Do you need a handful of simple words and phrases to get you through South Korea for a few days? Perfect! Keep reading!
I’ll start with a pronunciation guide, which will need a little explanation of how Korean itself is written. Don’t panic; it’s very simple.
Korean is written in syllables. Each block you see in the image above is not a single letter, it is a single syllable. All syllables in Korean are made from a consonant and a vowel, following the principles of yin and yang. But some syllables have a silent consonant, so that when written the syllable retains the yin/yang aesthetic.
Why is this so important? Because lone vowels in the English Alphabet version of Korean words are usually indicative of a whole syllable, not a run-on from the previous vowel. Let’s use Seoul as an example. You’re probably used to pronouncing this word as Soul, but in Korean this is written 서울. Without any knowledge of the Korean alphabet, you can already see that the word Seoul is two syllables: 서 and 울. The first is Seo (try to say it as a single syllable, and you will have it) and the second is ul.
Pronunciation is otherwise remarkably simple. There are times when a B will sound more like a P, or a G more than a K, but determining when this will be is impossible just by reading the word. R is a soft sound halfway between an English R and L. Listening to the pronunciation of those you speak to in South Korea will help greatly, especially if you are using a name.
ne or ye : Yes. Both words are interchangeable.
aniyo : No. Syllabically this is a | ni | yo.
annyeonghaseyo : Hello. Now, don’t worry here! This is how it looks when you break it down: an | nyeong | ha | se | yo. So that’s really only five syllables.
annyeong : Goodbye. This is informal, but you’ll be forgiven for it.
butakamnida : Please. Broken down, it’s bu | tak | am | ni | da.
gamsahamnida : Thank you. gam | sa | ham | ni | da. This is one of those words where the g can sound more like a k, so be firm with it.
shillyehamnida : Excuse me. This is for getting attention, not for apologising. shil | lye | ham | ni | da.
joesonghamnida : I’m sorry. The first syllable is more of a cho sound, and you will often see alternate spellings for the same words with this syllable written as either choe or joe. joe | song | ham | ni | da.
By now it should become apparent that once you’ve mastered hamnida, you can make plenty of other words with it.
yeongeo reul hashimnikka : Do you speak English? yeong | eo | reul | ha | shim | nik | ka.
hwajangsiri odie isseumnikka : Where is the toilet? hwa | jang | shir | i | o | di | e | is | seum | ni | kka. Well, that one looks pretty terrifying, doesn’t it? Don’t panic. For a start, there are plenty of public toilets, and they’re very well signposted. Just take this one syllable at a time, and add the next once you’re comfortable with what you already have. Soon you’ll have the entire phrase.
il / i / sam / sa : One / two / three / four. Korean cuts an awful lot of excess words out, and context is king: if you are at a ticket booth with two other adults, and you say sam, it’s clear that you want three tickets. Especially if you remember to say please.
And there you go! You are now fully-armed to spend a few days in South Korea. Koreans genuinely appreciate any attempts to learn their language, and will happily help you with pronunciation or learning new words, so don’t be at all afraid to get stuck in. If you really want to get stuck in, you can learn the Korean alphabet in fifteen minutes, and it will serve you extremely well (especially if you are using the intercity buses). No, seriously. Fifteen minutes. I only wish I’d found this excellent webcomic before I went, but if fifteen minutes sounds a bit speedy, try thirty instead.