Korean Alphabet 1 - Basic Vowels

This is about the Korean Alphabet, I guess about the history and how the letters were formed and whatever else I find interesting.

The Korean alphabet (Hangeul) was created in 1443 by King Sejong (referred to as King Sejong the Great - he is highly respected).

I've actually found it pretty fascinating ever since I realised that the consonants reflected the shape of the tongue in the mouth (in the case for ㄱ, ㄴ) when making that consonant sound. I think it's genius, and it also helped me to remember (memorise) the consonants when I was starting out, since I already knew IPA and the tongue positions also made sense.

I started with First Step Korean today mostly out of boredom and it was really fun to learn this.

It was briefly covered in my Korean class, but not in detail since... I guess it's not really critical to learning the language.


10 Basic Vowels

There are 3 basic symbols used to make the vowels, from the 3 elements of the universe in Chinese metaphysics.

  1. Sky (or heaven). This is considered "Yang" (+) - "bright". Symbol: • (the dot symbolising the sun in the heavens)
  2. Earth - flat ground. This is considered "Yin" (-) - "dark". Symbol: ㅡ (pronounced /ɯ/ and romanised as eu) - This is one vowel on its own.
  3. Man - standing up. This is neutral. Symbol:ㅣ (pronounced /i/ and romanised as i). This is a second vowel on its own.

In Chinese philosophy:

  1. Right/Above is "Yang" (+) - "bright"
  2. Left/Below is "Yin" (-) - "dark"


  • Light vowels are those where the "sun" symbol is to the right/above of the man/earth symbols.
  • Dark vowels are those where the "sun" symbol is to the left/below of the man/earth symbols.

(This light/dark vowel association to Yin-Yang is new to me, but it... goes to show how logical this all is.)

The remaining 8 vowels come from attaching the dot "Sky" to the sides of "Earth" and "Man".

The first 4 ("first-derived vowels") are from attaching the dot to the left and right of "Earth" and "Man". They areㅓ (/ʌ/), ㅜ (/u/), ㅗ (/o/), ㅏ (/a/) - over time the dot has become a short line.

The next 4 ("second-derived vowels") are formed by attaching the two dots to each side. They are ㅕ (/jʌ/), ㅠ (/ju/), ㅛ (/jo/),ㅑ (/ja/).

In terms of pronunciation, they combine ㅣ ("Man") which is /i/ with the respective first-derived vowel, e.g.ㅣ +ㅏ= ㅑ(/i/ and /a/ and you get /ja/).

Remember in the post for Lesson 12 I commented I didn't get why 마시다 conjugated in the present-polite tense gives 마셔요? Why 시 becomes 셔? It boils down to me not understanding that l + ㅓ = ㅕ.

That's just the way it combines. The ㅓ comes from the conjugation form, since it is V-어요. I didn't get why the l when added to ㅓ forms ㅕ and not ㅔ, but if you put it in this context of how the vowels were formed, then it makes sense.

Now, the order of these alphabets. I've not actually bothered to memorise it since it's not been needed so far, and there were just too many.

But let's start with 4. It's light-dark, light-dark, but starting with left/right first, then top/bottom.

If you add in the second-derived vowels, they go after their respective first-derived counterparts:

And then we just add in the last 2:

  1. l

For now, that's the order, with 10 vowels. (The rest are slotted inbetween these.)

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

More from journey
All posts