Preliminary Lesson

The family origin of Korean is debated but many believe it to be a part of the Altaic family of languages. It shares much of its structure with Japanese and in ancient times borrowed its writing system from Chinese. These Chinese characters are still in use today, although as supplementary to the standard korean script known as 한글.

One of the major distinguishing characteristics of Korean from other languages, particularly those languages from the Indo-European language family is its use of an honourific system. Because of this system, it is important for korean speakers to know the age of people they are talking to and it may appear that they are nosy because they are blunt about asking a person's age. They are only asking this to be able to use the right level in the honourific system.

Between 1443 and 1446, King Sejong developed the 한 글 writing system for Korean which was meant to replace the old method of writing Korean using Chinese characters. This system uses an alphabet like those used for Indo-European languages, with the distinction that letters are clearly organized into syllables. For the most part, there is a one-to-one correspondance between letters and sounds. This is in strong contrast with English, where a single letter can have more than one sound (e.g. the "i" in bite and in sit is two different sounds) and one sound can be represented in more than one way (e.g. the initial sound in fall and photo and the final sound in laugh are all the same).

The Korean Vowel System

There are 8 distinct vowel qualities in korean and a number of dipthongs based on these eight qualities. These are the eight qualities and their IPA representations:


Then, there are 6 dipthongs built out of ㅣand another vowel, 3 made of ㅜ and another vowel, 3 made of ㅗ and another vowel and one made of ㅡ and another vowel as follows:

[jʌ] [jo]
[jɛ] [je]




These 21 vowels are put into an order in the alphabet, to ease dictionary building, but not in the obvious way (from a purely phonetic standpoint). There are 10 primary values, put in the following order:

Said aloud, this reads a ya o yo etc. Then, given these primary ten, the other vowels can be put into place by examining the way in which they are lexicographically built out of these basic ten. In particular,ㅐ is consider to beㅏplus ㅣandㅔ is considered to be ㅓplusㅣ.

Then, we get the following ordering for all 21 vowels (the primary ten are bolded):

The Korean Consonant System

Alveolar Affricate

Alveolar Fricative
Voiceless Unaspirated

Voiced (and Tense)

Voiceless Aspirated


Glottal Fricative


The voiceless aspirated stops are nearly identical to those of English, except perhaps more aspirated. The nasals are identical to those of english. The voiceless unasiparted series will appear to be partway between the english voiced and voiceless sounds. That is, to an English speaker, ㅂ will sound halfway betwee a [b] and a [p] sound. The tense series are a super voiced series produced with a lot of extra energy. ㅅ is very similar to an [s] sound in English and ㅆ is similar but produced with more force. ㅎ is nearly identical to an English [h]. Finally, syllable initially, ㄹ sounds something like an English "r" sound, but with more of a tapping sound. Syllable finally, ㄹ sounds like a very dark English [l].

The consonants are ordered seperately from the vowels and each is given a name as follows:
















Pronouncing syllable final consonants

Any syllable final consonant is always pronounced as a voicless unreleased stop in the same place of articulation as the original letter. Thus, ㅂ is prounounced something like an unreleased [p] sound. The letters ㅅ, ㅈ and ㅎ (and naturally ㅆ and ㅉ) are pronounced as voiceless unreleased dentals. That is, they are pronounced as though they are ㄷ.

The Korean Syllable System

When putting letters together into syllables a simple system is followed. The initial consonant always goes in the upper left hand section of the syllable. If there is no initial consonant, then ㅇis used, since ㅇcannot occur in syllable initial position. The final consonant (if one exists) always goes at the bottom of the syllable. If there are two final consonants, they are written to the bottom left and bottom right in the order that they occur in the syllable. Then, if the vowel is ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ or ㅡ, it is written below the initial consonant (and above the final consonant). If the vowel is ㅏ,ㅐ,ㅑㅒ,ㅓ,ㅔ,ㅕ, ㅖ, ㅣ, it is written to the left of the initial consonant. If the vowel is a dipthong using one of ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ or ㅡ, this part is written below the vowel and the remainder of the dipthong is written to the right of the initial consonant. In this way, the dipthong is wrapped around the initial consonant. The five vowels ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ andㅡ are said to have a horizontal primary stroke whereas the other are said to have a vertical primary stroke.