Posted: 2010-12-22 / Updated: 2018-02-07
To study this grammar point, please make sure you understand the following:
In general, it is not a good idea to use Latin alphabets to represent the sounds of Korean vowels, because except for a few of them, such as 아 or 이, you will most probably not be able to pronounce the vowels correctly simply by looking at the romanization. Try to pronounce eu and listen to 으 and you will know what I am talking about.
So how can you learn? An alternative way is to “map” the vowels to some simple words in English which (closely) share the sounds. Again it will not work for all vowels, but at least we can have most of the vowels covered this way.
When you pronounce 아 and 어, make sure your mouth is wide open. Consider the vertical stroke as the length of the gap between your lips. When you pronounce 우, make your lips rounded and stick out your lips as much as you can. Think of the T shape as how you look at your lips from the top. For 오, it is Spanish o or French eau, if you know Spanish or French (which I have never learned). The difference between 어 and 오 is that you keep your lips rounded when pronouncing 오, but you lower your jaw and open your mouth when you pronounce 어.
The last simple Korean vowel 으 has no equivalence in English. When you pronounce 으, keep your lips unrounded (like the shape of the horizontal stroke). If you start with 이, which you shouldn’t have a problem to pronounce, move your tongue back slightly and keep your lips straight, you should be pronouncing 으. Try it out with our recording function when you are ready to do so.
Technically, complex vowels are called diphthongs which consist of semi-vowels (y or w) before the main vowels. It is straight forward to identify the y-type complex vowels, as they usually have 2 short strokes attached to the single long stroke.
The last complex vowel, 의, is quite tricky, not only that it doesn’t have 2 short strokes on a long stroke, but also that it can be pronounced in 3 different ways. When it is at the beginning of a word, such as 의사 (doctor), it is pronounced as 으 + 이. However, when it is used to represent the Korean Particle for Possessiveness, it is pronounced as 에. When it is neither a word-initial nor a possessive suffix, such as 거의 (almost), it is pronounced as 이.
For w-type complex vowels, it is simply a combination of 오 or 우 (for the “w” sound) and the main vowel. There is one exception though: 외 is not a combination of “w” and 이, but instead, a combination of “w” and 에. As a result, even with different spellings, 외, 왜 and 웨 essentially denote the same pronunciation.
The choice of 오 or 우 may look random, but the rule is that you can’t combine bright vowels with dark vowels. The vowel classification (as bright and dark) is important for Korean Verb and Adjective Conjugation, but for now you can simply take it as a fact that 아 and 오 are bright vowels, 어 and 우 are dark vowels, and 이 is considered neutral. As a result, you can see from the above table, 이 is the only case which may combine with both 오 (a bright vowel) or 우 (a dark vowel) to form a complex vowel.
Related Grammar Points
- Easy Ways to Memorize Korean Hangul - Consonants
- Stroke Order of Korean Hangul
- Pronunciations of Korean Consonants at the Beginning of a Word
- Resyllabification and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants
- Nasal Assimilation and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants
- Tensing and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants
- Voicing and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants