The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 20 May 2019

Alphabetical order in Korean

Alphabetical order in Korean has an interesting twist I haven't seen in any other language.

(Perhaps I should mention up front that Korean does not denote words with individual symbols the way Chinese does. It has a 24-letter alphabet, invented in the 15th century.)

Consider the Korean word “문어”, which means “octopus”. This is made up of five letters ㅁㅜㄴㅇㅓ. The ㅁㅜㄴ are respectively equivalent to English ‘m’, ‘oo‘ (as in ‘moon‘), and ‘n’. The ㅇis silent, just like ‘k’ in “knit”. The ㅓis a vowel we don't have in English, partway between “saw” and “bud”. Confusingly, it is usually rendered in Latin script as ‘eo’. (It is the first vowel in “Seoul”, for example.) So “문어” is transliterated to Latin script as “muneo”, or “munǒ”, and approximately pronounced “moon-aw”.

But as you see, it's not written as “ㅁㅜㄴㅇㅓ” but as “문어”. The letters are grouped into syllables of two or three letters each. (Or, more rarely, four or even five.)

Now consider the word “무해” (“harmless”) This word is made of the four letters ㅁㅜㅎㅐ. The first two, as before, are ‘m’, ‘oo’. The ㅎ is ‘h’ and the ‘ㅐ’ is a vowel that is something like the vowel in “air”, usually rendered in Latin script as ‘ae’. So it is written “muhae” and pronounced something like “moo-heh”.

ㅎis the last letter of the alphabet. Because ㅎfollows ㄴ, you might think that 무해 would follow 문어. But it does not. In Korean, alphabetization is also done at the syllable level. The syllable 무 comes before 문, because it is a proper prefix, so 무해 comes before 문어. If the syllable break in 문어 were different, causing it to be spelled 무너, it would indeed come before 무해. But it isn't, so it doesn't. (“무너” does not seem to be an actual word, but it appears as a consitutent in words like 무너지다 (“collapse”) and 무너뜨리다 (“demolish”) which do come before 무해 in the dictionary.)

As far as I know, there is nothing in Korean analogous to the English alphabet song.

Or to alphabet soup! Koreans love soup! And they love the alphabet, so why no hangeul-tang? There is a hundred dollar bill lying on the sidewalk here, waiting to be picked up.

[ Previously, but just barely related: Medieval Chinese typesetting technique. ]

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