Sadly this week I couldn’t record a Word Wednesday because I still haven’t replaced my computer charger (although holy damn, am I ever more productive this way – I’m making great headway on Dune, finished Eat Pray Love at long last, finished Benjamin Button in one go – given to me for Christmas by FR, and have begun making a dent in Nothing to Envy, my awesome Aunt’s Xmas gift of a nonfiction look into North Korea!).
Instead of postpone word Wednesdays indefinitely until my charger is replaced, I’ve decided to do something more reader-friendly rather than listener-friendly: go over the basics of hangul, or the Korean alphabet system.
The idea came to me last weekend actually that I should do a Word Wednesday like this. It was as Andrea, S, and I were at a diner ordering a quick dinner before Andrea and S caught a bus back to Wonju, that I noticed that the menu was all in Korean. I looked around at the walls, and there were no pictures of the food; again, just Korean.
Now seven months ago, I went into a restaurant like this. The friend I was with couldn’t read hangul, and I was barely better; it was all we could do to pick a dish at random off the menu. What we received was a mystery meat that, to this day, we’re convinced was heart.
Needless to say this experience was one among many that catapulted my desire to get to a point where I’m at least functional in reading Korean.
And I feel that day has just about come. I’m still slow, but being in that restaurant this past weekend, I did something I’d only dreamed of being capable of doing when I first landed: scanning the menu with relative ease to pick out exactly what I wanted to eat. It was something of a triumph.
But it all started in June 2013 when I started studying Korean for my impending departure, and it had to start somewhere: so I’m going to lead y’all through the basics I began with too.
Don’t worry – the Korean alphabet is ridiculously easy to learn in comparison to Chinese (wherein there are thousands – no, tens of thousands of characters…good luck making a keyboard for that).
Korean is much more comparable to English in the sense that each letter indicates a phonetic sound instead of a distinct meaning (like in, again, Chinese).
Thus, without further ado, here is a chart of the Korean alphabet and the closest sounds for comparison in English.
Now I say “closest” sounds for English comparison because it really is just that. It’s a different language after all, and it’s not like the first speakers of English conferred with the ancient ancestors of Korea to work out sounds that are at par with both culture’s sets of ears.
Therefore there are certain of these sounds which are difficult to either 1) pronounce, or 2) tell the difference between.
But we’re going to ignore the finer points of pronunciation for the moment and just focus on the actual script itself. So for the time being, take the above pronunciations at par (they’re not too bad – I chose this chart because they’re the closest comparisons I could find), and let’s dive into deciphering hangul.
The main difference in hangul vs the Romanized alphabet is that instead of writing on a constant horizontal, each syllable is stacked before moving horizontally (left to right).
So let’s look at an example: kimchi, the famous fermented cabbage side dish of Korea. The characters which are associated with the sounds are as follows: k = ㄱ, i = ㅣ, m = ㅁ, ch = ㅊ, i = ㅣ.
Because it’s such a visually alien language…
…and feels unnatural for us to start associating phonetics with a different symbol than we’re used to, it’s important to begin learning by breaking down the language into sections. So already you notice the repeating vowel of “ㅣ” being ” i ” in kimchi.
Start clinging to these visual patterns and you’ll start to find it a long easier to remember. When I first started, I took it slow by just recognizing vowels, then the basic consonants, then the double consonants, etc, until I was able to sound out a whole sentence based on the characters. “ㅣ” is also a good place to start because it looks most similar to the English character to ” i “.
Anyway so now that we have our sounds, let’s see how to write it – because it certainly doesn’t look like “ㄱㅣㅁㅊㅣ” when you write it down in Korean.
It’s 2-syllables, therefore it’s divided into two stacks:
So first find that “ㅣ” again. You can see it in both stacks, first on the upper right and then on the far right.
In the beginning it’s tough to tell the difference between characters and syllables. In this case, because the “ㅊ” and the “ㅣ” are beside each other, how do you know they’re together and not entirely different syllables?
The answer is easy: no Korean syllable is ever a single unit. Never will you see a single “ㄱ” , or “ㅁ” or “ㅣ”. Make it a point to clump together any two seemingly solo characters into the same unit, as seen in “치”. Once you start getting used to the spacing of hangul characters, this will come naturally.
The next most important thing to learn is the order to read each character in the more obvious stacked syllables, such as in the first half of kimchi, “김”. It’s all well and good to see that it’s all part of the same syllable, but where to begin in decoding its sound?
Again, this is easy: It’s left to right, top to bottom. Thus the syllable starts with the g/k sound of “ㄱ” and ends with “ㅁ”, or “m”. We already know the middle “ㅣ” is ” i “, so that makes “김” – “kim”.
Altogether, it reads, “김치”.
And really, once you’ve got the characters memorized, it’s a breeze to read. Speed and vocabulary are obvious setbacks, but the language ceases to be some kind of mystical code impenetrable to the White Person’s eye.
Back when I was at Indigo, I’d grab the language books – and later my own flashcards – on my lunch break and try to memorize the alphabet. A couple of my coworkers were astounded that I was able to learn it at all – and how quickly at that.
Now, while I modestly told them it was nothing really…
I did genuinely mean it. There’s nothing to it. The easiest way is probably to use flashcards with the character on one side and the English equivalent sound on the back.
Okay this is getting to be a long post, so I’ll wrap it up with just one more important tip for writing.
In hangul, you never start a syllable with a vowel (Korean vowels conveniently sound like English vowels and are: ㅏ,ㅑ,ㅓ, ㅕ, ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ, ㅣ, ㅡ, ㅢ, ㅐ,ㅒ, ㅖ,ㅔ).
If a syllable starts with a vowel sound, you always add an “ㅇ” before. Picture it like the chaperon of the coy virgin vowels who silently accompany each of said vowels exposed to the outside. The vowels paired with a consonant are, for all intents and metaphorical purposes, married to the consonant and so they don’t need a chaperon anymore.
“ㅇ” is one of the consonants in Korean which has two distinct auditory implications: either sounding like “-ng” tacked onto the end of a vowel, or silent if at the beginning of one of our aforementioned maiden vowels.
A good example of this is the Korean word for “English”, “yeongeo”. Here we have two syllables each starting with a vowel sound, and both uses of “ㅇ”. In hangul it looks like:
In this word, we have two vowels and two syllables.
1) “ㅕ”, or “yeo” (pronounced like “yaw”), and
2) “ㅓ”, or “eo” (pronounced like “aw”).
We also see three “ㅇ” ‘s. At the beginning of each syllable, it’s silent: “여” and “어”.
However at the end of the first syllable, it adds an “-ng” to the “yaw” sound, making it sound like “yawng”, or “영”.
The result: 영어, yeongeo, or yawng-aw.
Thus ends today’s Korean lesson. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer! Next week I’ll go into the differences in sound depending on the placement of the characters in each syllable, and the rules of hangul romanization so you can both better read Korean words and start being able to decipher hangul more easily.
For more Word Wednesdays, here are the links below. Happy Korean-ing!