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Korean Language Bank: Hangeul
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If you ask anyone who has learned Korean, they will tell you that learning and mastering the Korean writing system is the absolute basics. Without learning Hangeul (KR: 한글) you will end up with a severe handicap to your efforts to learn Korean. While standardized romanization systems for Korean exists, these still have flaws so they are pretty much useless for those who want to master Korean. Let us go over the basics of Korean. You will see that there is little to nothing to fear. Mastering the Korean writing script is simply easy.

Introducing Hangeul

In ancient times, the days before King Sejong The Great, Korean did not have its own writing script. Instead, Koreans relied on their own systems to write Korean with Chinese characters, known as Hanja (KR: 한자, Hanja: 漢字). However, because of the great complexity of these systems very few Koreans could read and write. The great King Sejong the Great was saddened by this situation and decided to end the illiteracy of his people. His efforts would lead to the creation of perhaps one of the most important part of his legacy: Hangeul, the unique writing system created just for Korean.

However, the creation of Hangeul did not result in the immediate stop of using Hanja. Many of the Korean aristocracies kept using Hanja for centuries both due to practicality (many important scholastic texts were written in Chinese) and due to aristocratic arrogance. However, as time passed Hanja lost influence and Hangeul became the primary way to write Korean. Today Hangeul dominates and Hanja has been relegated to a supporting role.

As mentioned Hangeul was made specifically for Korean. This makes Hangeul the most suitable for Korean, making it easy for others to know how to properly pronounce the words written down. This is the main flaw most romanization systems have, they are incapable of properly convey the proper pronunciation of Korean. Therefore, anyone who wants to learn Korean would do well to abandon romanized Korean in favour of Hangeul written Korean as quickly as possible.

Hangeul or Hangul

Perhaps you are confused about the fact that in English 한글 is often written as Hangeul and as Hangul. You might be wondering which is correct. The short answer is that both are perfectly acceptable. The long answer is that the ‘Hangul’ spelling is based on the old McCune-Reischauer romanization system. However, in 2000, the Korean government instituted its own standardized romanization system which has 한글 romanized as ‘Hangeul’. In English, both spellings are accepted.

The opinion of Morning Lands: Given the special relationship of the language and the country Korea, we elect to follow the Revised Romanization of Korean (2000) and thus we spell 한글 as Hangeul in English.

The Hangeul System

While you might suspect Hangeul is similar to Chinese characters, they are not. Whereas the Chinese characters are logograms, Hangeul is unique as it combines the features of a syllabic and alphabetic writing system. Hangeul consists of individual characters or letters, but they are written in syllabic blocks. With this you already know one of the biggest advantages of Hangeul over Hanja: Hangeul has a limited amount of characters you will need to master.

In total, Hangeul consists out of 14 consonants, 15 vowels, 5 double consonants and 6 double vowels. Thus, in total, to master Hangeul, you will need to learn and master 40 characters in total. Furthermore, you will also have 11 consonant clusters. Those appear only as batchim, final consonants of a syllabic block. We will talk about these cluster consonants later in this article.

Now to introduce all characters in Hangeul.

The 14 Vowels And 7 Double Vowels

As we told you earlier, there are 14 vowels in Hangeul and 7 double vowels (vowels created by combining 2 single vowels). Every Hangeul syllable has 1 vowel. To this rule, there is not a single exception. Without a vowel, you do not have a Korean syllable or word. Furthermore, vowels are divided into two categories (besides the double vowels): tall vowels and short vowels. This distinction is important to remember when writing in Hangeul as the formation of the syllabic block changes depending on whether the vowel used is a tall vowel, a short vowel or a double vowel.

To introduce the vowel characters we give each character along with their romanized spelling. However, as we have mentioned a few times already, it is best you abandon romanized Korean as quickly as possible.

The 14 Vowels And 7 Double Vowels in Hangeul (한글)
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The 14 Vowels And 7 Double Vowels in Hangeul

The 19 Consonants

Hangeul also has 19 consonants characters. Consonants in Korean are a bit trickier than vowels since many of them have a different pronunciation depending on their position in the syllable block. So to properly read an Hangeul syllable block you will need to memorize two pronunciations for each consonant. However, this is not as difficult as you might think as the basic rules are systematic and very intuitive in nature. Like with the vowels, we will introduce each consonant character along with their romanized spelling. And, as we mentioned there, it is best for you to abandon romanized Korean as quickly as possible.

