Something that many Korean learners are surprised to discover when first beginning to study the language is, that Hangul, the Korean alphabet actually is nothing like other alphabets.
Many assume that the Korean writing system has thousands of individual symbols like the Chinese characters, or that it might be a script that gradually evolved from a sort of hieroglyphs like it is the case with the Latin alphabet used for English.
Hangul is different because it was designed specifically to be the best possible script for the Korean language, but also a script that’s extremely easy to learn. (And the Korean alphabet IS quite easy to learn).
And with that out of the way, let’s address the main question of this article: Is Hangul, the Korean alphabet pronounced the way it’s written? Or in other words, is it a phonetic script?
Korean Hangul: An Almost Phonetic Alphabet
The Korean Hangul alphabet is CLOSE to being phonetic. Each letter represents a specific sound and sounds change due to specific rules and patterns. The pronunciation of written Korean isn’t entirely consistent, though, and sometimes words are pronounced while disregarding the rules. Hangul is also only phonetic in one direction, meaning that writing words after hearing them may be more difficult than pronouncing words after reading. This is due to several letters having similar, or almost similar sounds.
There can be several reasons for the inconsistencies in Korean pronunciation. Sometimes words are simply pronounced differently from how they’re spelled because their spelling is simply too difficult to pronounce. This fact has lead the Korean people to gradually accept other pronunciations of words, but without changing the official spelling in the dictionary.
This gradual change is something that’s quite common in modern languages. French, for instance, is spelled in a way that is much closer to how the language was pronounced centuries ago as opposed to how the language works today.
A language like Standard Arabic, on the other hand, is extremely consistent in its spelling, and words are pronounced exactly how they’re spelled. This might be due to the fact that the standardized Arabic language is based on historical sources and that it’s used mostly in formal, professional settings, whereas it’s the different local dialects of Arabic that people speak in their daily lives. This “protection” from vernacular use might have allowed for the language to remain almost unchanged over the centuries.
The same hasn’t been the case for Korean, and while the National Institute Of the Korean Language oversees yearly press-releases that explain the “correct” pronunciation of words, the Korean people don’t always follow the instructions.
So is the Korean alphabet a phonetic one?
Not completely – but it’s close to being phonetic compared to English and French, and it used to be even closer!