I am kind of a language nerd, and few things get my lexicological juices flowing like the Korean alphabet, otherwise known as “hangul.” I actually love it so much that I had it etched onto my body:
Being the good little Korean that she is, Bokeum hates my tattoo. I, on the other hand, love it, partly because it commemorates an amazing and life-changing bicycle trip that I took from Seoul to Busan, and partly because it is a fitting tribute to the best alphabet ever conceived of in the history of the world.
As the story goes, King Sejong the Great was a man of the people. He was all about the peasants. He freakin’ loved those peasants, man. But, see, the problem was, was that Korea was using Chinese characters for reading and writing, and peasants don’t have time to be learning Chinese characters. There’s like a million of those things.
So King Sejong was all like, hey, Wise Men of the Royal Court of Korea, make me a better alphabet. He had two criteria for the new Korean alphabet:
1. It had to be simple and easy to learn and use.
2. Once neon lighting was invented, it would have to make Korea look like a really kick ass sci-fi movie from the 1980’s.
King Sejong was a very forward thinking man.
I have to admit that I was, at first, terrified by the prospect of learning Hangul. But I quickly learned that The Wise Men of the Royal Court of King Sejong kind of knew what the hell they were doing. It has been famously said that “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.” I’m pretty stupid and I learned them in about an hour.
I could, no joke, type for hours about how brilliant Hangul is, and I never cease to be blown away that such an elegant and well-thought-out system was put together while Christopher Columbus’ dad was still going through puberty. Anyway, let’s get down to
The Nitty Gritty:
Note: this guide contains a lot of Korean text. If they display as squares or otherwise garbled, you may need to download the language pack for your device or operating system. Here is a link to the Windows Language Packs.
Each character is a diagram of tongue and mouth positioning. Because Korean is a syllabic language, the characters must be positioned into one syllabic group. There are two essential kinds of characters: consonants and vowels. Ingeniously, on a standard computer keyboard, the characters are arranged with the consonants on the left and the vowels on the right.
In full disclosure, I got my feet wet with this wonderful comic by 9gag, which I have used to some extent in my mnemonic system, though I feel my system clarifies a few points that I found confusing in the comic.
Without further ado, let me introduce you to each and every one of my friends.
The Basic Consonants
This character looks like a gun, and that’s what it sounds like.
Looks like a person’s nose.
Looks like a door.
Looks like a linguini noodle. Or maybe a rattlesnake.
This little son-of-a-gun has a sound that’s somewhere in between l and r.
Looks like a map.
Looks like a bucket.
Looks like a wave on the sea.
Looks a little like the math symbol pi.
Looks like a man wearing a hat.
Really take your time and study those for a few moments, make some flash cards, do whatever you gotta do. They’re the basic building blocks you’ll need to learn the rest of the consonants. See, another great thing about Hangul is that the characters are grouped according to mouth positioning and movements, so it’s pretty easy to learn what I call…
The Super, Super Dooper, and BOGO (Buy One Get One) Consonants
To make an “s/ㅅ” sound, you put your tongue against the front of your teeth.
You do the same thing to make the “j/ㅈ” sound, only you add your voice to the mix.
(super dooper ㅅ)
“Ch” is just like the “j/ㅈ,” which is a harder “s/ㅅ,” only now it’s even harder!
A “g/ㄱ” sound is just a softer version of a “k/ㅋ.” The extra line makes it EXTRA HARD!
Incidentally: ㅋㅋㅋ is the Korean version of “lol,” as “kikiki” is supposed to sound like laughter.
This has absolutely no relation to that other ㅋㅋㅋ.
Noticing the pattern? A “d/ㄷ” sound is hardened by the extra line, which turns it into a “t/ㅌ” sound.
Just a really hard “ㄱ.”
Just a really hard “ㄷ.”
Just a really hard “ㅂ.”
Just a really hard ” ㅅ.”
Just a really hard “ㅈ.”
So far so good, right? There’s one final consonant, and boy, is he a weirdo.
Something you should now begin to consider is that consonants at the end of a syllable sound much different than they do at the beginning. This is especially pronounced with:
At the beginning of a syllable, this is a placeholder for no consonant at all – zip, nada, zero – which is what it looks like.
At the end of a syllable, it sounds like “ng,” exactly the same as at the end of words like “king,” or “kong,” or “king kong…”
…or “kong…” which is Korean for “ball.” Which this also looks like.
Okay, wrap your head around those letters for a while, and when you’re ready, let’s move on to…
These were really frustrating to me, at first, until I made my own system, which I will now share with you, because I’m a hell of a guy. Just keep three things in mind:
1. Vowels never begin a syllable. Even if there’s no vowel sound, you need to use the “ㅇ” placeholder.
2. Some vowels can be combined together to make what I call “Combo Vowels.”
3. Lists are always better when they are composed of three items.
“eoh” is in”brook,” which it looks like.
“ee” as in “tree,” which it looks like.
Think of a Father and Mother hugging each other.
Father’s on the left, Mother’s on the right.
ㅏ = “ah” as in “father”
ㅓ = “uh” as in “mother“
ㅗ & ㅜ
ㅗ = “oh” as in “over.”
The vertical projection is over the horizontal line.
ㅜ = “eww” as in “boot” or “under” (if you have a Scottish accent).
The vertical projection is ewwwnder the horizontal line.
Honestly, I’m at a distinct advantage here because my name – Aaron – starts with this letter, and it has the same “eh” sound as the name “Aaron,” like you’d hear in “Star Trek.” And I guess it kind of looks like the Enterprise with the bridge saucer separated…?
Look, they can’t all be winners.
King Sejong’s greatest failure. This makes the exact same sound as the ㅐ, and looks very similar.
It seems to serve the sole purpose of confusing foreigners and causing us to make spelling errors.
If there are TWO projections coming out from the base line, it means you add a “y” sound to the vowel. Otherwise it stays exactly the same.
ㅑ ya, ㅕ yeo
ㅛ yo, ㅠ yu
We can also combine vowels, which are then smooshed together, like so:
(oh + ah = owah -> wah)
(eww + eh = eweh -> weh)
And that’s basically it! Once you master these characters you can begin to combine them together into full syllables, which I’ll explain more at a later time. In the meantime, why not head over to the Fighting! podcast where Bokeum and I will teach you some more Korean?