Depending on which part of Korea you go to different dialects of Korean are spoken. The standard in South Korea is based on the Seoul dialect, which is spoken in Seoul and Gyeonggi province as well as the city of Kaesong in North Korea, while the standard in North Korea is based on the Pyongan dialect, which is spoken in Pyongyang as well as North and South Pyongan provinces. Other dialects include the Gyeongsang dialect spoken in Busan, Daegu, Ulsan and the provinces of North and South Gyeongsang, the Jeju dialect spoken on the island of Jeju, and the Hamgyong dialect spoken in North and South Hamgyong provinces, as well as by most of the ethnic Korean minority in China. This guide is based on the standard in South Korea.
Korean sentence structure is very similar to that of Japanese, so speakers of Japanese will find many aspects of Korean grammar familiar, and Korean speakers likewise with Japanese. But there are similar but slight differences to the standardized pronunciations, and the Korean language, even after its simplification in the past century, has a wider library of vowels and consonants than Japanese, hence Japanese speakers may find it difficult to pronounce various words, let alone transcribe them.
Korean word order is subject-object-verb: "I-subject him-object see-verb." Subjects (especially I and you) are often omitted if these are clear from the context. This may seem awkward from an English perspective, but English too has colloquial 1st-person/2nd-person subject omissions, such as "[Are you] Done yet?" or "[I'm] Done." It is a matter of whether sentences are common enough that such lack of subjects doesn't confuse the listener. In turn, some English colloquial sentences without subjects may be confusing from a Korean standpoint.
There are no articles, genders, or declensions. It has extensive verb conjugations indicating tense and honorific level. There is a handy, universal plural form, but it is very often omitted.
Korean has postpositions instead of prepositions: jip mite, "house below" instead of "below the house."
Koreans refer to each other in terms like elder brother, elder sister, younger sibling, uncle, aunt, grandmother, grandfather, manager, teacher etc. (like Nepalese or Chinese) rather than using the word you. Additionally, it's not uncommon to refer to yourself by using such an expression ( example: "[I] Father will cook you a nice dinner." Which feels like saying "This father will..."). You can also call somebody an aunt, uncle or brother even if this person is actually not. Many Korean girls call even their boyfriend "oppa" (older brother).
Depending on the relation to the person you have conversation with, it's necessary to find the correct level of formality and politeness. If the person is considered to be higher in the hierarchy, a very polite and formal form has to be used, while this person will use a more "vernacular" form to address you as a lower person. Koreans often ask very personal questions (about your age, occupation, family status etc.) in order to find out in which form they should use when talking to you. This phrasebook assumes the highest formality level in most cases. Not only are words conjugated according to 6 existing levels of formality (but 2 are becoming unused), but a few words will also be replaced with different words altogether. Extremely formal places will often use some Chinese postal words as well.
The good news is unlike Chinese, Korean is not tonal, so you don't need to worry about changing your pitch to get the meaning right. The bad news is that Korean has a few too many vowels for comfort and small distinctions between many consonants, so pronouncing things exactly right is still a bit of a challenge.
This phrasebook uses the Revised Romanization of Korean, which is overwhelmingly the most popular system in South Korea. The McCune-Reischauer romanization, used in North Korea and older South Korean texts, is noted in parentheses when different.
Korean vowels can be short or long, but this is not indicated in writing and the distinction rarely if ever affects meaning. (example: 밤 bam, pronounced short means "night", pronounced long means "chestnut")
like 'a' in "father"
like 'o' in "tone"
eo (ŏ) ㅓ
like the "uh" in "lust"
A low sound of "oo" as in "hoop". "woo" (Korean does not distinguish between "oo" and "woo").
eu (ŭ) ㅡ
like 'i' in "cousin", "dozen". Like the Turkish "ı". Kind of similar to the french "eu", but as a clearer, purer vowel sound.
like the 'i' in "ship" (short) OR the 'ee' in "sheep" (long)
like the 'e' in "bed"
similar to the "a" in "cave", "space", "bait", and "pay"
note: ㅐ ae is now virtually identically pronounced as ㅔ e. Only rare words are unconsciously pronounced differently like they were half a century ago ("애", or "child" is one such remnant).
Most Korean consonants come in three versions, namely unaspirated (without a puff of air), aspirated (with a puff of air) and tensed (stressed). Unaspirated consonants exist in English too, but never alone: compare the sound of 'p' in "pot" (aspirated) and "spot" (unaspirated). Many English speakers find it helpful to pronounce an imperceptible little "m" in front to 'stop' the puff. Tensing isn't really found in English, but pronouncing the consonant quick and hard is a reasonable substitute.
b (p) ㅂ
like 'p' in "spit" (unaspirated)
p (p', ph) ㅍ
like 'p' in "pig" (aspirated)
tensed 'p', like 'p' in "petit" in French
d (t) ㄷ
like 't' in "stab" (unaspirated)
t (t', th) ㅌ
like 't' in "top" (aspirated)
g (k) ㄱ
like 'k' in "skate" (unaspirated)
k (k', k) ㅋ
like 'c' in "cat" (aspirated)
j (ch) ㅈ
like 'g' in "gin" (unaspirated)
ch (ch') ㅊ
like 'ch' in "chin" (aspirated). Usually pronounced as a light aspiratd 't' as a final consonant
like 's' in "soon", 'sh' before i or any "y" dipthong. Usually pronounced as a very light 't' as a final consonant
tensed 's', 's' in 'sea', never 'sh'
like 'n' in "nice"
like 'm' in "mother"
somewhere between 'l', 'r' and 'n', original sound is 'r' or 'l'. and 'n' sound occurs through initial consonant mutation.
like 'h' in "help"
like 'ng' in "sing". Unpronounced (placeholder) when at the start of a syllable.
