I have written another blog explaining the Korean alphabet once upon a time, but I have been asked to do it again. It seems a lot of people have been looking at my Korean blogs that want to read the Hangul, the Korean alphabet, but can’t. I am glad that my bogs are making Korean more popular. I hope that lots of people learn to understand Korean from reading my blogs. There are lots of foreigners in Korea who never learn because they go there for work, they are busy, so don’t have time for language school, and the Koreans who speak English keep them so busy speaking English they don’t end up learning Korean and speaking to the people who can’t speak English. Learning a bit of Korean will help them make more friends and get around better in Korea. It will make their lives more fun and easier. Okay, here we go! Let’s learn to read Korean. I will begin by explaining the syllables and who Korean is written.
To begin with, Korean has vowels and consonants just like English does. It is written from right to left like English, but in syllable groups. There are two. three, or four letters to a syllable. You start with a consonant, and either next to or under the consonant, there is a vowel. If the word doesn’t begin with a consonant, there is a place taker that you use at the beginning of the word that tells you there is no consonant. It is ㅇ. It is easy to learn that it has no pronunciation at the beginning of the syllable because it looks like a zero. However, if it is on the bottom of the syllable, it is pronounced “ng.”
Here are some examples:
A one syllable word with two letters: 가 The first letter (ㄱ) is pronounced either “g” or “k,” and the second letter (ㅏ) is pronounced like an “a” in father. Even though that first letter is pronounced like “g” or “k,” in this word, it is usually pronounced like “g.” The word is pronounced “gah.” This is a post position article used after the subject and after subjects that end with a vowel. Except for the fact that it also comes after pronouns, it is equivalent to “the” when you see it. If you see it after a pronoun, it tells you that it is a subject pronoun.
A one syllable word with three letters: 빛 This word has two letters on top and one below. The top two letters are “b” (ㅂ) and “i,” (ㅣ)and the bottom letter is “ch” (ㅊ). The “i” is pronounced like “ee.” The “ch” in Korean often sounds like other things other than “ch,” and the rule says that because it is on the bottom, it sounds like a “t.” The word is pronounced “beet.” It means “light.”
A one syllable word with four letters: 읽 This word has two letters on the top and two on the bottom. The first letter on the top is ㅇ which means it has no pronunciation because it is in the first position. The next letter is “I” (ㅣ). On the bottom, the first letter is pronounced either like an “L” or an “R” (ㄹ). They really don’t make a difference between L and R, but according to who is speaking or which word they are saying, you may hear a difference. The last letter is “g” or “k” (ㄱ). The word is read as “eelk” which means “read.” You actually use this word to add other things to it to make the different forms of “read.” You never just use it like it is.
A one syllable word with the vowel on the bottom: 문 This word has three letters, a consonant on the top, a vowel under it, and another consonant on the bottom. The first letter is “M” (ㅁ). The second letter is “oo” (ㅜ), and the bottom letter is “n” (ㄴ). It is pronounced “moon.” It means “door” among other things. If you learn to recognize it as a syllable rather than just the word, it is part of the word “window,” “culture,” “letters of the alphabet,” etc. It is good to know that each syllable can be a word, but it can also have a meaning separate on its own to help you read other words.
A two syllable word: 많은 This word has two syllables. The first syllable has four letters, and the second syllable has two letters. The first letter is “m” (ㅁ). The second letter is “a” like in “father” (ㅏ). On the bottom of the same syllable grouping, the first letter is “n” (ㄴ), and the last letter is “h” (ㅎ). When there is an ㅎ on the bottom like that, you don’t pronounce the ㅎ, so the first syllable is pronounced “man” with the “a” being like the “a” in “father.” The second syllable begins with ㅇwhich has no pronunciation. The vowel under it is not really pronounced as “u,” but that is usually what they say because there is really no letter in English like it. You push the air from the back of your throat and grunt. It is like a short “u,” but pronounced further back in your throat. the last letter is “n” (ㄴ). The syllable is pronounced “un” with a bit of a grunt sound where the “u” is. The word is pronounced “manun” and means “many.”
