April 12, 2020•887 words
An overdue post on the Korean alphabet with reference to Week 1 of First Step Korean.
When King Sejong created the consonants, there were originally 17 consonants - but 3 have fallen out of use, leaving 14 that are still used today.
Usually, the total number of letters in the Korean alphabet is given as 40, with 19 consonants and 21 vowels.
These extra 5 (19 - 14 = 5) consonants are the 5 tense double consonants (ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅉ ㅆ).
As for the vowels, there are 11 complex vowelels that are formed by combining the 10 basic vowels.
5 Basic Symbols
Let's look at the 14 basic consonants, ignoring the tense consonants for now.
Even in the 14, you can say that there are really only 5 basic symbols. 14 basic consonants come from manipulations of 5 basic symbols listed first below.
- ㄱ, ㅋ
- ㄴ, ㄷ, ㅌ, ㄹ
- ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅍ
- ㅅ, ㅈ, ㅊ
- ㅇ, ㅎ
Where did these 5 symbols come from?
I mentioned this in passing in the previous post about the Korean Alphabets but only mentioned the shape of the tongue in the mouth, which applies to ㄱ and ㄴ.
They are from the shape of the articulatory organs when making the sound (mouth, tongue, etc.) - how each sound is vocalised.
- ㄱ, tongue (side view) - velar sound, e.g. /k/.
- ㄴ, tongue (side view) - alveolar sound, e.g. /t/.
- ㅁ, closed mouth - labial sound, e.g. /m/.
- ㅅ, teeth - dental sound. (In this case, this set in IPA usually are considered alveolar or post-alveolar sounds in terms of place of articulation, but are fricatives or affricates, while most of the previous were stops, or nasals. This is why when letters in this group are in the final position, they take the same /t/ sound as those in the second group - more precisely, all coronals collapse to [t̚].)
- ㅇ, throat - glottal sound. (Here, the ng sound is actually a velar sound, though h is indeed a glottal sound.)
Apparently, each symbol also has an association with a given element, from Eastern philosophy (I threw in the elements' associated day of the week as well, but I don't think there is a link here):
- ㄱ, tree/wood (Thursday)
- ㄴ, fire (Tuesday)
- ㅁ, soil/earth (Saturday)
- ㅅ, metal/gold (Friday)
- ㅇ, water (Wednesday)
ㄱ (giyeok, /g/) → (add one stroke) → ㅋ (kieuk, /k/)
ㄴ (nieun, /n/) → (add one stroke) → ㄷ (digeut, /d/) → (add one more stroke) → ㅌ (tieut, /t/)
ㅁ (mieum, /m/) → (add vertical strokes) → ㅂ (bieup, /b/)
ㅁ (mieum, /m/) → (add horizontal strokes) → ㅍ (pieup, /p/)
ㅅ (siot, /s/) → (add one stroke) → ㅈ (jieut, /j/) → (add one more stroke) → ㅊ (chieut, /ch/)
ㅇ (ieung, silent in pos. 1) → (add two strokes) → ㅎ (hieut, /h/)
(The intermediate letter ㆆ is one of those consonants that's no longer in use. Now, according to Wikipedia, there is meaning that goes into the strokes, and it's not an arbitrary adding of lines.)
In the course, it lists 3 exceptions to the above, of which only the first is still in use. The course lists them as such (within the brackets is the name given in this Wikipedia article):
- ㄹ (rieul) the palato-alveolar sound ("semi-coronal")
- ㅿ, the semi-dental sound ("semi-sibilant")
- ㆁ, the velar sound (sonorant velar)
The notes from my class actually puts ㄹ together with the ㄴ group, which this course does as well in the initial grouping of the consonants into 5 groups. So it's kind-of in the group but not really. Rhotic consonants are always pretty... unique.
Vowels are identified by their sound values, but consonants have names, which I've included above.
The naming of the consonants are such that in the first syllable, the initial position is the consonant, and in the second syllable of the name, the final position is the consonant. They were not named by King Sejong, but Choe Sejin in 1527.
It can be challenging to hear the difference because such differentiations between the tense and lax consonants don't exist in English.
When we were taught these consonants in my class, the teacher said that the tense sounds exist in Mandarin Chinese. This made it easier for me to understand how they were supposed to sound.
However, if you were to give me a minimal pair test, I tend to get some of them wrong still (such as when revising my Anki flashcards).
The sounds are never as clear and as pure as they are supposed to sound normally, so it remains a challenge.
Oh, and ㅅ (siot) and ㅆ (ssang-siot) are the worst. ㅅ simply doesn't exist in the languages I know, so... unless exaggerated, I can't really tell.
(The tense consonants have the name 쌍 - ssang - plus the name of the basic consonant. 쌍 means "double".)