Korean Phonetics and Hangul


I learn topics better if I talk and write about them. If you have been following this blog for long, you’ll know that I am always willing to post half-learned knowledge here. Today, it will be the Korean alphabet, Hangul.

What I like about learning Korean (people, food, culture, letters, language) is that, like culture in general, it is a complicated, many faceted and subtle thing. It is a real challenge to get good at, and as I get better at it, I slowly get to know fellow thinkers in a FOSS, half a world away. It satisfies my love of people (in general and in particular) and my love of learning.

In addition, the better I learn Hangul and the Korean language, the easier it will be to navigate Seoul this September when I return for Free and Open Source for GeoSpatial.


In a previous post, I mentioned the value of learning a little bit of Hangeul (or Hangul) the Korean alphabet in advance of going to FOSS4G in Seoul this year. I will confess that, as much as there is English text on most signs in Seoul, flying into a nation that uses a completely different system of writing is an exercise in immediate illiteracy. At one point I spent 30 minutes comparing signs in the well labeled and signed Seoul Metropolitan Subway in order to get on the train going the right direction. I got it all figured out, looking carefully at the Hangul (which I couldn’t read), and after all my effort, still got on the train going the opposite direction of my intent. Fortunately, that particular line is a loop… .

But, you don’t have to be as ignorant on arrival as I was. A small amount of study will make you a pro. I’m currently working through Living Language: Korean Essentials, which does a fine job. Wikipedia is also not a bad place to start, and where I got all of my history which follows.

A little History:

Hangul is the official and native alphabet of the two Koreas. It’s called Hangul in South Korea meaning either “great script” or “Korean script”, and called Chosŏn’gŭl in North Korea, which (if my understanding is correct) means “Korean script” but also could be interpreted as “North Korean script”, as Choson is North Korea, but also a historical name for Korea.

Hangul was created during the Joseon Dynasty in the 15th century. It has mostly replaced the use of Chinese characters to write Korean, a borrowed writing system called Hanja.

Why Hangul:

The cool thing about Hangul, coming from a Roman alphabet, is that it is not much different. Unlike a Roman alphabet, syllables are blocks, much like Chinese and other writing systems, but the blocks are phonetic, so themselves can be decomposed into their requisite sounds.

There are a few rules for syllables.

  1. must always start with a consonant
  2. must always contain a vowel
  3. must be either consonant then vowel, or consonant then vowel then consonant (diphthongs and iotized vowels included here as vowels)

Let’s take my name, for example. My full first name is “Stephen” which is pronounced like “Steven”, or more specifically “Steevun” or “Steevin”. In Hangul, that converts approximately to:


Let’s break it down into it’s parts:

ㅅ is the character “siot”, which is the equivalent of the letter “s”. (So far so good). Note our third rule: we can’t have two consonants in a row in Hangul. The way around this is to use the character “eu” which is a simple line ㅡ (pronounced like i is in “bid” but further back in the mouth). In this case, the “eu” is unpronounced, it is just playing its role as the required vowel.

ㅌ is our next character. This is “tieut” and is pronounced like the “t” in “tip”. It is followed by ㅣwhich is pronounced like “ee” in “beep”. Putting these two character blocks together, we have “Stee”.

So far so good. Like with all languages, there is no one-to-one correspondence for all sounds. Korean doesn’t have a “v” sound, so the closest letter is used: ㅂ, which is called “bieup”, and sounds like the “b” in “boy”. What follows is another ㅡ or “eu”. In this case, I think it’s not acting in a silent capacity but as that short “i” like sound. Now we have “Steebi” with a short “i” sound.

Finally our “N” sound is fulfilled by “nieun” or ㄴ. On this syllable, I need to phone a friend — I’m not sure if the pronunciation of this get’s it’s own separate audible syllable or not. So, I’m not sure of the final sound is “Steebinin” or “Steebin”. For our sticklers for proper translation the proper way to Romanize this would be more like Stibeuneun (I think), or just translate it back to what it was in the first place “Stephen”.

Whew! Try this with your own name. Try going to https://translate.bing.com or https://translate.google.com and see if you can get a Korean version of your own name translated. Common English names (anyway) do have common translations, and you can double check by translating it back, though I don’t know about other languages. Or better yet, contact a friend, if you have one that speaks Korean. If not, make sure to come to FOSS4G in Korea this year. You’ll find many.



I was informed by Sanghee Shin that the final 는 is the suffix that flags a word as the subject in the sentence.

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