SayJack » Korean
It is often confusing to beginning (or even more advanced) Korean learners, that a consonant sounds different when it appears at different positions of a word. The good news is, there is a clear set of rules to dictate how a consonant should be pronounced in Korean. But we will need to go over a few basic technical concepts before we can understand the rules.
First of all, the concept of voicing. If you put your fingers on your throat (to where your vocal cords locate) and try to say something, sound that you can feel the vocal cord vibration is called voiced, otherwise it is voiceless. In English, for example, b is voiced and p is voiceless, z is voiced and s is voiceless. In Korean, all vowels are always voiced, so are nasal consonants ㅁ ㄴ ㅇ and consonant ㄹ. On the other hand, all other consonants are voiceless when they are at the beginning of a word.
Next, the concept of aspiration. If you put your fingers in front of your mouth and try to say something, sound that you can feel a puff of air out of your mouth is called aspirated, otherwise it is unaspirated. In English, for example, p is aspirated and b is unaspirated. In Korean, at the beginning of a word, ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ are not aspirated, ㅂ ㅈ ㄷ ㄱ ㅅ are lightly aspirated, and ㅍ ㅊ ㅌ ㅋ are strongly aspirated. It explains, for instance, why ㄱ is denoted as g (g is unaspirated in English) but you may hear it as [ka] for the word 가요, as ㄱ is slightly aspirated (and voiceless) in this case.
Last, the concept of tenseness. It is used to distinguish the contrast of similar consonants, such as ㅂ and ㅃ. ㅃ is tense, in the sense that it is pronounced with an extra effort, such as quicker opening and firmer closing of the lips. The following vowel is usually of higher pitch too. On the other hand, ㅂ is lax, without all these features. As you can predict, all the “doubles” ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ are tense.
|ㅂ ㅈ ㄷ ㄱ ㅅ||voiceless, lightly aspirated, lax|
|ㅍ ㅊ ㅌ ㅋ||voiceless, strongly aspirated|
|ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ||voiceless, unaspirated, tense|
|ㅁ ㄴ ㄹ||voiced|
In general, it is not a good idea to use Latin alphabets to represent the sounds of Korean vowels, because except for a few of them, such as 아 or 이, you will most probably not be able to pronounce the vowels correctly simply by looking at the romanization. Try to pronounce eu and listen to 으 and you will know what I am talking about.
So how can you learn? An alternative way is to “map” the vowels to some simple words in English which (closely) share the sounds. Again it will not work for all vowels, but at least we can have most of the vowels covered this way.
When you pronounce 아 and 어, make sure your mouth is wide open. Consider the vertical stroke as the length of the gap between your lips. When you pronounce 우, make your lips rounded and stick out your lips as much as you can. Think of the T shape as how you look at your lips from the top. For 오, it is Spanish o or French eau, if you know Spanish or French (which I have never learned). The difference between 어 and 오 is that you keep your lips rounded when pronouncing 오, but you lower your jaw and open your mouth when you pronounce 어.
The last simple Korean vowel 으 has no equivalence in English. When you pronounce 으, keep your lips unrounded (like the shape of the horizontal stroke). If you start with 이, which you shouldn’t have a problem to pronounce, move your tongue back slightly and keep your lips straight, you should be pronouncing 으. Try it out with our recording function when you are ready to do so.
Technically, complex vowels are called diphthongs which consist of semi-vowels (y or w) before the main vowels. It is straight forward to identify the y-type complex vowels, as they usually have 2 short strokes attached to the single long stroke.
The last complex vowel, 의, is quite tricky, not only that it doesn’t have 2 short strokes on a long stroke, but also that it can be pronounced in 3 different ways. When it is at the beginning of a word, such as 의사 (doctor), it is pronounced as 으 + 이. However, when it is used to represent the possessive suffix, it is pronounced as 에. When it is neither a word-initial nor a possessive suffix, such as 거의 (almost), it is pronounced as 이.
For w-type complex vowels, it is simply a combination of 오 or 우 (for the “w” sound) and the main vowel. There is one exception though: 외 is not a combination of “w” and 이, but instead, a combination of “w” and 에. As a result, even with different spellings, 외, 왜 and 웨 essentially denote the same pronunciation.
The choice of 오 or 우 may look random, but the rule is that you can’t combine bright vowels with dark vowels. The vowel classification (as bright and dark) is important for verb and adjective conjunction in Korean, but for now you can simply take it as a fact that 아 and 오 are bright vowels, 어 and 우 are dark vowels, and 이 is considered neutral. As a result, you can see from the above table, 이 is the only case which may combine with both 오 (a bright vowel) or 우 (a dark vowel) to form a complex vowel.
It may be a daunting task to memorize a random combination of lines and circles when you first try to learn Korean hangul, but once you understand the “design” of the pictorial characters, you may pick up the pronunciations of the characters way more easily.
First and foremost, ㄱ for the sound g. Its shape is a side view of the tongue with the back of the tongue raised, you can imagine that’s how your tongue is shaped when you pronounce g.
Next, ㄴ for the sound n. Again, its shape is a side view of the tongue when the tip of the tongue is raised to pronounce n.
Next, for the sound s, it is something you need to use your teeth to pronounce. It is written as ㅅ. I don’t get to know any good mnemonics for this one, so please leave me a comment if you come up with one…
For ㅇ, just think of it as a zero, so it represents no beginning consonant. But make sure you know it represents the nasal sound ng when it is an ending consonant. In this case, think of it as a circle, so it is related to the nasal sound m represented by the rectangular ㅁ.
So we covered the basic jamo. For the aspirated sounds (which you need to make sure air is ejected from your mouth when you pronounce them), they are just modified from the non-aspirated counter-parts:
It is trivial to memorize the “doubles,” namely ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅉ, ㅃ and ㅆ. Just make sure you raise your pitch to pronounce them if you cannot distinguish the difference between them and their basic counter-parts.
Since I added the handwriting feature to the website a month ago, a lot of you have dragged your mouse and created some beautifully shaped pictorial characters for the site. I am not a big fan of insisting writing in the correct stroke order, but still, as the one who builds a language learning website with East Asian languages, I think I am responsible for pointing out the general rules of how to write Asian characters in the correct stroke order.
Written hangul follows the rules of Chinese calligraphy. The basic rules are: left to right, top to bottom, and outside in. There are some areas that even native writers may not agree with each other, but if you randomly start writing a vertical straight line bottom up, then I doubt if many native writers will appreciate your creativity.
Let’s take a look at how to write each of the consonant jamo of hangul. Pay special attention to how ㄹ, ㅁ and ㅂ are written. When you are done with consonants, go to page 2 to see the stroke order of vowels.
I have just deployed the latest website design. From now on I can keep you posted about the development of the site and my learning language experience with this blogging feature on the site. I am only writing in English for now, but if there are more important things I would try to translate them to all JACK languages.
Please feel free to write me comments for any questions or suggestions you have. Thanks!