Korean is the official language of North and South Korea as well as the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province, in the northeastern part of China. There are about 80 million Korean speakers in the world, including in North and South Korea and in expatriate communities across the world, like Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, United States, post-Soviet countries, and also Philippines.

There are several names used: Hangungmal (used most often); Hangugeo or Guego, literally meaning “national language” (used more formally); urimal, meaning “our language” (used colloquially).


  • Modern Korean language is descended from the language of the Silla Kingdom, which unified the peninsula in the seventh century. 
  • The long lasting debate about the genealogical classification of the Korean language has led to the uncertain conclusions, due to the lack of one commonly accepted theory by all the researchers in the field. 
  • Some describe it as a language isolate, which “is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical (or “genetic”) relationship with other living languages; that is, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common to any other language.” 
  • Some classify is as an Altaic language, or as a relative of proto-Altaic. Altaic is a proposed language family that includes 66 languages spoken by about 348 million people, mostly in and around Central Asia and northeast Asia.
  • There are several dialects of Korean language, called mal (literally meaning “speech”), saturi, or bang-eon.
  • The standard South Korean language, called pyojuneo or pyojunmal is based on the dialect of Seoul and the surrounding areas. 
  • One of the most distinct differences between the dialects is stress and its use. Users of Seoul dialects speak with very little stress; standard South Korean is characterized by a very flat intonation; Gyeongsang dialect has a very pronounced intonation.
Traditional Korean Dialects
Standard dialect Where used
Seoul Seoul (서울), Incheon (인천), most of Gyeonggi (경기)


Regional dialect Where used
Gyeonggi limited areas of the Gyeonggi region
Chungcheong Daejeon, Chungcheong region
Gyeongsang Busan, Daegu, Ulsan, Gyeongsang region
Jeju Jeju Island/Province
Gwangju, Jeolla region




/i/ ㅣ, /e/ ㅔ, /ɛ/ ㅐ, /a/ ㅏ, /o/ ㅗ, /u/ ㅜ, /ʌ/ ㅓ, /ɯ/ ㅡ, /ø/ ㅚ
Vowels preceded by intermediaries or Diphthongs
/je/ ㅖ, /jɛ/ ㅒ, /ja/ ㅑ, /wi/ ㅟ, /we/ ㅞ, /wɛ/ ㅙ, /wa/ ㅘ, /ɯi/ ㅢ, /jo/ ㅛ, /ju/ ㅠ, /jʌ/ ㅕ, /wʌ/ ㅝ


High (close)
i UR; ü R
u UR; u R
e UR; ö R
o R
Low (open)
æ UR
  • /æ/ as in cat; /ü/ similar to the second vowel in statue; “shwa” first vowel in about; /u/ UR no equivalent in English - try pronouncing moo without rounding your lips.

Dictionary order:

  • ㅏ(ㅐ, ㅒ), ㅑ, ㅓ (ㅔ, ㅖ), ㅕ, ㅗ (ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ), ㅛ, ㅜ (ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ), ㅠ, ㅡ (ㅢ), ㅣ

Traditional vowel classification:

  • Traditionally, vowels are classified into three categories, that is yang (bright), yin(dark), and neutral. The classification is as follows:
 yang (bright)  ㅏ and ㅗ series  
ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅘ
yin (dark)
 ㅓ and ㅜ series  
ㅓ, ㅕ, ㅜ, ㅠ, ㅝ
 neutral  ㅡ and ㅣ  


  Bilabials Alveolar Post-alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal ㅁ /m/ ㄴ /n/   ㅇ /ŋ/ (syllable-final)  

Plosive and Affricate
* plain ㅂ /p/
ㄷ /t/
ㅈ /ʨ/ ㄱ /k/  
* tense ㅃ /p͈/ ㄸ /t͈/ ㅉ /ʨ͈/
ㄲ /k͈/
* aspirated ㅍ /pʰ/ ㅌ /tʰ/ ㅊ /ʨʰ/ ㅋ /kʰ/  
* plain   ㅅ /s/     ㅎ /h/
* tense   ㅆ /s͈/      

  ㄹ /l/      
  • The symbol <͈> (a subscript double straight quotation mark) is an IPA symbol that signifies the tensed consonants, such as: /p͈/, /t͈/, /k͈/, /ʨ͈/, /s͈/. Its use calls for a strong articulation, but also is used in the literature for faucalized voice. Faucalized voice is also called hollow or yawny voice (the Extended IPA symbol is Ħ, as in [aĦ]. It is produced with an expanded laryngeal cavity. 
  • The Korean consonants are characterized by the elements of stiff voice (how typical this is for faucalized consonants is not well known). They are produced with a partially constricted glottis and additional subglottal pressure in addition to tense vocal tract walls, laryngeal lowering, or other expansion of the larynx.

Dictionary order: 

ㄱ (ㄲ), ㄴ, ㄷ (ㄸ), ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ (ㅃ), ㅅ (ㅆ), ㅇ, ㅈ (ㅉ), ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅎ

In Korean, the consonant is always pronounced in combination with a vowel.

