Learn Hangul: The Korean Alphabet for Beginners

Learn Hangul

Hangul is an essential component of the Korean langauge, but don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be intimidating. Learn the basic principles of hangul with Boston, MA language teacher Eunhye J…

Hangul History

The Korean alphabet, hangul, was invented by King Sejong the Great and his scholars in 1443 and was proclaimed as the official alphabet in 1446. Contrary to popular belief, hangul did not evolve from some unknown place and time.

The Korean alphabet is one of King Sejong’s greatest and most unique achievements.

Hangul is a phonetic system that is both scientifically and philosophically designed. Hangul has a manual called Hun-min Jeong-eum Hye-rye Bon attached to the book of King Sejong’s Promulgation Announcement.

In this manual, the inventor(s) clearly state that hangul follows eum-yag (yin/yang) and o haeng, the principle of the universe.

As you may know, yin and yang are two opposite forces that constantly interact with one another. How these ever-changing forces work in harmony (ideally) was of great interest to the leaders and the people in the East.

O-haeng, or the movement (haeng) of the five elements (“O“), is how yin/yang works on the Earth in relation to the life of human beings. King Sejong and his scholars saw that the principle of the universe is manifested and realized through human beings. As sound also works within this principle, how humans produce sounds is also closely tied to o-haeng.

To help you learn hangul, let’s break it down into its basic components.

Hangul Consonants

The five (basic) consonants (ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ, ㅇ) are symbolic of how each sound is pronounced physically (in a person’s mouth.) ㅁ, for instance, is the figure of a mouth with two lips open. ㅇ is the figure of a throat while ㄴ is what the tongue looks like after you pronounces an “n-” sound without closing your mouth at the end.

These five elements are varied to make 14 other consonants (and even more, if necessary).

Hangul-Consonants-1

 

Hangul-Consonants-2

Hangul Vowels

The vowels are also designed with the same philosophy. Eum yang (yin/yang) O-haeng can be divided into three elements: Yin, the Earth, Yang, the Sun or the Heavens, and O-haeng, the subject who manages and controls the forces (humans).

The three elements that compose variations of vowels in hangul are actually the traditional symbols of heaven, earth, and a human/man.

Hangul vowels

Follow these steps to learn hangul vowels:

Step 1.

learn Hangul

Draw a circle and name it “sky” or “heaven” (yang).

The smaller circle that now looks like a dot, becomes one of three fundamental symbols that construct vowels in hangul.

Step 2.

learn hangul

Draw a square and name it “Earth” (yin).

Each line is one of four directions: North, South, East or West.

Each straight line becomes one of three fundamental symbols that construct vowels in hangul.

Step 3.

step-3

Draw a vertical line and name it “human,” the one who connects the “heaven” and “Earth.”

The combinations of these three elements make 21 commonly used vowels.

*Please note that the modern hangul now uses short lines instead of dots.

Let’s take a look at the combinations of ‘ㅣ’ and ‘•’.

When ‘•’ is placed on the East side of ‘ㅣ’, it becomes ‘ㅏ[a].’

When ‘•’ is placed on the West side of ‘ㅣ’, it becomes a darker sound ‘ㅓ[eo]’.

Hangul Syllables

Before you read…

* If you have already started Korean lessons, you should have a basic book to learn hangul or at least a list of hangul letters.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive table of letters, you can find some helpful resources at AboutLetters.

One Unit – One Syllable

Unlike in English, in Korean, one syllable gets one unit.

For instance, banana has three syllables. If you write it in hangul, it becomes ‘바나나’. ‘바’. The first syllable is a complete unit with one consonant ‘ㅂ’ and one vowel ‘ㅏ’.

When all three syllabic units are written without spaces, it makes one word that now has a meaning.

One unit consists of three parts: the first consonant, the vowel, and the last consonant. While the first two are the essential components to make a unit, the last consonant is not necessary.

Take ‘바 “ba” from banana and add another ‘ㅂ’ as the last consonant. It becomes ‘ 밥’ (sounds like “Bob”) meaning “meal.” Both ‘바’ and ‘ 밥’ make perfect syllabic units.

Write Your Name in Hangul

Let’s take some common English names and write them in Hangul. If you’re taking Korean lessons, I hope you have learned how to write your own name.

  1. John [jŏn] = ㅈ [j] + ㅗ [oh] + ㄴ [n] = 존
  2. Jackson [jăksən] = {ㅈ [j] + ㅐ [ă] or [ae] + ㄱ [k]} + {ㅅ [s] + ㅡ [ə] + ㄴ [n]} = 잭슨

Writing John and Jackson in Korean is pretty straightforward.

The following name is a little more complicated.

  • Esther [ĕstər] = {(???) + ㅔ [ĕ]} + {ㅅ [s] + (???)} + {ㄷ [t] + ㅓ [ə], [r] is silent} = ?

In “Esther,” we’re missing the first consonant in the first unit, and missing the vowel in the second unit. For those syllables, starting right from the vowel in English, simply add ‘ㅇ’ in place of the first consonant.

In Korean, two consonants cannot be written consecutively without a vowel. ‘ㅅ’ and ‘ㄷ’ ([s] and [t]) cannot come together and ㅅ cannot stand alone as one independent unit.

So we add ‘ㅡ’ , a neutral [eu] sound (not [u] or [er]).

So here’s how to write Esther in Korean:

  • Esther [ĕstər] = {ㅇ [-] + ㅔ [ĕ]} + {ㅅ [s] + ㅡ [eu]} + {ㄷ [t] + ㅓ [ə], [r] is silent} = 에스더

This is a lot of information for your first hangul lesson, but don’t get discouraged, no one learns a new language overnight.

Your Korean teacher can help you learn hangul, and before long, it won’t seem so confusing!

EunhyePost Author: Eunhye J.
Eunhye J. teaches Korean, Music Performance, Singing, Piano, and more in Boston, MA. She studied Piano Performance and Film Scoring at the Berklee College of Music. Learn more about Eunhye here!

Photo by Gonzalo Baeza

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