A three syllable word: 읽어요. I have already explained how to read the first syllable above: 읽 (eelk) meaning “read.” The rest of the syllables makes this into the simple present tense form of “read.” It is also in a good level of speech to learn because most adults can learn this level and speak to anyone using it.
The second syllable is 어. The Koreans would transcribe it into English letters as “eo.” The first letter,ㅇ, has no sound. The second letter is what they transcribe as “eo.” That seems like a hard sound for English speakers to get their tongues around, but it is actually a kind of “o.” The problem with “o” sounds in Korean is that there are two that are written differently, but they may sound the same to native speakers of English. They may both sound like a long “o” sound in English. They only difference in the pronunciation between the two “o’s” I can hear is like different accents in English. Most English speakers pronounce the long “o” in English the same around the world. That is the sound when you read the Korean letter: ㅗ. This letter they say is pronounced “eo”, (ㅓ) is pronounced like someone with the Ohio Valley accent in the United States pronounces the long “o” in English. There is really not such a big difference in English that we use a different letter, but the Koreans do. I always called that Ohio Valley “o” “a rounded “o” because they round their lips more when they say ” o” than other English speakers do, and that is the sound I hear when I hear ㅓ, not “eo” because that just makes a native speaker of English say, “What? “ay-oh?” As you go into that “oh” after you have said “ay,” your lips are like they would be if you said the Ohio Valley “o,” so just put your lips in the position to say “ay,” but don’t say “ay.” Instead, say “oh” with your lips in that position. It took me practice to get used to it.
The third syllable, again, begins with that “ㅇ” that has no sound. The letter on the bottom is a vowel: ㅛ (yo). The whole word together is 읽어요 pronounced “eelk oh yo.” You can use any subject pronoun you like with this word. It doesn’t change in number or gender. You can even just use this verb and let everyone assume the subject, and it will be right. That means that 읽어요 can mean “I read,” “you read,” “he reads,” “she reads,” “it reads,” “we read” or “they read.” You don’t have to use the subject, and the reader or the hearer guesses the subject from context. Whenever you see “어요” at the end of a word, it is a main verb in a sentence, conversational form, and it ends a sentence.
A four syllable word: 읽습니다 You should recognize the first syllable in this word again: 읽 which means “read.” The second syllable is 습. ㅅ(s) is the first letter. ㅡ , that strange letter the Koreans transcribe as “u,” but actually has no read English pronunciation. The third letter is ㅂ (b). The second syllable is transcribed as “sub” in English.
The third syllable is 니. The first letter is “ㄴ” (s). The second letter is “ㅣ” (ee). The syllable is pronounced: “nee.” The last syllable is 다. The first letter is “ㄷ” (d). The second letter is “ㅏ” which is pronounced like “a” in “father,” so the syllable is pronounced: “dah.”
The whole word, 읽습니다 is pronounced “eelk-sub-nee-da.” This is the formal word for “read” in simple present tense. If you are teaching Korean students, this is the word they would use when they talk to you to show you respect. If you hear a public announcement with this “read” in it, this is the form they will use. If people speak with strangers, they may use this form. Any time you hear “습니다” that person is speaking respectfully. If you are an older person and use it, everyone will think it is strange. Most adults speak with the form that has ‘요” on the end. People can also just assume the pronoun that goes in this verb.
A five syllable word: 읽었습니다 is pronounced “eelk-eot- sub-nee-da.” You already know 읽 meaning “read.” This is “read” with the past tense, formal ending. The second syllable is 었.었 begins with the “ㅇ” that has no sound. The second letter is ㅓ, that strange letter they transcribe as “eo.” the last letter here is ㅆ (ss), but it is not pronounced like an “s” here. but like a “t.” This means the second syllable is pronounced: “ot” with a rounded long “o” sound. At times that ㅆ is pronounced as “ss,” but not here. If you use the less formal 읽었어요, it is pronounced as “ss,” but when it is in the more formal form here, it is “t.”
