Hangul is an alphabetic script widely used to write the Korean language, and was originally developed in 1446 by Joseon Dynasty ruler Sejong the Great and his ministers to improve literacy. As the only widely used script in the world to be based on linguistic features, I thought it would be cool to have a go at adapting it to write English.
The end result is a slightly hacky phonetic system that I call Yongogul (from the Korean words for ‘English language’ and ‘writing’ put together), which fully utilises all letters in standard Korean hangul. Nevertheless, it works pretty well and visually looks like actual written Korean.
To adapt a script for a different language, we must consider its features and limitations. Hangul has 19 initial consonants, 21 medial vowels and 28 final consonants. That seems like a lot of consonants to play around with, until you realise that:
- Korean hangul does not distinguish between ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds (ㄹ is pronounced either ‘r’ or ‘l’ depending on context)
- Korean hangul does not have letters for ‘f’, ‘v’, ‘sh’ as in ‘share’, ‘zh’ as in ‘azure’, ‘z’, and ‘th’ as in both ‘the’ or ‘thank’.
- The Korean language has a lot of diphthongs starting with ‘y’ or ‘w’, compared with English
- Not all consonants can be located in final position
Another consideration is that all Korean Hangul syllables are written in a single block. Here’s a picture depicting the ways in which letters can be arranged:
Assigning the vowels
With this in mind, let’s start with the vowels. The 5 basic vowels shall be almost exactly as in Korean:
- ㅏ = /a/
- ㅓ = /ə/
- ㅣ = /ɪ/
- ㅗ = /ɔ/
- ㅜ = /ʊ/
Some of the remaining vowel letters represent diphthongs that are seldom used in English. But since I’m not attempting to faithfully imitate Korean orthography, I’ll just take these letters and use them to represent other English vowels. (I’m calling this a hack for a reason) As an example, one of the vowels, ㅑ, is pronounced ‘ya’ in Korean hangul. But since ‘ya’ is not a common English vowel and the vowel sound in ‘can’ is far more common, I assigned ㅑ to that vowel. This process was repeated for the other 4 English monophthongs, resulting in the following:
- ㅑ = /æ/
- ㅕ = /e/
- ㅢ = /iː/
- ㅗ오 = /ɔː/
- ㅗ우 = /uː/
You might have noticed that I chose to write /ɔː/ and /uː/ as 2 letters. This is because there are not a lot of situations where /ɔ/ and /ɔː/ contrast with each other, as well as /u/ and /uː/, and it would be simpler to just write /ɔː/ as ㅗ and /uː/ as ㅜ in most cases.
Writing ‘y’ or ‘w’
Korean Hangul does not have a dedicated letter for ‘y’ or ‘w’. To get around this, Yongogul uses 이 to represent ‘y’ and 우 to represent ‘w’, written in their own syllable block.
E.g. yacht (/jɔt/) = 이옽, yay (/jeɪ/) = 이에, wet (/wɛt/) = 우옅
If there’s another consonant before ‘w’ or ‘y’, include it in the 1st syllable block. E.g. (/kwɛt/) = 쿠옅
For the diphthongs, it is helpful to re-examine some of the existing Hangul vowels from a historical perspective. When originally conceived, the letter ㅐ was originally pronounced like ‘eye’ (/aɪ/), but sound changes in the Korean language have changed its pronunciation to ‘eh’ (/ɛ/). Since ㅐ is literally ㅏ /a/ and ㅣ /ɪ/ put together, and /aɪ/ is a common English diphthong, I assigned ㅐ to that diphthong. The remaining English diphthongs can then easily be assigned to their corresponding hangul vowels.
- ㅐ = /aɪ/
- ㅔ = /eɪ/
- ㅚ = /ɔɪ/
- ㅠ = /ju/
- ㅝ = /ʊə/, /wə/
- ㅛ = /oʊ/
- ㅒ = /aʊ/ (hacky compromise, by analogy with ㅐ as both start with the /a/ sound)
- ㅖ = /ɪə/ (hacky compromise, by analogy with ㅔ)
- ㅙ = /waɪ/
- ㅞ = /weɪ/
- ㅘ = /wa/
- ㅟ = /wɪ/
Most consonant assignments were fairly straightforward and have the same sound values as in Korean. The letter ㄹ is assigned to the ‘r’ sound, as there are more instances of ‘r’ than ‘l’ in English.
