For those thinking about visiting Korea, the language might seem intimidating.
Most people, upon first seeing the Korean language, think that it’s a pictographic language, like Chinese; however, it’s actually an alphabet, with syllables broken up into clusters of letters. Breaking up the syllables like this makes it easier to read than English.
To be honest, though, the official Korean transliteration system doesn’t make any sense for native English speakers; the letter combinations lead us to mispronounce Korean words more often than if we were to just spout random words from Dr. Suess. To help overcome this when I was first learning to read Korean, I created my own system. There are some exceptions, but if you use these guidelines, you’ll be able to pronounce most words fairly accurately.
Korean has, arguably, six basic vowels and ten basic consonants. The basic vowels are all created by one or two lines. The consonants are, supposedly, based on the shape of the mouth or tongue when pronouncing the letters, but I find that to be a bit of a reach. There are then modifications to most of those by adding one line, combining vowels, or doubling consonants. Below, I’ve grouped the letters and given a rough guide to pronunciation.
Looking through the list, it probably looks like a lot; just think of it as the basic 16 letters, the basic vowels with a “w” at the front, the basic vowels with a “y” at the front, the basic consonants with some extra air, and the basic consonants pronounced a bit harder. So, really, you only need to learn 20 things.
ㅣ = “ee”
ㅡ = “uh”, kind of like a grunting sound that doesn’t exist in English
ㅗ = “oh”
ㅜ = “oo”
ㅓ = “ahw”, like in “awe”
ㅏ = “ah”
Some of the basic consonants have a sound that can shift a little bit between two different English consonants, or a mix between them. Really, though, if you are just trying to learn enough to get by for a while, just pick one of the two and go with it.
ㅂ = “b” or “p”
ㅈ = “j” or “ch”
ㄷ = “d” or “t”
ㄱ = “g” or “k”
ㅅ = “s”, or “shee” if it’s in the combination “시”
ㄹ = between an “l” and an “r”, another sound we don’t have in English. As an aside, this blended sound in Korean is one of the reasons that Koreans have a difficult time with “l” and “r” in English.
ㅁ = “m”
ㅇis a bit of an oddball. When you see “ㅇ” at the end of a syllable, it makes an “ng” sound; however, one of the rules of Korean syllables is that they must begin with a consonant. Obviously, there are syllables that start with a vowel sound, so there needs to be a fix; “ㅇ” is that fix. If a syllable needs to start with a vowel, it is preceded by an “ㅇ” that counts as a silent consonant. tldr; it’s either silent or “ng”.
ㅐ and ㅔ = “eh”. These two have very subtle differences that even most Koreans can’t distinguish. Just treat them the same.
ㅟ = “wee”
ㅝ = “wahw”, like in “walking”
ㅘ = “wah”
ㅚ, ㅙ, ㅞ = “weh”. Again, just treat these all the same, and you’ll be fine.
You can modify vowels by adding one line to the basic vowel. If you see two lines sticking out to the side of a vowel, just add a “y” to the front of the basic vowel.
ㅕ = “yahw”
ㅑ = “yah”
ㅛ = “yoh”
ㅠ = “yoo”
ㅖ, ㅒ = “yeh”
Modified and Doubled Consonants
Most consonants can be modified by adding one line, or doubled, both of which create a slightly different version of the basic consonant. When you add a line, it creates what is called an aspirated consonant; for these, you force some air through your teeth when you pronounce the basic consonant. When you double a consonant, it creates a harder version of the basic consonant; just over-pronounce the basic consonant.
ㅍ = aspirated “p” version of ”ㅂ”
ㅃ = “b” that is harder than ”ㅂ”, often written as “bb”
ㅊ = aspirated “ch” version of “ㅈ”
ㅉ = “j” that is harder than “ㅈ”, often written as “jj”
ㅌ = aspirated “t” version of “ㄷ”
ㄸ = “d” that is harder than “ㄷ”, often written as “dd” or “tt”
ㅋ = aspirated “k” version of “ㄱ”
ㄲ = “g” that is harder than “ㄱ”, often written as “kk” or “gg”
ㅆ = “s” that is harder than “ㅅ”, often written as “ss”
Britt F. Frey
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