Even though learning hangul, the Korean alphabet, will make your life in Korea infinitely easier, I know a lot of people can’t be bothered to study a language for a place they’ll only live for a year or so. That’s why I’m going to teach you how to pronounce words in Korean, the easy way!
One thing that I can’t stress enough is that pronunciation is so important in the Korean language. Even if words look similar, they can have completely different meanings. Here’s one of my favorite examples: 살사 / 설사. There’s only one letter different, but there’s a huge difference in meaning. The first one is salsa (dancing) and the second, seolsa, means diarrhea.
Hangul is actually one of the best alphabets in the world. Each letter maintains the same sound no matter what word it’s used in, which makes it very easy to learn. English is actually very difficult to read because we have words like “read” that you pronounce differently depending on context.
The problem with hangul isn’t actually on the Korean side, it’s the English romanization. It doesn’t always make sense and it often leads to the absolute butchering of Korean words.
The Secret to Pronunciation
The English signs in Korea lie to you. Well… to your brain, at least. If you can teach your brain to read the Korean sounds instead of the English letters, you will have a much better grasp on what you’re saying… and Korean people will too!
The problem lies in the vowels.
The column on the left is what you’ll see in the English romanizations of Korean words, the middle column is the Korean letter and the final column is how to pronounce it. I’ve highlighted the sounds that are the trickiest.
- Let’s first talk about the A. It’s a soft A sound so imagine it has an H on the end… ‘ah’. For example: the word man should be pronounced mahn. More examples of this sound are father, arm, on, box.
- An easy rule for the O sound is that it is almost always pronounced as a long O sound. As long is there’s not another vowel attached to the O, it will always be pronounced ‘oh’. Most foreigners I know mistakenly confuse the A and O sounds. If you see an O, it’s never pronounced ‘ah’.
- EO is probably the trickiest of all of the sounds. Every time you see it, change it out in your head with a short U sound (uh). Some examples of this sound are ugly and run.
- U is almost always pronounced like ew or oo (example: tube, root). This rule of pronunciation is pretty standard for road signs and names of cities/areas. Note: Occasionally people or companies with an EO sound in their name will change it to a U. Hyundai is a good example of that.
Here are some commonly mispronounced words…
Most foreigners know how to pronounce this correctly, but let’s just use it as practice: bool-go-gee
Dumplings are delicious, but the Korean word for them is often pronounced incorrectly. Remember, man is pronounced softly so it sounds more like mahn… or maybe changing it to an O in your head will help with pronunciation. Mondu makes much more sense in English, doesn’t it?
This is one of the words I hear mispronounced most often. It’s that pesky EO sound again! A lot of the foreigners I know pronounce it sort of like In-chee-on. Remember… change that EO sound with uh… or make your brain read it as Inchun.
Oooh this is a tricky one! Most foreigners I know pronounce this word exactly like the English word soul. You might be surprised to find that this isn’t the correct way to say Seoul. In fact, Seoul has both the EO and the U sound. The correct pronunciation is actually Seo-ul or Suh-ool. It’s a really difficult pronunciation for most English speakers, which is why we typically pronounce it ‘Soul’.
Busan’s most famous beach is a good example of the U sound (ew) being mistaken for the EO (uh) sound. The correct pronunciation is Hae-oon-dae. Note: It’s hae, not hi and dae, not die.
I think each English speaking country pronounces this company’s name differently. In the US we drop the Y. I always get strange looks in the US when I say it the Korean way: hyeon-day.
In the US we incorrectly pronounce this word tie-kwon-doe… In Korean it’s actually tay-kwon-doe.
The last word is one that a lot of my expat friends have great difficulty with. Hopefully after this article you’ve learned enough to pronounce it on your own. If not, maybe another breakdown would be easier. Imagine the EO is actually OU… G+young = Gyoung
Gyoung + joo = Gyeoungju