- ㅁ = /m/
- ㅂ = /b/
- ㄴ = /n/
- ㄷ = /d/
- ㅇ = /ŋ/ (final consonant only)
- ㄱ = /g/
- ㅈ = /dʒ/
- ㅅ = /s/
- ㄹ = /ɹ/
- ㅎ = /h/
- ㅍ = /p/
- ㅌ = /t/
- ㅋ = /k/
- ㅊ = /tʃ/
As for the doubled counterparts, they were assigned as shown:
- ㅃ /f/ as the fricative version of ㅍ /p/, the unvoiced version of ㅂ /b/
- ㅉ /θ/ as the fricative version of ㅌ /t/, which forms part of ㅊ /tʃ/
- ㄸ /ð/ as the fricative version of ㄷ /d/
- ㅆ /ʃ/ as a palatalised version of ㅅ /s/
- ㄲ /l/ as an abbreviation of ㄹㄹ (a digraph commonly used in Korean hangul to write /l/ between vowels. Think of ㄲ as the chopped-off top half of ㄹㄹ)
Note: ㅃ, ㅉ, and ㄸ cannot be located in final position, as Korean Hangul does not do so. To indicate final position, it needs to be in a separate syllable block with the null vowel (more on that soon).
At this point I’ve run out of Hangul letters for the last 3 English consonants, so I’ll have no choice but to use digraphs for those ones.
- ㅂㅎ /v/ (ㅂ is commonly used to transcribe ‘v’ in Korean)
- ㅈㅎ /z/ (ㅈ is commonly used to transcribe ‘z’ in Korean)
- ㅆㅎ /ʒ/ (ㅆ /ʃ/ is the closest sound to /ʒ/)
So here’s a quick recap of all the Yongogul letters:
Guide: /IPA phoneme/ Letter (example word with letter’s indicated phoneme in bold)
|/a/~/ʌ/ ㅏ (sun)||/æ/ ㅑ (can)|
|/ə/~/ɜ/ ㅓ (sure)||/ɛ/~/e/ ㅕ (red)|
|/ɪ/ ㅣ (bid)||/iː/ ㅢ (bead)|
|/ɔ/ ㅗ (pot)||/ɔː/ ㅗ오 (call)|
|/ʊ/ ㅜ (pull)||/uː/ ㅗ우 (pool)|
|/aɪ/ ㅐ (side)||/aʊ/ ㅒ (now)|
|/ɔɪ/ ㅚ (toy)||/oʊ/ ㅛ (dough)|
|/eɪ/ ㅔ (say)||/ɪə/ ㅖ (hear)|
|/ʊə/ ㅝ (tour)||/ju/ ㅠ (news)|
|/weɪ/ ㅞ (way)||/waɪ/ ㅙ (why)|
|/wa/ ㅘ (want)||/wɪ/ ㅟ (win)|
|/aɪə/ ㅐ어 (flyer)||/aʊə/ ㅒ어 (tower)|
|/jʊə/ ㅠ어 (cure)|
|/p/ ㅍ (port)||/b/ ㅂ (born)||/f/ ㅃ (free)||/v/ ㅂㅎ (van)||/m/ ㅁ (muse)|
|/t/ ㅌ (tree)||/d/ ㄷ (drive)||/θ/ ㅉ (thank)||/ð/ ㄸ (the)||/n/ ㄴ (new)|
|/k/ ㅋ (call)||/g/ ㄱ (get)||/x/ ㅋㅎ (loch)||/ɣ/ ㄱㅎ||/ŋ/ ㅇ (sing, final only)|
|/s/ ㅅ (soon)||/z/ ㅈㅎ (zoo)||/ʃ/ ㅆ (share)||/ʒ/ ㅆㅎ (azure)||.|
|/tʃ/ ㅊ (change)||/dʒ/ ㅈ (just)||.||.||.|
|/ɹ/ ㄹ (run)||/l/ ㄲ (laugh)||/h/ ㅎ (house)||/w-/ 우- (way)||/j-/ 이- (yell)|
|/-/ ㅇ (initial only)||.||.||.||.|
Numerals 뉴머럮스 (optional, based on Chinese numerals)
|0 〇||1 一||2 二||3 三||4 四|
|5 五||6 六||7 七||8 八||9 九|
The syllable structure of Yongogul is as follows:
[Initial consonants] – [Hangul syllable with final consonants that fit] – [remaining final consonants]
Hangul, as encoded in Unicode, was originally designed for Korean, and only Korean. Korean Hangul syllables consist of an initial consonant (only 1 allowed), a medial vowel, and 0 to 2 final consonants. Even then, only some of the consonants can be in final position. Compare this with English’s consonant clusters in both initial and final position (‘strengths’ is a notorious example), and you might be wondering: “How to make it work with Unicode Hangul?”