While the rules above are usually correct for the first consonant, those in the middle of a word are usually (but not always) voiced, which means that ㅂㄷㅈㄱ turn into English "b", "d", "j" and "k". The best rule of thumb is to concentrate on remembering that the first consonant is "special" and the rest are more or less as in English: bibimbap (비빔밥) is pronounced "pee-bim-bap", not "bee-bim-bap" or "p'ee-bim-bap".
The aspirated spellings with "h" are used only in the official North Korean orthography.
Native Korean words can end only in vowels or the consonants k, l, m, n, ng, p or s, and any words imported into Korean are shoehorned to fit this pattern, usually by padding any errant consonants with the vowel eu (ㅡ). For example, any English word ending in "t" will be pronounced as teu (트) in Korean, eg. Baeteumaen (배트맨) for "Batman". In addition, the English sound "f" is turned into p and has that vowel tacked on, so "golf" becomes golpeu (골프).
A wise man/woman can acquaint himself/herself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man/woman can learn them in the space of ten days. --King Sejong on hangeul
Korean is generally written using a native alphabet known as hangeul (chosŏngul in North Korea and China). Designed by a committee and rather scary-looking at first, it's in fact a very logical alphabetic writing system far simpler than Chinese characters or even the Japanese kana syllabary, and it's well worth putting in the time to learn them if staying in Korea for more than a day or two.
The basic idea is simple: hangul consists of letters called jamo combined into square blocks, where each block represents a syllable. The block is always in the order (consonant)-vowel-(consonant), stacked from top to bottom, where ㅇ is used as the first jamo if the first consonant is missing, and the space for the last consonant can be left empty is missing. For example, the word Seoul (서울) consists of the syllables seo (ㅅ s plus ㅓ eo, no final consonant) and ul (ㅇ plus ㅜ u plus ㄹ l). Tensed consonants are created by doubling the jamo
(ㅅ s → ㅆ ss) and y-vowel diphthongs have an extra dash tacked on (ㅏ a → ㅑ ya). And that's pretty much it!
Many Korean words can also be written using Chinese characters, known as hanja in Korean. These are still occasionally seen in newspapers, formal documents and official signs, but are in general rarely used and have even been completely abolished in North Korea. While they remain official in South Korea, their use is largely restricted to the elderly, and many youths are unable to recognize anything more than their own names written in hanja. The few times when they still show up is in brackets next to the hangul to describe an unfamiliar term, to distinguish a term from another similar word or as a form of bold face when mentioning personal or place names. Hanja are also still used to mark Korean chess, or janggi pieces.
It is worth noting that while Chinese characters are seldom written, many words themselves are Chinese words simply written as how they are pronounced -- not according to the Mandarin pronunciation, but according to the standardized Korean pronunciation of those same Chinese characters used in China. Like the position of Latin in English and French, Chinese words are often found in the more formal and less vernacular sciences, and even more so with 19th-century new Chinese words coined by the Japanese, and used in both Korea and China. Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese speakers may find some familiarity with some of these overlapping Chinese terms, although pronunciations are slightly different and Koreans only write out sounds and not the original Chinese characters. Although not nearly as much as Cantonese, Korean pronunciation of Chinese words retain more medieval Chinese pronunciations of the Tang dynasty some 1300 years ago, than the Manchurian-influenced modern Mandarin.
Korean has two sets of numbers, namely native Korean numbers and Sino-Korean numbers (which are borrowed from Chinese). Both come in handy, but in a pinch, the Sino-Korean series is more important to learn.
Native Korean numbers are used for hours and with counting words.
When counting objects, Korean uses special counter words. For example, "two beers" is maekju dubyeong (맥주 2병), where du is "two" and -byeong means "bottles". There are many counters, but the most useful ones are myeong (명) for people, jang (장) for papers including tickets, and gae (개) for pretty much anything else (which is not always strictly correct, but will usually be understood and is growing in colloquial usage).
objects (apples, sweets)
명 -myeong, 분 -bun (polite)
flat paper-like objects (papers, tickets, pages)
bottles (or other glass or ceramic containers for liquid with a narrow mouth)
machines (cars, computers)
long objects (pens, rifles)
letters, telegrams, phone calls, e-mails
bunches of things such as flowers
Note that when combined with a counting word, the last letter of numbers 1 through 4 as well as 20 is dropped: one person is hanmyeong (hana+myeong), two tickets is dujang (dul+jang), three things is segae (set+gae), four things is negae (net+gae), twenty things is seumugae (seumul+gae).
Numbers above 100 are always counted with Sino-Korean numbers.