Consonants and Word Position
Word Initial Position
ㄱ /k/
ㄴ /n/
ㄷ /t/ ㄹ /l/ ㅁ /m/
ㅂ /p/

ㅅ /s/
ㅇ /ng/
ㅈ /ʨ/

ㅊ /ʨʰ/

ㅋ /kʰ/

ㅌ /tʰ/
ㅍ /pʰ/ ㅎ /h/
g,k n d,t r,l m b,p s (indicates an initial vowel) j ch k t p h

ㄲ /k͈/
ㄸ /t͈/
ㅃ /p͈/
ㅆ /s͈/   ㅉ /ʨ͈/          
kk   tt     pp ss   jj          

<͈> = the tensed consonants

Word Final Position
g,k n d,t r,l m b,p s ng j ch k t p h
kk (A buildup before an explosion of sound from “ㄱ”) (nj)   (lg)  
(gs) (nh)   (lm)                    


  • ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ are transcribed and pronounced as g, d, b respectively if they are followed by a vowel. If they are followed by a consonant or at the end of a word, then they are transcribed and pronounced as k, t, p.
  • ㄹ is transcribed and pronounced as r if it is followed by a vowel. If it is followed by a consonant or appear at the end of a word, then it is transcribed and pronounced as l. When ㄹ in a row it is transcribed as ll.
  • Initial ㅇ is never pronounced and it is a convention to write the initial ㅇ when a syllable begins with a vowel, as to keep the square shape of the character.
  • There is no hard and fast standard for transcription and pronunciation of double consonants ㄳ, ㄵ, ㄶ, ㄺ, ㄻ, ㄼ, ㄽ, ㄾ, ㄿ, ㅀ, ㅄ, and when they occur in a word or sentence, they are transcribed as they are pronounced in Korean.

Native pronunciation of the Korean consonants is available


  • Korean is an agglutinative language that uses agglutination extensively. Agglutination (Latin: agglutinare means “to glue together”) is the morphological process of adding affixes to the base of a word. 
  • Agglutinative languages tend to have a high rate of affixes/morphemes per word. 
  • Verbs in Korean language, known as “action verbs” or “dynamic verbs” (동사,,dongsa) are not conjugated using agreement with the subject, and nouns have no gender. Instead, verb conjugations depend upon the verb tense, aspect, mood, and the social relation between the speaker, the subjects, and the listeners, for example, different endings are used based on whether the subjects and listeners are friends, parents, or honored persons. 
  • Korean adjectives (형용사, hyeong-yongsa), known as “descriptive verbs” or “stative verbs”, conjugate similarly to verbs, but they are distinctly separate from dongsa (동사). 
  • English does not have an identical grammatical category, so the English translation of Korean adjectives may misleadingly suggest that they are verbs. For example, 붉다 (bukda) translates literally as “to be red” and 아쉽다 (aswipda) often best translates as “to lack” or “to want for”, but both are 형용사 (hyeong-yongsa, “adjectives”). 
  • Korean children learn nouns and verbs in a parallel manner, not sequentially. 


Korean Sentence Structure
  • Subject (Subject marker) + Verb
  • Subject (subject marker) + Object (Object marker) + Verb
  • Adjective + Subject (Subject marker) + Adjective + Object (Object marker) + Verb
  • Adverb + Verb
  • The understood subject is often dropped in Korean.

Speech level and honorifics

The relationship between speaker/writer and subject referent is reflected in honorifics, while that between speaker/writer and audience is reflected in speech level.


  • An honorific is a word or expression that conveys esteem or respect and is used in addressing or referring to a person. 
  • A speaker or writer usually uses special nouns or verb endings to indicate the subject's superiority. Generally, someone is superior in status if he/she is an older relative, a stranger of roughly equal or greater age, or an employer, teacher, customer, or the like. Someone is equal or inferior in status if he/she is a younger stranger, student, employee, or the like. 
  • Honorifics are usually placed immediately before or after the name of the subject (the most common honorifics in English are “Mr.”, “Mrs.” and “Ms.”)

Speech Level

  • There are no fewer than 7 verb paradigms or speech levels in Korean. Each level has its own unique set of verb endings which are used to indicate the level of formality of a situation. Unlike honorifics, speech levels are used to show respect towards a speaker's or writer's audience. 
  • The names of the 7 levels are derived from the non-honorific imperative form of the verb 하다 (hada, “do”) in each level, plus the suffix 체 ('che') which means “style.”
  • The highest 6 levels are generally grouped together as jondaemal (존대말), while the lowest level (haeche, 해체) is called banmal (반말) in Korean.


