say that I fall more into the "fool" category. Hangul is certainly simple to learn and understand. However, the main problem I had was that many lessons directed toward English speakers can be misleading.

I found their comparisons with English letters and sounds often could have been better chosen and often caused me more difficulty later. Also, the special consonants can throw many for a bit of a loop.

With that said, even though the Korean language is one of the hardest for English speakers to learn, its alphabet has been called "brilliant" and "a perfect phonetic system designed to stand the test of time" by linguists because of how well it functions.

In this post, I’ll explain the history you need to know about the Korean alphabet, Hangul, what it is, what makes it unique, and how you can get started learning it.

So what is Hangul? Let’s dive in.

first poetry written in hangul korean alphabet

The Korean letters of the Hangul alphabet

 Hangul is made up of 24 letters: 

  • 14 consonants (ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ) 

  • 10 vowels (ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ)

Also, as you learn more about it, you'll find that there are 19 complex letters, including five tense consonants (ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅉ ㅆ ) and 11 complex vowels (ㅢ ㅚ ㅐ ㅟ ㅔ ㅒ ㅖ ㅘ ㅝ ㅙ ㅞ), which are made by combining the elemental letters.

What does "Hangul" mean?

"Hangul" comes from the Korean words "Han," (한), which means "great," and "geul," (글), which means "script." But the word "Han" can also mean "Korea," so the name can also be translated as "Korean script."

Unlike Chinese or Japanese, which have hundreds or even thousands of characters, each with 10, 15, or even more strokes, the most complicated Korean letter (or character) only has five strokes. Hangul is also an almost scientific writing system. Once you understand how its foundation, it gets easier to learn.

One helpful feature is that in the Korean writing system, the letters look like the shape your mouth makes when you make the sound that goes with them.

We'll cover this in more detail later, but for now, let's start by explaining what all of the Korean alphabet letters are and how to pronounce them.

Organizing Hangul, the Korean alphabet

Languages from different groups don't usually sound alike, so it can be difficult to explain how the sounds of one language are made using the letters of another.

This was especially challenging for me in the beginning. There is, of course, no perfect way to represent Korean characters with Latin or English letters or sounds. However, the English letters we'll use to show how to say the letters of the Korean alphabet are as close as they can get.

Here is a simple Korean alphabet chart of the consonants of the Korean alphabet to help you get started.

Simple Korean Vowels:

simple Korean vowels in Hangul

Simple Korean Consonants:

simple Korean consonants in Hangul

Korean Double Consonants:

double consonants in Korean alphabet Hangul

Vowel Combinations:

Korean vowel combinations in Hangul alphabet

hangul inscription of the korean alphabet in the hangul museum in seoul

The Structure and Features of Hangul

Now that you know the basic components that make up the Korean alphabet, let me explain how Hangul is structured and what you need to know to be able to start reading and writing Korean.

Each letter makes only one sound

People often say that you can learn Hangul in one day, but that's probably a bit of an exaggeration, or maybe they're using a different definition of the word "learn". The fastest I've heard from a person here in Seoul has been 2 days.

The main point is that the sounds are pretty easy to learn and remember though if you put in some effort.

Korean pronunciation actually has one major advantage over the English alphabet. The English language has the problem where letters don’t always make the same sound.

Take, for instance, the letter "a" which sounds different in words like "father," "about," "age," and so on. But Korean has no trouble with that! 

In Hangul, every letter makes only one sound. That "ah" sound is always written with “ㅏ," and "ㅏ" can only be pronounced to sound like "ah." Oh, that's nice, isn’t it :).

Another advantage, on the tech side of things, is that since Hangul doesn't have that many letters, the Korean keyboard can fit easily on your phone or computer screen.

The design of Hangul consonants based on mouth movements

As a phonetic writing system, the consonants in Korean were brilliantly designed based on how you have to move your mouth, tongue, and throat to make the sounds themselves.

The first consonant, ㄱ (k/g), shows the shape of the base of the tongue blocking the air coming from the throat. 

The ㄴ(n) shows the tip of the tongue touching the front of the roof of the mouth.

The ㅁ (m) represents the shape of your mouth and lips as you make the sound.

The ㅅ (s) is the shape of a tooth, representing the ‘sss’ sound that you make when you blow air directly between your teeth.

Adding another stroke to these characters and making the consonants ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅊ represents how these are aspirated consonants, meaning we add a strong burst of breath either to the release or closure of the sound.

This is the type of thought in design that has earned Hangul so much praise from linguists across the world.

Imagine if English was so simple that you could tell the sounds you had to make based on the shape of the letters. It’s really next-level genius.

