Korean Language Study

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The Korean alphabet is relatively easy to learn. But because Korean has so many consonants and vowels, writing it using the "Roman" characters we use in English (also known as "romanization" or more generally as "transliteration") presents more problems than for most languages. This is particularly true when politics become involved.1 It is highly recommended that students of Korean learn the alphabet as quickly as possible. See the Korean alphabet page, which has high-quality, printable pdf's (one each for consonants and vowels). These were created as learning aids, so the information is condensed, with minimal explanation.

A Cornell study involving six written languages found that only the Korean children could perform a certain task requiring the identification of syllables within words. Korean makes this easy because the writing system arranges the syllables into packets. Once you have some knowledge of the characters that make up the Korean alphabet, learn how these phonetic characters are combined into syllables within Korean words. Three major and three minor rules describe how it's done. A pdf (300k) for higher-quality printing is also available.

Read about the fascinating origins of the Korean alphabet, where ideas from linguistics and Eastern philosophy became an integral and systematic part of this invented alphabet. You may be intrigued by the Linguistic and Philosophical Origins of the Korean Alphabet. Download the pdf version (288k) for better quality printing.

Read the table clock, a lighthearted story written by a Korean Buddhist monk, which reveals an Eastern way of looking at things. The page is supplemented to facilitate intermediate level study of the Korean language. Also a 3-page pdf (91k).

1. When the French came to Korea, they spelled the two-syllable Korean capital city "Seoul" (Se-oul), reflecting their own sound system. They pronounced the first syllable "se" (rhymes with "je" as in "je m'appelle [name]"); this was the closest they had to the Korean so. The vowel in the second syllable ("oul") was written "ou." (Remember that in French, "u" is a different sound, a high vowel with rounded lips.) The Koreans assumed that "u" was the vowel in the second syllable, the second syllable thus being "ul," and so the rest ("seo") must be the first syllable. This mistake became part of the official Ministry of Education system, in spite of the fact that no language anywhere in the world at any known time (with the possible exception of a Middle English spelling) used "eo" for anything close to this vowel. After much ridicule and even an empirical study showing it's inferiority by a wide margin, in 1984 the Korean government finally scrapped the Ministry of Education system in favor of a modified version (with, for example, Cho's hacek rather than the breve) of the McCune-Reischauer system which virtually everyone publishing outside Korea had already been using anyway (a notable exception being Martin's "Yale" system for specialized linguistic studies). Unfortunately, a recent decision by the Korean government revived the widely reviled Ministry of Education system with some modifications (but preserving the mistaken "eo" spelling) under the name "Revised Romanization."    [back]

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This page updated 3/13/10
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