Language Information

Korean Writing System

The modern name for the Korean alphabet is Hangeul (or Hangul).

  • There are 24 letters in the Korean alphabet: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The letters are combined together into syllable blocks.
  • The shapes of the consonants g/k, n, s, m and ng are graphical representations of the speech organs used to pronounce them. Other consonants were created by adding extra lines to the basic shapes.
  • The shapes of the vowels are based on three elements: man (a vertical line), earth (a horizontal line) and heaven (a dot). In modern Hangeul the heavenly dot has mutated into a short line.
  • Spaces are placed between words, which can be made up of one or more syllables.
  • The sounds of some consonants change depending on whether they appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a syllable.
  • Korean can be written in vertical columns running from top to bottom and right to left, or in horizontal lines running from left to right.

The Hangeul alphabet


Korean consonants

The double consonants marked with * are pronounced fortis. There is no symbol in IPA to indicate this.


1. Consonants (자음)

Aspirated ones are with more puff of air than the plain ones. As for tensed ones, you add more stricture, but without puff of air, when letting out the sound.

  is similar to g as in god.

 is similar to k as in sky.

 is similar to k as in kill.

 is similar to d as in do.

  is similar to t as in stop.

 is similar to t as in two.

 is similar to tt as in butter (not [t] but a flap like a Spanish [r]), in a syllable initial position.

 is similar to l as in filling, in a syllable final (받침) position.

  is similar to b as in bad.

is similar to p as in spy.

is similar to p as in pool.

 is similar to s as in astronaut.

 is similar to s as in suit.

is similar to j as in  jail.

  is similar to tz as in pretzel.

  is similar to ch as in charge.

is similar to h as in hat.

2. Vowels (모음)

is similar to "Ah".

is similar to "yard".

is similar to "cut".

is similar to "just" or "Eliot".

is similar to "order".

is similar to " Yoda".

is similar to " Ungaro".

is similar to "you".

is similar to "good" or "le chatau".

is similar to "easy".

is similar to "add".

is similar to "yam".

is similar to " editor".

is similar to " yes".

is similar to " Wow!" or "what".

is similar to "wagon".

is similar to "Koeln".

is similar to " one".

is similar to " weather".

is similar to "we" or "Oui!"

The symbol [] is used to denote the tensed consonants ([p], [t], [c], [k], and [s]). The tensed stops are produced with a partially constricted glottis and additional subglottal pressure.

[s] becomes palatalized as [ʃ] or [ɕ] before [j] or [i]. [h] becomes labialized [ɸ] before [o] and [u] and palatalized [ç] before [j] or [i]. [p], [t], [c], and [k] become voiced [b], [d], [ɟ], and [ɡ] between sonorant segments. [l] becomes alveolar flap [ɾ] between sonorant segments, such as between two vowels.

Phonetic rules, mostly assimilation, transform the pronunciation of some words. For example, Jonglo is pronounced as Jongno, Hankukmal as Han-gungmal. Stop consonants are generally voiceless, but lightly aspirated stops become voiced and unaspirated in intervocalic position. For example, p -> b, t -> d, k -> g. Stops are nasalized before a nasal. For example, p -> m (before m, n, or ng), t -> n (before m, n, or ng), k -> ng (before m, n, or ng).

Honorifics and speech level

The relationship between a speaker or writer and his or her subject and audience is paramount in Korean, and the grammar reflects this. The relationship between speaker/writer and subject is reflected in honorifics, while that between speaker/writer and audience is reflected in speech level.


One way of using honorifics is to use special nouns in place of regular nouns with "honorific" ones. More often, special nouns are used when speaking about relatives. Thus, the speaker/writer may address his own grandmother as halmeoni but refer to someone else's grandmother as halmeonim. The m comes from the honorific suffix -nim (), which is affixed to many kinship terms to make them honorific. All verbs can be converted into an honorific form by adding the infix -si- (, pronounced shi) after the stem and before the verb ending. Thus, gada ("go") becomes gasida. A few verbs have special honorific equivalents. Therefore gyesida is the honorific form of itda ("exist"). A few verbs have special humble forms, used when the speaker is referring to him/herself in polite situations. Thus, deurida and ollida for juda ("give"). Pronouns in Korean have their own set of polite equivalents: thus, jeo is the humble form of na ("I"); jeoheui is the humble form of uri ("we").

Speech levels

There are no fewer than 7 verb paradigms or speech levels in Korean, and each level has its own unique set of verb endings which are used to indicate the level of formality of a situation. Unlike honorifics which are used to show respect towards a subject speech levels are used to show respect towards a speaker's or writer's audience. The names of the 7 levels are derived from the non-honorific imperative form of the verb hada ("do") in each level, plus the suffix che, which means "body." The highest 5 levels use final verb endings, while the lowest 2 levels (haeyoche) and (haeche) use non-final endings and are called banmal ("half-words") in Korean. (The haeyoche in turn is formed by simply adding the non-final ending yo () to the haeche form of the verb.)

Taken together, honorifics and speech levels form a system of 14 basic verb stems. Here is a table giving the 7 levels, the present indicative form of the verb hada (하다; "do" in English) in each level in both its honorific and non-honorific forms, and the situations in which each level is used.

Speech Level

Present Indicative of "hada"

Level of Formality

When Used






Extremely formal and polite

Traditionally used when addressing a king, queen, or high official; now used only in historical dramas and the Bible




Formal and polite

Used commonly between strangers, among male co-workers, by TV announcers, and to customers


hao (하오)

hasho (하쇼),
hashio (

Formal, of neutral politeness

Only used nowadays among some older people




Formal, of neutral politeness

Generally only used by some older people when addressing younger people, friends, or relatives




Formal, of neutral politeness or impolite

Used to close friends, relatives of similar age, or younger people; also used almost universally in books, newspapers, and magazines; also used in reported speech ("She said that...")



haseyo (하세요) (common), hasheoyo (하셔요) (rare)

Informal and polite

Used mainly between strangers, especially those older or of equal age. Traditionally used more by women than men, though in Seoul many men prefer this form to the Hapshoche (see above).


hae () (in speech),

hayeo (하여)
(in writing)


Informal, of neutral politeness or impolite

Used most often between close friends and relatives, and when addressing younger people. It is never used between strangers unless the speaker wants to pick a fight.


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