Word Wednesday #11: A Peek At Hangul Pt. 2, Variable Consonants

Let’s throw ourselves back into hangul! I hope you’ve all memorized the Korean alphabet by now.

Lol jks, it might be easy but if you’re lazy like me, I took nearly a month to get it down. If you have, I commend you: high five. If not, here’s the chart again to refer to for the rest of the post.

As promised, today will being going over some of the Romanization of hangul. When starting out, this is indispensable for helping you start to hear the right sound associated with the Korean characters. The differences are sometimes very slight, but using this self-teaching aid, you’ll soon be able to shed Romanizations altogether and emerge a beautiful hangul-reading butterfly.

I wanted to focus broadly on all of the Romanizations today, but (who’d have thought) it’s a much bigger subject than can be covered in one decent-length post. So rather than throw a bunch of stuff at you, imma take it slow and go a little at a time. No rush anyway – it’s unlikely I’ll have my computer charger by next week! Might as well go through hangul at a relaxed pace.

So for today, let’s focus on the auditory distinctions between consonants, depending on if they’re at the beginning or end of a syllable. This isn’t so much for pronunciation just yet (although it’ll come in handy for later), but rather for understanding why there are differences when you see it written down in an English alphabet.

Last week we ended on probably the most distinct consonant in terms of being polar opposite beginning/end sounds: the “ㅇ”.

If you’ll remember, it was silent at the beginning of a syllable, and “-ng” at the end. The example we used was “영어”, or “yeongeo”. In the first syllable, you see both its variations: “영” – silent “ㅇ” in the beginning, then the “ㅕ” for “yeo” and the “ㅇ” again, this time as “-ng”. Thus it sounds like “yeong”.

So now that we’ve reviewed, let’s move on to the less distinct variations. Thankfully there’s only 4 other characters like this, although unthankfully to the English-speaker’s ear it’s difficult to always discern between the sounds. Although back to thankfully, you don’t need to discern between sounds yet, because we’re just covering a lesson on the visual writing. Yay! (I’d need a whole separate post on this later anyway).

So, onto the first!

Variable Consonants

1. ㄱ = g/k

This is one of the characters we looked at last week in “kimchi”, or “김치”.


This also happens to be a tricky example, though I’ll explain why in a second. For now, all you need to know is that when the character “ㄱ” appears at the beginning of the syllable, the sound is closer to a soft “g”. When at the end, it becomes snappier and will end up like a “k” sound.

This “soft beginning/snappier end” is pretty much the rule for most of the variable consonants, which is convenient in remembering. And, while the marginal differences in pronunciation are hard for the ear to hear/the tongue to replicate, the Romanization will (generally) follow this rule as well. So this is good for all you visual learners.

Therefore, back to our example of “김치”, this is actually an instance of failed Romanization – or rather an instance of “Westernization”. While it should technically be “gimchi”, this internationally popularized Korean side dish better translates to the foreign ear as a “k” sound than our version of “g”, which is more guttural than how you would say “ㄱ” in Korean. So because it’s a word that appears more commonly than other Korean words in the English language, an auditory/spelling compromise is used in this case.

The same fate befalls “taekwondo”, the famous Korean martial art.


While it’s written as “태권도” (“ㄱ” falling at the beginning of the second syllable), and should be written “taegwondo“, it’s more true to foreigner ears to put a “k” instead of the “g”. (As a fun side note on this, I wrote “taekwondo” on the board during one of my classes, and the kids were up in arms about my “spelling mistake”.) So again: to facilitate the use of the word in the English language, we avoid sticking pedantically to the Romanization rule.

2. ㄷ = d/t

This one also follows the rule about the soft beginning/snappy end. An example is “닫”, or “dat“, meaning “close” in English. I don’t have any interesting anecdotes about this one.

3. ㄹ = r/l

This is the one that doesn’t follow the “soft/snappy” rule. It is the dreaded “r/l” sound. Both “r” and “l” do kinda sound the same here, which before I got to Korea I never quite understood. I mentioned in my post on samgyeopsal how to pronounce the “ㄹ” sound, but since we don’t have to worry about that here, let’s just focus on the fact that it’s a rough “r” sound at the beginning of a syllable, and a soft/light “l” sound at the end.

A somewhat creepy diagram for showing where the tongue goes to pronounce the “ㄹ” sound. Though this is for Japanese, the same applies for Korean. As you can see, it falls in the middle of the “r/l” sounds that English uses, which is why it’s hard for Koreans to discern the difference between them.

As an example, I’ll use my name: “Marta”. Koreans have a rough time figuring out what my name is because while it’s 2 syllables, the end of the second syllable is an “r” sound instead of “l” *mind blown Koreans everywhere!*.

So though my name in hangul should be “말타” (following the 2 syllable rule), the Romanization back from the hangul would actually read “Malta”. While I don’t necessarily mind being a lovely Mediterranean island, I tend to write my name with 3 syllables instead to get the “r” sound: “마르타” – or “Mareuta”. Said quickly, the “ㅡ” (“eu”) is swallowed and sounds as close as you can get to “Marta”.

Malta – my namesake island according to Korean pronunciation.

