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Hangul - The Korean Alphabet

An Introduction to the 

Korean Writing System

Korean Alphabet (Hangul)

In the Korean alphabet, there are 14 basic consonant letters (symbols) and 10 basic vowel letters. In addition, there are compound letters, each made up of two basic letters. If you scroll down, you will find the entire Korean alphabet in the form of clickable tiles.

The Korean letters are written, not as a linear string as in English, but as clusters, each cluster representing one syllable. The example phrase you see above has 6 syllabic clusters (6 tiny "boxes"). The 6 syllables form 3 words, which happen to have 2 syllables each in this phrase, and the words are separated by a space.

There are two ways to arrange the component letters in a cluster, depending on the overall shape (vertical or horizonal) of the vowel letter in the syllable.

korean alphabet c-v cluster

The first part of a cluster is always a consonant ("C" in the figure), which is followed by a vowel (V). Some vowel letters are vertical in shape and they are written on the right side of the consonant, as in the left example; some are horizontal in shape and they are written below the consonant, as in the example on the right side.

Some syllables have a third letter, which is always a consonant. The third letter is written at the bottom of the cluster. Because of its position in the written form, the third letter of a cluster is called “bat-chim” (meaning a “pedestal” in Korean).

korean alphabet c-v-c cluster

Although every Korean syllable, in the written form, starts with a consonant letter, not every Korean syllable, when pronounced, begins with a consonant sound. One of the 14 Korean consonant letters, depending on the context, serves as a "null (soundless) consonant", which is merely a space holder occupying the first position of a syllable. Thus, a syllable beginning with the null consonant, when pronounced, begins with a vowel sound (the second element in the cluster). The null consonant symbol resembles the Arabic numeral zero (0) (but it's an interesting coincidence; the Korean alphabet was invented in the 15th century, centuries before the Arabic numerals came into use in Korea). This letter, resembling zero (0) in shape, does represent a pronounced sound when it's placed at the bottom position ("pedestal") of a cluster. At the pedestal position, it represents the /ng/ sound.

The Korean phrase shown at the beginning of this article means “Reading and Writing Korean”. Of the 6 syllabic clusters, the first three are consonant-vowel-consonant clusters; the last three are consonant-vowel clusters with no pedestal. Unlike Chinese characters, which are graphic representations of things or ideas, the Korean alphabet represents sounds. However, just as in English, the actual pronunciation of a word can’t always be accurately predicted by the way it is spelled. In Korean, a word may be spelled slightly differently from the actual pronunciation due mainly to context-dependent variations of sounds.

Click any letter below to learn about the sound and see how the letter appears when assembled into clusters.

When you click, a new window/tab will open and the letter you selected will appear at the top portion of your view.

Basic Consonants

Basic Vowels

Compound Consonants

Compound Vowels


: the Name for the Korean Alphabet

The Korean alphabet is called “Hangul” in Korea. The first syllable of this term, “Han”, means “Korea” or “Korean”; the second syllable, “Gul”, means letters (characters). KOREA was the name of a kingdom that existed in Korea between 919 and 1392 A.D. During this period, Korea was first widely known to the western hemisphere through interactions with Persian and Arabian traders. For this reason, in European languages, “Korea” came to be known as the country’s name. In Korea, however, “Korea” ceased to be the name of the country when the Kingdom of Korea collapsed in 1392 A.D. Today, Koreans call their country “Han-Gook” (Han Country). The syllable “Han” (the vowel /a/ in the word is similar to /a/ in “father”) appears in many words that refer to things traditionally Korean such as “Han-Bok” (Korean clothing), “Han-Sik” (Korean food), “Han-Ji” (Korean paper: fine calligraphy paper made in the traditional way) and “Han-Ok” (Korean house: traditional Korean architecture with black roof tiles and doors/windows covered with Han-Ji paper).

This article is brought to you by Enunce, LLC, a professional Korean translation company.

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