Korean Fundamentals: Lesson 1 – Comprehending Hangul

Learning a new language in itself can be a daunting task, not to mention learning an entirely new writing system on top of it. Fortunately, Korean is both syllabic and has letters in a corresponding alphabet similar to that of Latin systems (English, German, Italian, etc.) We covered the basics of 한글 (Hangul; also Romanized as Hangeul) on our overview page under Reading and Writing Fundamentals. Here, we will focus more on putting two-and-two together—reading and speaking. For now we will ignore Hanja, which is found on the streets in South Korea, but not in many writings and is not necessary for conversational purposes. The primary system is Hangul and is quite easy to learn if you take the time to memorize the letters and comparative sounds. You’ll find that you can read an entire page of text after just a few days (not to sound like a commercial, but it is true). However, comprehension is a whole different beast of its own.

The goal in this lesson is to learn the alphabet so that you will not require Romanization (Latin alphabet—generally constrained to letters found in English) while learning. While Romanization is great when beginning with Korean, you will soon find that it is highly inaccurate and much harder to read after you learn 한글. It has particular trouble with capturing the syllabic system of lettering which presents much blending due to dominance of particular letters. I will cover this blending later on, but for now let’s keep to the basics.

These two videos are particularly thorough in explaining 한글. Unfortunately, the monotone voice may get to you as it did me, but I still found this to be the most comprehensive, yet pithy video. Even so, I will link a few more videos at the end that also cover 한글 well at the bottom, including lectures and other brief videos.

Not too hard, right? The best way to learn is with repetition. But not too much, less you overwhelm yourself with a tidal wave of monotony. Alas, a little must be done. This next video simply covers some common syllables (there are actually several possible syllables that do not appear in Korean words). See if you can keep up, but if you can’t then have no fear! It takes some time. Fun fact: it takes an average of 86 times of hearing a word before that word is cemented into long term memory! Granted, you’ll remember it for years afterwards…

So how many syllables are possible, but do not appear in Korean words?
Well…let’s do the math:

Initial Consonants (19) * Middle Vowel (21) * Final Consonant + No Final (27 + 1) = 11,172.

Among these, there are only 3,192 possible syllable combinations in Korean phonotactics (the set of allowed arrangements or sequences of speech sounds in a given language):

Initial consonant 19 * Middle vowel 21 * (Final consonant 7 + No final 1) = 3,192.

This is because Korean phonetics merges different “morphological phonemes” in the final position into one among: ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, or ㅇ. “South Korean Standard” also specifies pronunciation rules where certain vowels are pronounced the same, and this renders 2,904 possible syllables to be pronounced distinctly in Standard Korean (sometimes known as the Seoul Standard).

Before you hit the next paragraph, I need to introduce you to Unicode which is:

“a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text expressed in most of the world’s writing systems. Developed in conjunction with the Universal Character Set standard and published in book form as The Unicode Standard, the latest version of Unicode contains a repertoire of more than 110,000 characters covering 100 scripts” – Wikipedia

But if you take a step back and include all obsolete consonants and vowels from Medieval Korean, the tally becomes much higher. Unicode 5.2 includes 124 initial consonants, 95 middle vowels and 137 final consonants. Several of these sounds are lost over time, while many others likely represent transcription symbols for foreign sounds. Now the rough Hangul syllable count becomes: 125 * 96 * 138 = 1,656,000. Among these, 16,989 of them (124*137) are impossible combinations for a simple reason that they lack a vowel (since we did not include that in the calculation). Thus, all possible Hangul syllable combination count is: 1,639,011, as of Unicode 5.2! Insanity!

So all in all, the total number of the theoretically possible Hangul syllables in Unicode is 11,172 by modern standards. Yet only the top 2,350 syllables occupy 99.9% of all that is used in conversation and reading. Mind blowing, right?

CultureQuote Overview: More Hangul
Lecture: Part 1, Part 2
Short Video: Korean 101

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