The 19 Hangeul Consonants (한글)
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The 19 Hangeul Consonants

How To Write In Hangeul

As we’ve already mentioned besides having alphabetic features, Hangeul also has syllabic features. These syllabic features are that all characters are combined into single syllabic blocks. Because of this many people who see Hangeul for the first time believe it to be logographic like Chinese, but that is, of course, not the case.

Because of the syllabic blocks you might think writing or reading Hangeul is rather difficult. However, this is not the case whatsoever. While it may be different from what you are used to, all in all, it is very simple and quite methodological. Once you memorized the system, you will be writing in Hangeul like a pro.

An Hangeul syllabic block consists out of up to three major parts. These parts are known as the initial (KR: 초성; Hanja: 初聲), the medial (KR: 중성; Hanja: 中聲) and the final (KR: 종성; Hanja: 終聲; KR: 받침). We will take a look into each separate building block and which ones are absolutely necessary in order to form a proper syllabic block in Hangeul.

The Initial

Every single Korean syllable has an initial (KR: 초성; Hanja: 初聲). There is not a single exception to this rule. Without an initial, you simply do not have a proper Korean syllable. However, this does not mean every Korean syllable has a voiced initial. Many Korean syllables have a no sound initial. That no sound initial is represented by the character ㅇ (Name: 이응). This character has no sound when it is the initial.

Ordinarily, initials are always pronounced as they are written, unlike when consonants are used as finals. This all makes initials along with the medials the easiest part of the Korean syllable.

The Medial

Similar to the initial, the medial (KR: 중성; Hanja: 中聲) is an absolute requirement for a Korean syllable. All Korean syllables have a medial and once again there is not a single exception to this rule. The medial is also known as the vowel since the medial is always a vowel. It is known as the vowel since the medial is always a vowel or a double vowel. Lastly, the medial can be the last character of the syllable. It needn’t be followed by a final.

Regarding pronunciation, the medial is very easy. Korean does not have unvoiced vowels and thus you always have to pronounce the vowels as they are written. It is very straightforward.

The Final

The final is the only optional part of a Korean syllable. Your syllable needn’t have a final. Finals, like initials, are always consonants. However, the final as a unique feature: In the final, you can end up with so-called consonant clusters. Consonant clusters are two consonants instead of a single consonant (not to be confused with the standard double consonants!). Modern Korean uses 13 of these so-called consonant clusters: ㄳ, ㄵ, ㄶ, ㄺ, ㄻ, ㄼ, ㄽ, ㄾ, ㄿ, ㅀ and ㅄ. Words that have these consonant clusters will require you to memorize their spellings since it is difficult to formulate singular spelling rules for them.

(PS: Archaic Korean knows far more consonant clusters and clusters consisting of up to three consonants.)

How To Put It Together Into A Korean Syllable Block

Now that we know the building blocks of an Hangeul block, it is time to see how you put these blocks together. The good news is that there are simple rules you simply need to follow to put them together correctly. The most important part for this to keep an eye on is the medial or the vowel. Depending on that part you will end up with one of the 9 possible syllable block layouts.

The rules are thus based entirely on the vowels primarily. As mentioned when introducing the Hangeul vowels, you can divide them into three groups: tall vowels, short vowels and the double vowels. The tall vowels are ㅣ, ㅏ, ㅓ, ㅔ, ㅐ, ㅕ, ㅑ, ㅒ and ㅖ. The short vowels are ㅡ, ㅜ, ㅗ, ㅠ and ㅛ. Lastly, the double vowels are ㅚ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅟ, ㅝ, ㅞ and ㅢ. Depending on whether the syllable uses a tall, short or double vowel, you will use either one of 9 possible layouts.

Following the type of vowels, you have three separate situations again: a syllable without a final, a syllable with a final and a syllable with a cluster final. So that gives in total the 9 possibilities we have been mentioning. However, one of these layouts, the combined vowel and cluster final, is no longer in use in modern Korean save for onomatopoeia and slang. For the 9 possible layouts, please refer to our image below.

The 9 Possible Hangeul Syllable Layouts
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The 9 Possible Hangeul Syllable Layouts

Morning Lands’ Hangeul Period Table

Morning Lands' Hangeul Periodic Table
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Morning Lands’ Hangeul Periodic Table – A complete overview of Hangeul (한글).
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