The Korean alphabet consists of 14 letters for basic consonants and 10 letters for basic vowels. 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. There are two ways to arrange the component elements in a cluster, depending on whether the vowel symbol is vertical or horizonal.
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 have overall horizontal shapes and they are written below the consonant, as in the example on the right side. The third part (called a "pedestal") of a syllable, if there is one, is always a consonant (C) and is written at the bottom of the cluster.
Some syllables don't have the last consonant and simply end with a vowel. Then, the cluster looks like this:
Although every Korean syllable, in the written form, starts with a consonant letter, not every Korean syllable, when pronounced, actually begins with a consonant sound. One of the 14 Korean consonant letters functions, depending on the context, as a "null (soundless) consonant", which merely serves as a space holder to occupy the first position of a syllable. Thus, a syllable written with the null consonant at the first position begins, when pronounced, 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 were introduced into Korea). This letter, resembling zero (0) in shape, does have a sound when it is placed at the bottom position 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.
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). K-O-R-E-A 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 after 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).
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