The structure of Hangul syllables

The syllable system in Hangul is similarly user-friendly and straightforward to understand. Think of syllables as bricks or building blocks.

Each block holds at least two and no more than four Hangul letters. There are always both consonants and vowels in the letter combinations because you must have both to make a syllable.

Korean syllable blocks are called Hangul Jamo (한글 자모) and are made up of two-dimensional blocks of syllables. A union like this always has just one syllable. 

For example, to write "honeybee" (kkulbeol) in Korean, you would write:

꿀벌, but ㄲㅜㄹㅂㅓ ㄹ is wrong. Today, most Korean texts are written from left to right, with spaces between the words and punctuation from the West.

Factors that affect Korean syllable structure

The letters in Korean syllables affect how they are put together. Depending on which Hangul letters are needed, the way a syllable is written changes.

Korean syllables should fit nicely into a square or rectangular shape when written. This is an elegant and simple shape.

But what does that square hold?

One thing is the number of letters. Syllables with two letters look different than syllables with three or four letters.

Here are a few examples:

  • Two-letter syllable:

  • Three-letter syllable: 남, 받

  • Four-letter syllable: 앉, 닭

As you can see, the more letters contained within the square, the tighter the syllable blocks becomes to fit each letter uniformly. But the boundary is still obeyed.

Both Hangul consonants and Hangul vowels take up the top of a syllable block. The rest of the letters fill the bottom space in the syllable.

Overall, you'll notice that the syllable blocks should be fairly horizontally balanced, almost as if they won’t fall over.

Here are some examples of how a vowel can change the structure of a syllable:

  • Vertical vowel syllables: 네, 멍, 닭

  • Horizontal vowel syllables: 교, 들, 부

  • Vowel combo syllables: 회, 쥐, 웨

The order of Hangul letters

Let's discuss some more rules about the order of letters in Korean syllables.

There are particular places for consonants and vowels in a syllable.

  • Consonants are always the first letter (can be referred to as the initial consonant).

  • The second letter is always a vowel (which can be adjacent to, under, or wrapped around the first letter).

  • Consonants are consistently the third letter (under both the first and second letters).

  • The 3rd and 4th letters are always consonants, with sometimes just one final consonant.

A syllable's "bottom bunk" comprises the third and fourth letters. This job is called "bat-chim," (받침 ) which means "support."

the entryway to the main hangul exhibit in the nation museum of the Korean alphabet

The pronunciation of Korean syllables

The way Koreans pronounce words is pretty straightforward. Once you know how to say Korean sounds correctly, it won't be long before you can easily say complete Korean words.

One note, though, because the Korean language is syllable-timed and not stress-timed, you don't usually put more stress on one syllable over another when you speak.

Romanizing the Korean alphabet

Romanization is writing Korean words in Latin rather than the Korean alphabet. This is done to help people from countries with Latin-based alphabets who don't know Korean to read the texts.

If you only want to learn a few Korean words, romanization is an easy way to get started. Suppose you don't know the Hangul alphabet yet. In that case, romanization is a perfect way to read and understand simple Korean words until you do.

But I think it's best to learn the Korean alphabet entirely as soon as possible because it helps you understand the right sounds better. It only takes about an hour and will help you significantly with how to say common Korean words.

You won't get very far if you only use Romanization to learn Korean.

Remember that Romanized Korean is meant to help you learn Korean when you're just starting, but it will slow you down in the long run if you rely on it too much.

In Korea, different romanization systems are used, which may initially seem confusing because the same Hangul letter may have more than one Romanization.

The official romanization system for transcribing Hangul into the Latin alphabet (Hangeul/Han-geul)

The most common and widely accepted way to romanize the Korean language today is called "Revised Romanization of Korean," or "RR" for short. Since 2000, this has been commonly used in South Korea. So, if you use this system, you can't go wrong.

One important thing about the Revised Romanization system is that it tries to make each word's spelling look as much like an English word as possible. This ensures that people who speak Korean as a second language can say it naturally.

King Sejong the Great statue in Seoul, inventor of Korean alphabet

The history of Hangul

Hangul is considered one of the best alphabets in the world, and language experts have praised it for its scientific design and user-friendliness.

Before Hangul was created, the most common way to write in Korea was with Hanja, which was the name for the classical Chinese alphabet used in Korea. 

Today, Hanja refers to the Chinese characters which are still used in the Korean language alongside Hangul.

(It's important to note the great distinction between the Korean and Chinese languages. Korea may have borrowed the Chinese alphabet and Chinese words, but Koreans never spoke a version of Chinese.)