You already know the next syllable: 습, and the syllable after that: 습, and even the last syllable: 다, so putting 읽엇습니다 all together, you have “eelk-eot- sub-nee-da” which is the past tense verb “read.” Again, it is any gender and any number. People just assume the subject pronoun.
A six syllable word:읽는 적이 있다. This is pronounced (eelk-nun- jeok-ee- eet-da). This is the present perfect form of “read,” “have read,” or “has read.” You should know the first syllable: 읽 means “read” by now. The second syllable 는 begins with “ㄴ” (n), continues with “ㅡ “. that strange vowel they transcribe as “u,” but has no real English equivalent, and ends with “ㄴ” (n) again. The second syllable is transcribed into English as “nun.” The third syllable is 적 (jeok). The first letter in the second syllable is “ㅈ” ( J). The second letter is that strang “ㅓ” (eo) again. The last letter is “ㄱ,” the letter than can be pronounced as either “g” or “k,” and here is pronounced “k.”
The next syllable is “이” (ee). The first letter “ㅇ,” again, is simple a place marker that has no sound at the beginning of a syllable. The second letter is “ㅣ” which is pronounced “ee.”
The next syllab le is 있. Again, it begins with the “ㅇ” that is just a place marker at the beginning of a syllable with no sound. The second letter is “ㅣ” (ee). The third letter is ㅆ (ss). Again, this ㅆ is pronounced like a “t” instead of an “s,” so this syllable is actually pronounced “eet.”
The last sylable is 다 (da), and I have already explained this syllable above. This means that 읽는 젓이 있다 is pronounced: “eelk- nun- jeok- ee- eet-da.” Again, there is no gender or number in this verb, and you don’t have to use a pronoun with it. We have two different forms of it in English: “has read” or “have read.” We use two words to make our conjugation, but even though there are spaces in the Korean word, it is considered all one word because you really can’t pull it apart to mean something else in Korean except if you take the 읽 part off and put it on other forms or use that ending on another verb.
An eight syllable word: Yes, I skipped seven syllables for a reason. You may recognize this word if you put together everything I have talked about today: 읽는 적이 있습니다 ( eelk-nun- jeok-ee- eet-sub-see-da). This is the form word used for “have read” or “has read.” If your students want to say to you “I have read the book,” they will say “책을 읽는 족이 있습니다.” As you can see, there is no personal pronoun in the Korean sentence, and that is fine. They could have added it, and if they did it would be 내가 or 재가 or 나 는. All three of those mean “I,” but they often leave them out.
책 (chek) means “book.” 을 (ul) is the direct object marker. And the seven syllable word: 읽는 적이 있습니다 (eelk-nun- jeok-ee-eet- sub-nee-da) is the verb, “have read.” 책을 is written together, but not because they are the same word. They are written together so that you will know that 책 is the direct object. There is space between words in Korean, but the post position particles and articles will be written right after the word they are pointing to with no space between them.
Now that you understand better how the letters are put into their syllables, perhaps in the next blog, I can introduce the basic alphabet. As you can see, even if you know the basic sound a letter is supposed to make, Korean is like English, and they have different sounds according to their position or which letters they come next to. When I was a beginning in Korean, some Korean students pulled me aside in the States and explained for me what I explained for you today, but I didn’t know the alphabet. The next step was when I learned the sounds of the Korean alphabet. I didn’t initially learn the names because the names are not the sounds. However, if you want to talk about the letters with a Korean, you may wish to learn the names. My objective was just to learn to read, but after I learned the sounds of each individual letter, I learned they also have other sounds, as I said, according to where they are positioned in the syllable and what letter they are close to. Learning the alphabet sounds is actually quite easy because I did it one day. Korean letters are easier on the eyes than English letters. According to experts, it is harder to diagnose someone with dyslexia in Korea than in America because Korean letters are easier to learn to read than English letters, so many dyslexic Koreans go undiagnosed because they just seemed a bit slower than the other students, but could learn to read without extra help like dyslexic kids in American trying to learn to read. Some American kids with dyslexia never learn to read, but Korean kids learn because their letters are easier on the eyes.