K-Pop Starter Kit: A Crash Course in Hangul Vowels

Personally, I find Korean vowels slightly easier than consonants in terms of speaking because they’re a *little* more straightforward. In English, the pronunciation of each vowel varies wildly depending on the word and there’s not always a logical answer. Korean vowels, on the other hand, tend to have one specific sound (with a few exceptions). However, I think this post might make things trickier since I need to use a lot of Romanization. Remember when I said Koreans sometimes Romanize the same word or letter in different ways? This is especially true with vowels. So I’m going to try my best to provide the official spelling along with all the other ones you’ll probably see, and once again I’ll mostly be using K-pop idols’ names as examples. But just like last time, please remember that not every name I show you is going to be Romanized the “correct”way (even though they’re the “official” spellings idols and their companies use.)

Some Disclaimers Before We Begin (Same as Last Time)

Please keep in mind that these posts are supposed to be a VERY basic introduction to Korean language. My Korean level is probably somewhere around intermediate, and I’m nowhere near fluent. Korean is a wonderful and fascinating language, but it’s also very complicated with many nuances that I’m either not aware of or don’t fully understand yet. I’m doing my best to share all that I know and have learned, but I don’t personally feel qualified to be giving formal and/or official lessons. Plus I’m an American learning Korean, so I can only provide you with my own experience and perspective – I certainly don’t have the same insight and knowledge as an actual Korean person. So I’ll only be writing about beginner level elements I can confidently explain, but I’d be happy to point you to some of my learning resources if you want to know more or start seriously studying.

I know I said before that you should minimize using Romanization as much as possible, but this is one of those times where you just can’t avoid it. Even my Korean teacher, who constantly steered me away from Romanization, showed me the corresponding Latin Script letters and spellings when I was first learning Hangul. Plus these are written posts, so I kind of have to rely on it. So, I’ll be using Romanization for my column – especially the posts where I talk about the alphabet and how to read Korean – but I really do recommend phasing it out once you’re more comfortable with Hangul.

Korean Vowels

Korean vowels are often split into two categories: simple vowels, and complex vowels which combine two simple vowels together. Pronunciation-wise, you can also classify them by monophthongs (vowels with one specific syllable) and diphthongs (two vowels or sounds combined into one syllable). Since this is a written post, I’m categorizing the vowels based on Hangul letters and NOT (necessarily) pronunciation. This is because I want to make a clearer connection between the simple vowels and how they form complex vowels. You can see what I mean in the chart I made below. Also, please note that not everyone uses the exact same breakdown of vowels. The way my Korean teacher taught me is different from the books I use for self-study and the Revised Romanization guidelines. So while this breakdown might not be technically “official,” I think this is the easiest way for me to explain and help beginners understand.

Simple Vowels

The vowel “ㅏ” corresponds to the English letter “a.” However, it is NOT “a” as in “acorn” or “apple.” It’s always pronounced as “ah” – like if you said, “Ah, I see!” Normally, “ㅏ” is Romanized as “a.” However, you might occasionally see people write it as “ah.” This is mostly for stylistic purposes, because sometimes it looks awkward to have two vowels directly next to each other. For example, “Ahin” looks a little nicer than “Ain.” However, the “h” is not supposed to be pronounced in these cases.

ㅓvs. ㅗ

NOTE ABOUT “ㅓ”: While it’s usually pronounced as “eo,” the pronunciation slightly changes if it’s immediately followed by certain consonants. In these cases, “ㅓ” sounds a little more like “uh.” For example, “성” is similar to the English word “sung.” Because of this, it’s common to see “ㅓ” Romanized as either “eo” or “u.” (I don’t know why, but I guess it’s a matter of preference.) So names like “Inseong” and “Jisung” both have “성” in them, but they’re just spelled differently.

NOTE ABOUT “ㅗ”: Like “ㅏ,” you might occasionally see “ㅗ” with an “h” added to the end – making the spelling “oh” instead of “o.” The most common case is with people who have the last name “오,” like “Oh Sehun.” Again, this seems to be purely for stylistic purposes and the “h” would not be pronounced.

The difference between “ㅓ” and “ㅗ” is probably one of the biggest problems for native English speakers (or at least American ones like me.) My Korean elementary school students sometimes make fun of how I pronounce their names, and that’s usually because I have trouble with these two vowels. To me, both of them sound like “o” – but to Koreans, they’re very distinct vowels that are quite different from each other. Personally, I think “ㅓ” sounds a lot more like the “o” that I’m used to. It’s not the quite the same, but you pronounce them both by opening your mouth and speaking from the back of your throat. And I don’t think there’s really a sound that corresponds to the Korean “ㅗ” in American English. When Koreans say “ㅗ,” they really close their mouths and round their lips in a way that we’re not used to doing all that frequently. The video below gives a really good explanation on why English speakers might find this so hard, and has some good tips on how to practice.

“ㅜ” is the Korean version of “u.” However, it is NOT “u” as in “unicorn” or “umbrella.” Phonetically, it actually sounds more like “oo” as in “too.” You might notice that some Korean people who have “우” in their names use “w” and spell it as “woo” or “wu.” This does not mean you should pronounce “우” with a “w” like you would in English. A name like “Wooyoung” would still typically be pronounced with “oo” and NOT “woo.” It’s another example of something looking nicer stylistically – “Wooyoung” looks better than “Uyoung” or “Ooyoung.”