The creation of Hangul

Hangul was created during the Joseon Dynasty (1393-1897) during the rule of King Sejong the Great. In 1446, the first Korean alphabet was announced. Its original name, Hunmin Chong-um, meant "the right sounds for the people's education."

King Sejong is commonly referred to as one of the greatest rulers in Korea's history. King Sejong was respected for his kindness and hard work. He was also a passionate scholar whose knowledge and natural talent in all fields amazed even the most experts.

Why the Korean language needed a new alphabet

Legend has it that during his rule, King Sejong always felt bad that most people couldn't read and write because they didn't know how to use the complicated Chinese characters that the educated used. 

He knew how frustrating it was for them not to be able to read or write down what they thought and felt, and he felt the inequality it created was bad for the country.

Furthermore, since it came from another country, Hanja couldn't fully express the words and meanings of Korean culture, thoughts, and spoken language.

Regular lay people with valid complaints could only tell the appropriate people about them orally, and there was no guarantee these complaints would reach the proper people in their complete versions. Further, common knowledge, like agricultural best practices, could only be passed on between common people orally as well.

So, King Sejong created the Hunmin Chong-um, now known as Hangul. 

At the beginning of his official announcement, King Sejong says:

"Since Chinese characters come from somewhere else, they can't express meanings that are only found in Korean. So, many ordinary people cannot say what they think and feel. I made a set of 28 letters for them because I care about their problems. The letters are easy to learn, and I hope very much that they will make everyone's lives better." 

Resistance to Hangul

As you can expect, the powerful elites who enjoyed the privileges that came with being the only class that knew how to read weren’t too excited about giving one of their most significant advantages away to everyone else. 

As a result, there was strong resistance to the adoption and use of Hangul after its creation, and that resistance continued for hundreds of years after.

Korean has been the official language of Korea the entire time of its existence, except when the Japanese banned it in favor of Japanese as the forced official language.

Hangul, however, has been banned on and off since it was first created until 1945, when Korea got rid of Japanese colonial rule after WWII, due to the class struggles I mentioned earlier.

Hangul is simply the name of the Korean alphabet, but some people think it means the Korean language. The word for "Korean" is "Han," and the word for "letter" is "gul." And so, the Korean word for "Korean alphabet" in South Korea is Hangul.

South Korea and North Korea (where the language is called Chosn'gl) use Hangul as their official writing system. Because the two countries have been so separated, some language drift has occurred. 

Interestingly, “Hangul Day” is a national holiday in South Korea, which is held on October 9.

korean alphabet hangul tablets

Using the Korean alphabet, Hangul, today

Korea is increasing in economic power every year, and as a result, more trade partners and foreign investors are coming to the peninsula. 

While younger Koreans are putting an emphasis on learning English for their business futures, most of the population is not very strong in English. And since many of the best companies in Asia are located in South Korea, speaking Korean is a critical skill if you want to have long-term business success there. 

Yes you can hire a translator if you only need to have quick and limited dealings, but Korea's business deals are based on trust and personal connections. To make this work, you must know the language in order to maximize your success.

Aside from the business aspect, Korean is a fantastic language. Spoken by 75 million people all over the world, learning it could open up many doors and present you with benefits you’ve never thought of.

If you want to learn Korean and take advantage of the above facts, being a Korean speaker is a must, and learning Hangul is the first step.

Also, if you plan to travel to South Korea any time soon, knowing Hangul will be a huge help in your trip. Everything from reading transportation signs, business names, and food menus will be made possible if you can read Hangul.

For example, today, I was showering in my local gym in Seoul, and I noticed there was a huge bottle on the floor with the word “Shampoo” written in Hangul “샴푸”. 

Even if you don’t speak Korean, being able to recognize English loan words when they’re written in Hangul will come in handy over and over. 

If you can, go further than that and speak Korean in Korea and enjoy the unique mix of bright lights and old places that make this jewel of Asia unique. 

outside of the national hangul museum in Seoul, South Korea

The impact of learning Hangul on learning Korean

If you’re reading a blog post about Hangul, you might be interested in learning how long it takes to learn Korean or if Korean is hard to learn. Or maybe you’re ready to dive in and start learning Korean right away with live Korean speakers.

If so, I’ve put a few links to different resources for learning Korean down below. Whatever you decide to do, enjoy your Korean language learning journey! 

In-person language schools in South Korea:

Online Korean Language Courses:

Other free tools and resources:

  • Memrise: A great online tool for learning new words. 

  • AnkiSRS: A flashcard app with a lot of options.

  • Forvo: Searching for Korean words or phrases

  • TalkToMeInKorean.com: Without a doubt, the best and most complete source of information on Korean.

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Lucas Weaver from the Weaver School

Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.

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