Alphabet - lesson 3
Learn to read Korean within minutes



aeɛ (æ)
yaejɛ (jæ)
eoə (ɔ)
yeojə (jɔ)
waeuɛ (uæ)
oeuɛ (uæ)
wouə (uɔ)
wiui (y)
euɯ (ɨ)
uiɯi (ɨi) (ø)

Korean vowels may seem numerous and complex, but looking at Korean phonetic developments throughout history, we notice that the phonetic range got drastically reduced. Many pronunciations remain for each vowel depending on dialects, those with more than one accepted pronunciation are written in brackets in the list above.

Many sounds in Korean are known to English speakers. For example, jamo and sare pronounced as [e] (the way "bed" is pronounced in the general Australian accent) and [ɛ] ("bed" pronounced in the general American accent) respectively. This is however one of the most common pronunciations, one can also often hear pronounced [æ], like the "a" in "cat".

The jamo is generally pronounced [ə] (as the final in "writer", "learner") in most of Korea. In some regions, including the North of the peninsula, it is possible to hear it pronounced [ɔ] (the same sound as in "bog" in the US, "hot" in Australia or "bore" in the UK). In some cases one can even hear it pronounced as [ʌ], the sound for the "o" in "love". As there are many possible pronunciations, getting to master any of these is more than enough to be understood by native speakers. ;-)

Diphthongs have also evolved through time. There are eleven diphthongs in Korean; if we exclude compounds with [j] (ㅑ, ㅕ, ㅛ, ㅠ, seven remain: ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟ ㅢ, three of which ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅞ have a rather similar pronunciation, [uɛ] (or [uæ] in different dialects) for the first two, and [ue] for the last one.

As for the diphtong , whose representation in IPA is [ɯi], there is no equivalent in the English language. However, Gaelic speakers and Turkish speakers (for whom it is similar to the undotted i, "ı") could recognise the first sound, the second part of the diphthongh being the very common "i" sound. This compound can remotely sound like "wee".

During the last decades, the accent in South Korea evolved. Seoulites tend more and more to assimilate to and pronounce both jamo as [e] - thus making no difference between ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅞ all pronounced [ue]. While this is good news for all learners of Korean, this makes things messier in terms of spelling...

The Korean alphabet looks rather complicated, but there's no need to worry. With a little work, you will assimilate it much more easily than you think right now. ;-)