My solution is somewhat hacky, but it is based on how English loanwords are written in Korean hangul:
The null vowel ‘ㅡ’
This is basically a vowel letter that has no pronunciation – it’s just there to allow you to cluster 2 consonants in a single character. For example, ‘st’ would be written as 슽 (not ㅅㅌ), ‘pr’ as 플, and ‘s’ would simply be 스.
All remaining consonants not in a Hangul syllable must end with the null vowel: 스탼드 (stand) but not ‘ㅅ탼ㄷ’.
In Korean, the vowel letter ‘ㅡ’ (pronounced /ɯ/ in Korean) is commonly used to write English loanwords, specifically the initial and final consonants that dont fit entirely in a syllable, as in the word ‘스트레스’ (seuteureseu), from the English ‘stress’. (In Yongogul, ‘stress’ would be written as 슽렷, half the length of the Korean version)
As you may have seen earlier, some of the consonants need to be written with 2 letters. How is this done in practice? Let’s use ㅂㅎ /v/ as an example.
- At the start of a syllable – The 1st letter is put into its own syllable block with a null vowel. E.g. /vo/ = 브효
- Between syllables – the components are spread across 2 syllables. E.g. /ævo/ = 얍효
- At the end of a syllable – the 2nd letter is put into its own syllable block with a null vowel. E.g. /æv/ = 얍흐
Dealing with digraph issues
To read Yongogul, it is useful to think of it as a stream of letters that happen to be formed into syllable blocks.
Usage of Hangul final consonant clusters
Korean Hangul allows certain 2-consonant clusters in final position. The majority of them can be utilised in Yongogul, as they easily correspond to common English consonant clusters.
- ㄳ /gs/ = ‘ks’ (e.g. 볷 ‘box’)
- ㄵ /ndʒ/ = ‘nj’ (e.g. 첹 ‘change’)
- ㄶ /nh/ = ‘nh’ (not in English)
- ㄺ /ɹg/ = ‘rg’ (e.g. 벍 ‘berg’)
- ㄻ /ɹm/ = ‘rm’ (e.g. 턺 ‘term’)
- ㄼ /ɹb/ = ‘rb’ (e.g. 헓 ‘herb’)
- ㄽ /ɹs/ = ‘rs’ (e.g. 돐 ‘doors’)
- ㄾ /ɹt/ = ‘rt’ (e.g. 헕 ‘hurt’)
- ㄿ /ɹp/ = ‘rp’ (e.g. 벒 ‘burp’)
- ㅀ /ɹh/ = ‘rh’ (not in English)
- ㅄ /bs/ = ‘bs’ (e.g. 홊 ‘hobs’)
In Yongogul, the Latin letter ‘x’ (where it stands for /ks/ or /gz/) is written as ㄳ, as in ‘explain’ 엯브껜 and ‘boxy’ 볷이, as it is a relatively convenient abbreviation. (It should be noted that 복시 would be interpreted as ‘bogsi’, since the components of ㄳ are separated.)
