Ever wanted to learn to read Korean? It’s super easy, I promise. Korean is written using an alphabet, just like in English, so you don’t have to memorize bazillions of characters. The Korean alphabet is called “hangeul” (sometimes written “hangul”.)
I’ve made a short, simplified guide to help you get started. In no way is this a comprehensive guide to the Korean language. I have just tried to explain the pronunciation in ways that would make most sense to English speakers.
Let’s start with the consonants:
Consonant Romanization Pronunciation
ㅈ j/ch soft j
ㅊ ch’ normal ‘ch’ sound but with a little puff of air at the end (these are called “aspirated” consonants)
ㅉ jj hard j sound
ㅂ b/p kind of between a b and a p, a soft ‘b’ sound
ㅍ p’ an aspirated ‘p’. A soft ‘p’ sound with a puff of air
ㅃ bb hard ‘b’ sound
ㅎ h just a normal ‘h’ sound, as in “ha!”
ㅇ ng/nothing If this letter comes before a vowel it is silent. If it comes at the end of the syllable block it is pronounced ‘ng’, as in “runniNG”
ㄴ n same as ‘n’ sound in English
ㅁ m same as ‘m’ sound in English
ㄱ k/g soft ‘k’ sound, almost between a k and a g
ㅋ k’ aspirated ‘k’. Pronounced like the k in “king”
ㄲ gg hard ‘g’ sound. Like the g in “goo”
ㅅ s/sh soft ‘s’ sound. In cases where it is difficult to make a soft ‘s’, pronounce as ‘sh’. (Examples below)
ㅆ s/ts hard ‘s’ sound, like in the word “waste” (hear the little whistle when you say the ‘s’?)
ㄷ d soft ‘d’ sound (like when you say the word “little” really fast and the ‘tt’ almost turns into a ‘d’)
ㅌ t/t’ aspirated ‘t’. Most like a ‘t’ sound in English.
ㄸ dd/tt hard ‘d’ sound, like most ‘d’s in English
ㄹ r/l sometimes an ‘r’ sound, sometimes an ‘l’ sound. Usually an ‘r’ at the front of a word, and an ‘l’ anywhere else (but not always). The ‘l’ is a nice ‘l’, without the ‘eu’ sound you get when you pronounce it in the back of your throat
In Korean, there are no ‘f’, ‘v’, or ‘z’ sounds. Substitute ㅍ for f and ㅂ for v in English words or names.
Not too bad, right? And now the vowels:
Vowel Romanization Pronunciation
ㅏ a a, as in “ah”
ㅓ eo like the a in “aw” (or the ‘o’ in “Potter” if you say it with a British accent)
ㅣ i e, as in “eek!”
ㅔ e like the ‘e’ in “eh”
ㅐ ae kind of like “ay”
ㅗ o o, as in “whoa!”
ㅜ u “oo”
ㅡ eu that flat, noncommittal sound you make when someone you don’t like invites you to hang out and you’re like: “eu… no thanks”
Dipthongs* Romanization Pronunciation
ㅑ ya just add a ‘y’ sound to the beginning of the ㅏsound. “Ya!”
ㅕ yeo add a ‘y’ before the ㅓ, sounds like “yawn” without the ‘n’
ㅖ ye/yeh (take a guess)
ㅒ yae “yay!”
ㅛ yo (just like the romanization)
ㅠ yoo hey, “you”
ㅘ wa same as the romanization: add a ‘w’ beforeㅏ
ㅝ weo like w + ㅓ (not “wee-o”)
ㅚ we like “weh”
ㅟ wi “weee”
ㅢ ui English speakers have a hard time with this one. Just combine “eu” and “I” really fast into one sound. It usually ends up being pronounced more like “eh”
ㅙ wae “way” (bonus: 왜means “why?” in Korean)
ㅞ weh (same as the romanization)
* Ha ha I said “thongs”! Seriously though, dipthongs are just double vowels.
Korean is written in syllable blocks, in which all the letters in that block make up (you guessed it!) one syllable. Each block is read from left to right, top to bottom. It will make more sense when you start reading, but for now you should also know that the combination of the letters sometimes effects how the letters are written. Let’s take the letter ㄱ for example.
When you combine ㄱ with ㅏ it is written like this: 가 (“ka”)
However, combine ㄱ with ㅗ it is written like this: 고 (“ko”)
Notice how the placement of the letters changes and that ㄱ changes from long to short? Don’t freak out: it’s just how we make room for certain letters. You’ll see examples of how the letters are arranged in the words below.
In Korean, the last consonant (or two consonants) in a syllable block is called “patchim”, and it may be pronounced differently than you’d expect.
Here are some sample patchim combinations:
오 + ㅅ = 옷 = ot*
마 + ㅅ = 맛 = mat
가 + ㅄ = 값 = kap
다 + ㄺ = 닭 = tal
어 + ㅄ = 없 = eop
마 + ㄶ = 많 = man
아 + ㄵ = 앉 = an
In cases where the syllable ends in ㅌ ㄷ ㅅ, just end the syllable with a shortened ‘t’ sound. Just cut off the air and end the sound quickly.
Basically, when you see two consonants at the end of a syllable block, you kind of ignore the second one. Often the second consonant gets carried over into the next syllable.
* Remember, the letter ㅇ is silent when it comes before a vowel. Any time you have just a vowel with no other sound before it, the vowel must be paired with ㅇ. Vowels by themselves are lonely!
When you start reading, you might be wondering why certain letters are placed in certain syllable blocks. If you take a look at my name, “Dana” can theoretically be spelled two different ways in Korean: either 대나 or 댄아. In the first way, the two syllables are “day” and “na”. In the second way, the two syllables are “dane” and “ah”. I use the first one, because it just seems more natural, but both will give you essentially the same word.
Uh oh, you might be saying. Imagine if you could arbitrarily spell all words however you wanted… it would be chaos! Wii wood hav no idia wot eniwon waz ceying! Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately for those of you who are free spirits or who just can’t spell), in Korean there is only one official spelling for every word. However, when spelling foreign words or names, just pick the way that makes the most sense and no one will really mind.
Alright, once you feel comfortable with the letters and rules above, check out the reading practice. You’ll be surprised how much you have learned in such a short amount of time and you can use your Korean reading skills to impress your friends, confound your enemies, and woo the object of your affection. How cool is that!?