  • 60% percent of all Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese loanwords, a reflection of the cultural dominance of China over 2 millennia.  Sino – Korean words are the product of the Chinese influence. 
  • In many cases there are two words–a Chinese loanword and an indigenous Korean word, which mean the same thing. The Chinese-based word in Korean sometimes has a bookish or formal flavor. Koreans select one or the other variant to achieve the proper register in speech or in writing, and to make subtle distinctions of meaning in accordance with established usage. 
  • 35% of the vocabulary consists of the Native Korean words. 
  • The remaining 5% are the words borrowed from other languages, 90% of which comes from English. 
  • Due to the long-term American presence in South Korea many (city-dwelling) Koreans are used to seeing and hearing English on a daily basis. 
  • Korean has two number systems: one native Korean and one borrowed from the Chinese – Sino-Korean.

Writing System

  • Koreans call their alphabet Hangul. Like English, the letters of the Hangul alphabet represent individual sounds or phonemes. 

  • Hangul was invented by King Sejong of the Choson Dynasty, and introduced to the public in 1443 in Hun-Min-Jeong-Eum. King Sejong believed that Koreans needed an easy-to-learn system for writing their own language. Before King Sejong designed the Hangul, Koreans had either written in the Chinese language or had written Korean using Chinese characters to represent the Korean sounds in a complex system, Idu. 

  • The alphabet originally contained 28 letters composed of 11 vowels and 17 consonants. 

  • Hangul is a phonemic alphabet organized into syllabic blocks. Each block consists of at least two of the 24 hangul letters (jamo), with at least one of both the 14 consonants and 10 vowels. These syllabic blocks can be written horizontally from left to right as well as vertically from top to bottom in columns from right to left. Traditionally, Korean was written in columns from top to bottom, right to left.  Currently, Latin, horizontal style is much more favored and is now usually written in rows from left to right, top to bottom.  Originally, the alphabet had several additional letters

  • Modern Korean is written with spaces between words (a feature not found in Chinese or Japanese). Korean punctuation marks are almost identical to Western ones. 

  • Hanja, or 'Sino-Korean characters', is the Korean name for Chinese characters. More specifically, it refers to those Chinese characters borrowed from Chinese and incorporated into the Korean language with Korean phonetics. Chinese-based parts of the language still are present in modern Korean, for example the Korean number system. 

Implications for the SLP

Helpful Korean Phrases for the SLP 

  • /s/ becomes an alveolo-palatal [ɕ] before [j] or [i] for most speakers, and the tense fricative and all the affricates. At the end of a syllable, /s/ changes to /t/ (Example: beoseot (버섯) 'mushroom').
  • /h/ may become a bilabial [ɸ] before [o] or [u], a palatal [ç] before [j] or [i], a velar [x] before [ɯ], a voiced [ɦ] between voiced sounds, and remains a [h] elsewhere.
  • When ㅎ [h] is adjacent, a consonant is influenced and aspirated. 
  • /p, t, ʨ, k/ become voiced [b, d, ʥ, g] between voiced sounds. 
  • /l/ becomes alveolar flap [ɾ] between vowels, and [l] or [ɭ] at the end of a syllable or next to another /l/. 
  • Note that a written syllable-final 'ㄹ' /l/, when followed by a vowel or a glide (i.e., when the next character starts with 'ㅇ'), migrates to the next syllable and thus becomes [ɾ]. 
  • Traditionally, /l/ was not allowed at the beginning of a word. It disappeared before [j], and otherwise became /n/. However, the inflow of western loanword changed the trend, and now word-initial /l/ (mostly from English loanwords) is pronounced as a free variation of either [ɾ] or [l]. The traditional prohibition of word-initial /l/ became a morphological rule called “initial law” (두음법칙) in South Korea, which pertains to Sino-Korean vocabulary. Such words retain their word-initial /l/ in North Korea. 
  • All obstruents (plosives, affricates, fricatives) are unreleased [p̚, t̚, k̚] at the end of a word. 
  • Plosive stops /p, t, k/ become nasal stops [m, n, ŋ] before nasal stops. 
  • Theoretically, any consonant can be in the 받침 (syllable final) position. In reality, ㄸ /t/, ㅉ /ʨ͈/, and ㅃ /p͈/ are not used in syllable final (받침) position. 
  • Some of the consonants merge into one sound when they are in the syllable-final position. Orthographically, however, they remain different. 
  • When a final (non-nasal) consonant is followed by a nasal initial (ㄴ /n/,ㅁ /m/), the non-nasal consonant absorbs the nasality, keeping its place of articulation. Remember, 'ㅇ' /ng/ in the initial position is not a nasal consonant but a zero.
  • When ㄷ /t/ or ㅌ/tʰ/ is followed by 이 [i], a palatalization occurs and they become [ch] and [chʰ] respectively. 
  • Hangul spelling does not reflect these assimilatory pronunciation rules, but rather maintains the underlying morphology. 
  • Korean children learn nouns and verbs in a parallel manner, not sequentially.


    Original Contributors: Annaliese Beghtel and Gosia Nitka-Cox, Winter term 2008

    References and Resources