The Vowels That Start With “Y” (ㅑ/ㅕ/ㅛ/ㅠ)

You might have noticed that the four consonants I previously introduced (ㅏ/ㅓ/ㅗ/ㅜ) are all made with one long line and one short line. If you write these consonants so that they have two short lines, then that’s effectively adding a “y” sound: “a” becomes “ya,” “eo” becomes “yeo,” “o” becomes “yo,” and “u” becomes “yu.” That’s pretty much the only difference, since the mouth shapes effectively stay the same. There’s only one alternative spelling to note, and that’s with the word “영.” Technically, this should be Romanized as “yeong.” However, most people with “영” in their names choose to Romanize it like the English word “young” – Minyoung, Sooyoung, Youngmin, Youngjae, etc.

“ㅣ” is the Korean version of “i,” but it’s NOT “i” as in “ice cream.” Phonetically, it sounds more like “ee” as in “see” or “three.” (Actually, I don’t think that the English “i” naturally exists in Korean. I’ve only seen it when they take English words and convert them into Hangul, and then they use “아이” – so “ice cream” is written as “아이스크림.”)

This vowel is one of the trickiest for English speakers, because it’s not a sound we use a lot (if at all). However, it’s very common in French. If you’ve ever heard the French word “bleu” (blue), “ㅡ” kind of sounds that “eu” part. (Which is also how it happens to be Romanized.) But it’s definitely hard for me to describe “ㅡ” beyond that, so I highly recommend checking out the video below to really get that pronunciation right.

Even though the “ㅡ” sound doesn’t exist in English, I’ve noticed that Koreans tend to add it a lot when they convert English words to Hangul. For example: “cheese” is “치즈 (chijeu),” dance is “댄스 (daenseu),” “Christmas” is “크리스마스 (keuriseumaseu),” etc. I think it’s because Korean consonants are generally pronounced in a much softer way compared to English ones, so it’s their way of making those sounds more emphatic.

Complex Vowels

ㅐ vs. ㅔ

This is another question that often comes up with Korean beginners, because these consonants look different but often sound exactly the same. For example, take NCT members Jaemin and Jeno. When you look at their names, you can see that they’re spelled differently in both Hangul and Romanized Korean. But if you watch NCT Dream videos, you probably won’t hear a difference in how the members pronounce “재” or “제” – it will still probably sound like “Jay” either way. According to my teacher, there was a pronunciation difference between “ㅐ” and “ㅔ” a long time ago. But in modern times, most Korean people say them pretty much the same way. So don’t worry if you’re using the same sound for both vowels, because most Koreans probably won’t notice at all or even care. This has been confirmed by my Korean teacher, my Korean friends and coworkers, and the Korean woman in the video below.

ㅒ vs. ㅖ

This is another example of vowels with two short lines, which means you add a “y” at the beginning of the vowel. Much like “ㅐ” and “ㅔ,” there’s no major pronunciation difference between the two – they both sound kind of similar to the English “yay.” But there are exceptions, and the most common one is with the word “혜” which is Romanized as “hye.” In this case, you don’t pronounce the “y” sound. So for example, the name “예리” is Romanized as “Yeri” and pronounced with the “y.” However, the name “혜리” or “Hyeri” is not “Yeri” with an “h” in the front (if that makes sense.)

The Difference Between ᅬ, ᅫ, and ᅰ

At last, we’ve arrived at the final set of complex vowels that sound almost exactly the same. And once again, you can take comfort in the fact that you can basically use the same pronunciation for all of them – in (American) English, it sounds kind of like “way.” (For combined vowels, you DO pronounce the “w.” I couldn’t find any videos that focus specifically on these three vowels, but I did find one that speaks about them as well as the other complex vowels I’ve covered so far. The woman in the video is mostly talking about spelling differences, but I think it’s helpful to listen to her voice and hear how a native speaker pronounces things.

The one vowel I do want to briefly talk about is “ᅬ,” because I find this one the most difficult of the three. First of all, it’s Romanized as “oe” with no “w” in sight. So, the English speaker in me looks at that and thinks of it as an “o” sound, like “foe” or “Edgar Allen Poe.” And on top of that, there are times when “ᅬ” is pronounced without the “w” depending on the consonant that precedes it. The most common example is the last name 최, which is often spelled as “Choi.” That makes it look kind of like “choy” to me – as in the vegetable “bok choy” – but it’s actually “chay” as “chase.” So, this one can definitely be confusing!

This is the most straightforward of the three complex vowels using “ㅗ,” so it doesn’t need much explanation. It’s the combination of “ㅗ” and “ㅏ,” which results in “wa.”

This vowel is also fairly straightforward. It’s the combination of “ㅜ” and “ㅓ,” which results in “wo.” It’s slightly similar to when you say “whoa” in English, though your lips should be a little more rounded and pursed.

This vowel is the combination of “ㅜ” and “ㅣ,” which results in “wi.” It sounds like the English pronoun “we.” It’s not too complicated, though the “w” sound isn’t always super strong depending on what consonant comes before it (or if there is one at all.)

This is the last potentially difficult vowel, because it has THREE different pronunciations depending on the situation.
1. The standard pronunciation is “ui,” which is a sound that doesn’t exist in the English language and I can’t really describe in words – please refer to the video below for pronunciation help.
2. If ᅴ is not the first word in the sentence or if there’s a consonant before it, it’s pronounced as “ㅣ.” Some Romanizations and names will then change the spelling to “ee” to emphasize the difference – for example, the name “Heechul” (회철) looks less confusing than “Huichul.”
3. When used in the possessive form, it’s pronounced as “ㅔ.”

And that’s everything I can tell you about Hangul! I know that it’s a lot, but hopefully it’s been helpful for understanding the letters and getting a basic idea of their pronunciations. Next time, I’ll cover how to read Hangul and make words!

NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here. The other images in this post are ones I made myself, so please don’t reuse or repost them without my permission either.

Other Sources: YouTube, Hailey _Your Korean Friend, Talk To Me In Korean, Your Korean Saem

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: