King Sejong is the most esteemed ruler in Korean history. For us Americans, imagine the leadership and integrity of Washington and the innovation of Franklin all bound up together in one person, and you’ve got King Sejong – known as King Sejong the Great. He invented movable type 215 years before Gutenberg, the first rain gage, and sun-dials. But his most enduring legacy is the Hangul alphabet. During his reign in the 1400’s, Koreans were using Chinese characters. If you know anything about Chinese characters, you know that they are pretty intense. King Sejong wanted a simpler system that ordinary people could use:
The sounds of our language differ from those of Chinese and are not easily communicated by using Chinese graphs. Many among the ignorant, therefore, though they wish to express their sentiments in writing, have been unable to communicate. Considering this situation with compassion, I have newly devised twenty-eight letters. I wish only that the people will learn them easily and use them conveniently in their daily life.
[From Hunmin Chongum, 1446, quoted in Lee, p. 295]
And thus, his brain child, Hangul, came into existence. Since his time, four characters have been dropped from the alphabet, bringing the count down to a very manageable 24 consonants and vowels. In the last lesson, we learned the vowels ㅣ ㅏ , and the consonants ㅁ ㅂ ㄱ ㅅ. Today, I’d like to introduce three more vowels and four consonants.
ㅓ – This looks very similar to ㅏ (ah), except the branch is on the left side. It makes the “oh” or “aw” sound. It’s not a fully rounded “o,” but is more similar to the beginning sound in “autumn,” “lost,” or “thoughts.” Imagine a wide-eyed person wandering through a wooded park in autumn, beholding all the leaves, lost in thought. What sound do they make in their wonderment? ㅓ, of course! You try: 머 버 거 서
Note: If this is confusing, don’t get too hung up on it now. You can simply think of it as the “o” sound – I did for several months before fully distinguishing between it and the long “o.” Which leads me to …
ㅗ – Here we have the frank, good-natured O. If you’ve studied Italian (which I haven’t but I can still tell you) you’ve run across this sound at the end of almost every other word. It’s fun to say. Note that this version of O requires lip puckering, while ㅓ does not. Give it a go: 모 보 고 소. If you sounded like an Italian Korean, you’re on the right track. (Mow, bow, go, so)
ㅜ – Flip the O around, and you’ve got “oo” as in “moose,” “goose,” “loose.” To understand the placement of the notch below the line, in the written “ㅗ,” say ㅗㅜ (O, oo) a few times fast. Notice how your air shifts up to say “O,” and then falls down to say “oo.” I just love how this all makes sense! For practice: 무 부 구 수 (moo, boo, goo, sue).
All right, let’s move on to the consonants.
I’d like to introduce one of my personal favorites, looking quite like Abraham Lincoln in his top hat:
ㅎ – Think “hat,” “hhhh.” This is the H sound, and it can’t be any easier to remember. Think of handsome gentlemen in top hats while you say, 히 하 허 호 후 (he, hah, haw, hoe, who)
ㄴ – This was confusing to me at first, as it resembles the English “L,” but it makes the “N” sound. Say the N sound a few times (not, nasty, nanny, nanonennen) and notice how your tongue pushes hard into the corner of your teeth and gum. That’s the shape of this letter, a hard corner. 니 나 너 노 누 (ne, nah, naw, no, new)
ㄷ – Phonetic-wise, this is a close brother to ㄴ. It’s the D sound, and I like to think that it looks a little similar to the american “D.” Fancy yourself in a barbershop quartet, and sing these notes for me: 디 다 더 도 두 (dee, dah, daw, doe, dew).
ㅍ – Finally, we’ll end with a very Roman-looking character. Think of the pillars of the Pantheon
And you’ve guessed it, this is the “P” sound. 피 파 퍼 포 푸
Whew! You’ve just covered a lot of alphabetical ground! Let’s sum it up with some real Korean words.
나도 – na-doe – “me too”
높다 – nop-dah – tall
피 – pee – blood
비 – be – rain
피곤하다 – pi-gon-ah-da – tired
하나님 – ha-na-nim – God
감사합니다 – gam-sa-ham-ni-da – thank you
Great job! You’ve already learned 13 of the 24 Korean letters. I appreciate your comments!
Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your Name
in all the earth!
Thanks to this site for insight on King Sejong: