Korean Alphabet 3 - Other Vowels

This is the last part on the Korean alphabet (at least for now). There's much more that can be said especially when looking at the history and its design, but I'll leave that for another time in the (far) future.

Since vowels is a separate topic, I split this into its own post from Part 2 which covers the consonants.

In Part 1, the 10 basic vowels were introduced. The Korean alphabet has a total of 21 vowels today, so we will look at the remaining 11.

There are two classes of vowels: monophthongs and diphthongs.

First, the monophthongs. These are "pure vowel sounds", so you can think of them as static vowels where the place of articulation is fixed (mónos means "single" in Greek).

By contrast, diphthongs are a combination of two vowel sounds, and are also known as gliding or moving vowels.

In the basic vowels, all the 4 "second-derived" vowels such as ㅠ are diphthongs (they have the additional /y/ sound in addition to the first-derived vowel sound). The other 6 are monophthongs.

Now, let's look at the complex vowels. First, the monophthongs.


  1. ㅐ- ae - as in "cat" or "apple"
  2. ㅔ - e - as in "pen" or "enemy"
  3. ㅚ - oe (we) - as in "weight" or "wait"
  4. ㅟ - wi - as in "we"

Note that the English words given are approximations. The first is from the First Step Korean course; the second is from my lesson notes. (They both used "we" for ㅟ.)

Depending on the dialect of English, the pronunciations are bound to differ. I would use IPA to describe them to be more precise.

The interesting thing about ㅐand ㅔ is that they pretty much sound the same now. In the past, ㅐ was [ɛ] - (open-mid front unrounded vowel) and ㅔwas [e] - (close-mid front unrounded vowel), but both are now pronounced as an intermediate between the two: a mid front unrounded vowel [e̞] or [ɛ̝].

ㅚ is given as /ø/ and romanised as oe as indicated. This makes it easy for me because in German, the ö, which also represents the same sound value /ø/, is also otherwise written as oe. However, in modern pronunciation, it's pronounced [we]. More on this later.


The last 7 vowels are combinations of the ones that we have seen.

  1. ㅒ - yae - (ㅣ + ㅐ)
  2. ㅖ- ye - (ㅣ + ㅔ)
  3. ㅘ - wa - (ㅗ +ㅏ)
  4. ㅙ - wae - (ㅗ +ㅐ)
  5. ㅝ - wo - (ㅜ +ㅓ)
  6. ㅞ - we - (ㅜ +ㅔ)
  7. ㅢ - ui - (ㅡ +ㅣ)

ㅒ and ㅖ also sound the same, given that ㅐ and ㅔ sound the same.

The First Step Korean course states that 왜 and 웨 are hard to distinguish. That's what I know too, but when I first learnt all these vowels, there was no separation by monophthong or diphthongs, and we were taught that apart from just 왜 and 웨 sounding similar, 외 also sounds like them.

The way to reconcile this is to realise that in today's context in how it's largely pronounced (especially, if I recall correctly, by the younger generation) as [we] basically means that it's not a monophthong anymore but a diphthong just like the other two.

In this course, they said there's no need to worry about differentiating them because there are not many words that use these letters. That's true.

The way my teacher in my class said it was, think of it as spelling differences that you simply have to memorise. After all, English has many words where the pronunciation can be the same, but the letters used to represent that sound are different (she gave the example of "apple" and "enemy" which were given as examples above).

This is why IPA is helpful when representing the sound values.

왜 and 웨 used to drive me crazy for another reason in the past when I'd just started learning the alphabet and was trying to remember how these syllables were spelt. They sounded the same, but why was one using ㅗ and the other using ㅜ?

In the end, it's become something that I've also memorised, and it no longer bothers me. I know ㅜ + ㅐ is not a valid combination, and neither is ㅗ + ㅔ. (If you try to type it on the keyboard - you can't; it will break into the next syllable automatically.)

And finally, once again touching on this part that confused me previously: ㅔ +ㅣ form ㅖ as a morpheme, but as a phoneme, the sound of ㅔ is not by i-mutation of ㅓ [ʌ]. l + ㅓ = ㅕ

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