Writing other consonant clusters
To write other consonant clusters not defined in Korean hangul, you must put any stray letters with the null vowel, as shown:
- Initial position – put the leading consonant(s) in their own syllable block. E.g. /steɪ/ = 스테
- Between syllables – put the middle consonant(s) in their own syllable block. E.g. /mastɹa/ = 맛트라
- Final position – put the trailing consonant(s) in their own syllable block. E.g. /teɪst/ = 텟트
- /meɪ/ (may) = [nil] – [ㅁㅔ] – [nil] = 메
- /sam/ (some) = [nil] – [ㅅㅏㅁ] – [nil] = 삼
- /maɹt/ (mart) = [nil] – [ㅁㅏㄹㅌ] – [nil] = 맕
- /teɪk/ (take) = [nil] – [ㅌㅔㅋ] – [nil] = 텤
- /steɪk/ (stake) = [ㅅ] – [ㅌㅔㅋ] – [nil] = 스텤
- /bænd/ (band) = [nil] – [ㅂㅑㄴ] – [ㄷ] = 뱐드
- /steɪks/ (stakes) = [ㅅ] – [ㅌㅔㅋ] – [ㅅ] = 스텤스
- /stɹeɪksp/ = [ㅅㅌ] – [ㄹㅔㅋ] – [ㅅㅍ] = 슽렠슾
- /stɹɛŋθs/ (strengths) = [ㅅㅌ] – [ㄹㅕㅇ] – [ㅉㅅ] = 슽령쯧
This structure is such that there are usually 1 to 3 syllable blocks for each English syllable.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
유닙헐섞 뎤꺼레썬 오쁘 휴먼 랱스
옦 휴먼 븽스 알 볼느 쁘릐 얀드 이쿾 인 딕니티 얀드 랱스. 떼 알 연댿 위쯔 릣헌 얀드 콘썬스 얀드 쑫 얔트 토월듯 완 어나떨 인 어 스피맅 오쁘 브라떨훋.
(알티컦 一 오쁘 띠 유닙헐섞 뎤꺼레썬 오쁘 휴먼 랱스)
Excerpt from a short story I wrote a while ago
For comparison, you can view the original one here.
애 햗 어 슽렍 드릠 떁 냍.
언 떁 드릠, 애 뺸드 매셖쁘 어웨커닝, 깨잉 온 소쁱 그릔 그랏, 인 어 뺜터시 八-빝 월끋 서럔덛 배 콤퓨턼. 떠 꾸미넌스 오쁘 브낑킹 묘뎜스 얀드 우옮, 쳴뿎 칲튠 뮷힠 삒드 띠 열. 옦뚀 엽흐리찡 꿐드 브꼬키 얀드 스쿠열, 잍 브로옽 미 뱤 투 뚓흐 뎃. 오쁘 옦 떠 콤퓨턼 애 소오, 一 오쁘 뗨 웟 프께잉 매 뻽흐렅 송! 애 잠프 얀드 끺 인 죄 욥헐 떠 샡. 애 뗜 소오 매 햿, 얀드 애 셛 “해” 투 매 볏트 멭스, 후 월 웨팅 얱샏. 위 우옼드 투겨떨, 햡힝 어 쳬리 챹 어벁 떠 콤퓨털 겜 애 웟 월킹 온 얼꼘.
“쇼 왙스 떁 쿢 겜 고나 비 어벁, 에?” 완 오쁘 뗨 앗큳.
“어쁘 유 껍흗 마리요, 윢 껍흐 띳!” 애 셛.
“오오섬!!! 캰트 윁 투 시 잍!” 언샏 미 떠 빼얼 투 킢 미 교잉 비켐 슽롱걸.
위 우옼드 인투 어 브힙힏 산셭. 애 려미닛드 떠 며모릿 오쁘 팟트 사멄, 프께잉 렽료 브히디요 겜스 인 떠 쿢 쎋, 입헌 뚀 떠 산 얱샏 픸드 얕 四二 딕릣 얀드 멲턷 엽흐리찡 엮스.