Using “ㅡ” between consonants is a common English-to-Korean hangul-ization for sounds that don’t tend to translate perfectly. Next week will focus on this rule specifically.

Another tricky English word to pronounce for Koreans because of “ㄹ” is “lyrics”. Written phonetically in hangul  like “릴익스”, this would indicate a rough beginning “ㄹ” and a light end “ㄹ”, meaning some Koreans pronounce it,  adorably, like “rylics”.

4. ㅂ = b/p

This one’s back to the ol’ soft/snappy rule, and is very simply the “b” sound if at the beginning, and the “p” sound at the end.

As an example of failed Romanization, I noticed one a few weeks ago when teaching the kids how to Romanize their names.

The most common last names are “Kim” and “Park” in Korean. I think I read somewhere that these two last names alone account for 50% of the Korean population, but don’t quote me on it. (Here’s an interesting article on why there are so few Korean surnames if you’re interested in further reading).

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye

Looking at the students’ roster though, you see “김” (“Kim” – which you well know from “kimchi” by now), and “박” (Technically “Bak”, but the more commonly spelled “Park”).

I don’t know why “Bak” suddenly became “Park”, since it sounds like a British-ism and the Korean peninsula is mostly influenced by America (and by extension its accent), but I can hypothesize it’s because “Park” is a far more familiar last name for foreigners to remember than “Bak”. (Compare to the difficulty Koreans have with getting my name right). The same fate befalls other Korean surnames as well, such as “이” and “임” (technically Romanized as “Ee” and “Eem”, but Westernized as “Lee” and “Lim”).

That’s it for variable consonants! As you can see, there’s really nothing to it. Well…in the theory part. It definitely takes practice to have it come naturally. And teaching my kids that there are entirely different alphabet letters for the g/k, d/t, r/l, and b/p sound is near impossible.

Sound Substitutions in Korean

There are also a few other noteworthy differences in hangulization of foreign words (might as well introduce it since we’ll be doing that next week). For one, you might have noticed there are a few consonants missing from the hangul alphabet that we’d find in the English alphabet.

Thus, they are written as follows:

1. F – ㅂ/ㅍ (p): There is no “f” sound in Korean, therefore it’s substituted with a “p” sound.

2. Q – 크위 (keu-wi)/ 크왜 (keu-wae) or others: Follows its own rules, so it depends on circumstance and what word it’s used in. Because it’s an auditory consonant cluster (two distinct consonant sounds -kw – represented by a single letter), it counts as two syllables in Korean.

3. V – ㅂ/ㅍ (p): Again, no “v” sound in Korean; same as “F”.

4. X – 크스 (keu-seu): Like Q, this is an auditory consonant cluster, and so it has two syllables when written in hangul.

5. Z – ㅈ (j), sometimes ㅊ (ch): Again, no “z” sound in Korean; it’s usually a “j” substitution, although occasionally you might hear it more like a “ch”. This is much rarer though.

Don’t worry if you find this a little overwhelming though – it’s surprisingly obvious once you get started. If you know English phonetics, you’ll know Q, X, and Z offhand. The only ones that come up often are F and V, which are both used as “P” sounds in Korean. Easy!

The Two O’s

While we’re at it, might as well get this out of the way. There are also two kinds of “O’s”.

The best word I can find to compare is “grotto” in a North American accent. Though there are two “O”‘s here, they’re pronounced completely differently, phonetically, “graw-toh“. In Korean, the “aw” O is: ㅓ The “oh” O is: ㅗ

Alright so this isn’t a terrifically hard lesson – I don’t even know how it turned out so long. I guess I just like giving heaps of examples and telling stories and using words.

…much to the chagrin of all my past professors who were strict on word limits…

In the meantime, get that alphabet memorized ;D – next week we’ll start looking at Romanization of whole words! Woot!

If you didn’t get a chance to catch last week’s crash course on the hangul alphabet, check it out here: Word Wednesday #10: A Peek At Hangul Pt. 1, The Korean Alphabet

If you want to check out past Word Wednesdays, here’s a fine selection for you to click at your heart’s content.

Word Wednesday #1: How to Insult Two Types of Men

Word Wednesday #2: A Completely Irrelevant Word Outside Korean Context

Word Wednesday #3: Saying Hello

Word Wednesday #4: Bon Appetit

Word Wednesday #5: Eighteenth Century

Word Wednesday #5 3/4 (yeah I fucked up the numbering): Thanks

Word Wednesday #6: Gimme gimme!!

Word Wednesday #7: Make This Cheaper For Me

Word Wednesday #8: That’s a Little Bit Expensive (while slightly drunk)

Word Wednesday #9: Three Layered Flesh

Happy Korean-ing!

2 thoughts on “Word Wednesday #11: A Peek At Hangul Pt. 2, Variable Consonants

  1. gulp. yeah that was easy. gulp.
    perhaps we should have named you Mata( the way Shi calls you) and would be easier for your students to pronouce


    1. Oop! Not to make you gulp more but I added some – or rather I saved in the bit I’d written at work which didn’t get saved before the internet got cut…yay more learning!!


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