Phonetics: Hangul vs the English Alphabet

Hangul provides all the characters needed to represent every sound used in the Korean language. However, as the English alphabet comes from the Latin alphabet, the correlation between the spoken English language and the written alphabet can get quite complicated. Letters in the English alphabet are often responsible for multiple sounds and when reading and writing there are many rules and exceptions. Think “‘i’ before ‘e’, except for after ‘c’.”


Each letter in Korean only has one correct pronunciation. For example the two ‘o’s in the word October are pronounced differently despite being the same letter; in Korean two separate letters would be used to represent those two different sounds (the first ‘o’ is closest to ‘아’ and the second ‘o’ is silmiar to ‘오’ in Korean). To clearly represent the exact sounds needed to differentiate the first and second ‘o’ when writing in English other methods are used than the standard spelling. One method would be to use diacritical marks from the Latin alphabet: Äctōber. However, this method is not always the most useful as diacritics are not commonly used in the English and most people would not be able to read them (however diacritics are used regularly in other languages such as Vietnamese and Portuguese). Even Hangul once had diacritics called ‘방점’ (bang-jeom) to mark pitch accents, but they have since gone out of use. Another option would be to use pronunciation respelling: ok-toh-ber. In Korean the only exception is that ‘ㅇ’ (ieung) is silent when used at the beginning of a character block, but represents the ‘ng’ sound when used at the end of a character block.

So what about different letters that can be pronounced the same way? Both Hangul and the English alphabet have this issue. But now the problem is switched; it is known how to pronounce the word, but when it comes to spelling it there can be an issue. Take for example the spelling of names. The names ‘Karin’, ‘Karyn’, and ‘Karren’ are all pronounced the same way but have different spellings. So in this situation the solution is simple. When a woman named Karyn is asked for her name (say, at a certain coffee shop), she would simply reply, “Karyn, with a ‘y’.”


When Karyn goes to Korea, she uses her Korean name, 체현 (Che-hyun). However there are two ways to spell it: ‘체현’ and ‘채현’ (the first way uses ‘ㅔ’ and the second uses ‘ㅐ’, both pronounced as ‘eh’). Now in Korean each consonant has it’s name as letters in English have names. Think of when spelling Karyn spells out her Korean name in English, she would use the names of each letter rather than make the sound of each letter and say, “C-H-E-H-Y-U-N” (or, as this is in writing it might make more sense to write “see-aech-ee-aech-why-you-en”). But in Korean, only the consonants have names and for the vowels one would simply say the sound as the vowels do not have names. So when it comes to spelling ‘체현’ out loud there is an issue when it comes to the first vowel, ‘ㅔ’ as it does not have a name and can be easily confused with ‘ㅐ’. The solution is take apart the vowel even more. Visually the letters can be taken apart into other vowels in Korean: ‘ㅓㅣ’ and ‘ㅏㅣ’ (‘oh ee’ and ‘ah ee’). So when spelling her name out loud Che-hyun would say “치읓-에, 어이,-현” (chiut (for ㅊ, the consonant sound ch is called chiut)-eh, ah ee,-hyun)


Notice at this point the issues brought up apply mostly to vowels; meaning that consonants seem to have a more solid connection between speech and writing than vowels when it comes to English. Vowel sounds are made with an open mouth, whereas consonant sounds are made by trapping sounds with the mouth. The connection between speech and writing is much tighter in Korean as it acknowledges the many variations of sounds when pronouncing a sound with an open mouth. And of course, because hangul was made specifically for Korean the relationship between the written language and speech is much more intimate compared to English which uses an an alphabet derived from a selection of letters from another language.


  • bookmarked!!, I really like your blog!

  • Thanks a lot for sharing!

  • Very great post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and wanted
    to mention that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
    In any case I will be subscribing in your feed and I’m hoping you write once more
    very soon!

    • Soo Kim

      Thank you!

  • Thank’s great post.