The Letter F Is Fooling Us

Coffee is ‘Keopi’ in Korean because Hangeul doesn’t have any letter for ‘f’

There is no sound in Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, that allows for the pronunciation of ‘f’. And Korean is not the only language that does away with f.

I’ve come across no combination of the 40 consonants and vowels in Hangeul that gives the same pronunciation as the English letter ‘f’. I know, romanization (converting/translating everything to English) while learning Hangeul is counter-productive but at the start of your Hangeul learning journey, comparing or relying on the English alphabet is only natural (if your first language is English). And I could not help but notice this.

Every English letter has a rough, if not a perfect, counter part in Hangeul with the exception of two letters, one of them being ‘F’. I didn’t notice the lack of the other letter by myself. But because I love coffee and it’s probably one of my most used words, I quickly noticed the lack of ‘f’ in Hangeul.

English is the odd one out

It really fascinated me and when I looked it up I realized that many other languages don’t have the sound/letter f either, including Japanese. It’s such an English-specific thing. The more I kept pronouncing ‘f’ the more I realized how the sound doesn’t come naturally? Like the phonetics feel different than other letters.

Hangeul is one of the most phonetic languages in the world. English, to me, seems just the opposite! I think it never hit me before because English was the first language I ever learned and the one that I use about 80% of the times (the remaining 20% would have to be Hindi).

Thinking about it now, even Hindi doesn’t have the ‘f’ sound. It has a ‘ph’ sound but not ‘f’. Not in the way it’s pronounced in English anyway.

But the letter f is not alone

Hangeul also doesn’t have a sound for the letter ‘v’. So, typically ‘b’ is used instead of ‘v’ and ‘p’ is used instead of ‘f’.

I don’t really know the technicalities of phonetics but this excerpt by Luke Berry was insightful:

If a language lacks /f/ it probably lacks /v/ as well. /f/ and /v/ are voiceless and voiced versions of the labiodental fricative; that is to say, /f/ and /v/ are the same sound, but one vibrates the vocal cords and one doesn’t.

If you lack /f/ and /v/ then the next closest thing is /p/ and /b/, which are bilabial stops. All of these sounds are produced with the lips – /p/ is much more similar to /f/ than, say, /k/.

Some examples of English words used in Korean

Letter p in Hangeul is ㅍ.
As you can see here the letter p takes the place of letter f.

Wi-fi – 와이파이 (Waipai)

Coffee – 커피 (Keopi)

Fork – 포크 (pokeu)

Even when we say ‘fighting!’ to mean ‘you can do this/you’ve got this, it would be written as 파이팅 (paiting).

English also doesn’t quite make use of ‘f’

If you think about it, even with so many English words that start with the letter f, the pronunciation is not the same as the pure pronunciation of the letter itself.

  • Friend
  • Feelings
  • Food
  • Friday
  • Feet
  • Foul
  • Floss
  • Fever

As you can see, it’s more of a ‘ph’/’phi’ than an ‘eff’.

And this is exactly why I am loving learning a new language like Hangeul because suddenly I am taking notice of the languages that I have known all my life and realizing all these intriguing things.

Have you noticed any such interesting things as a bi-lingual/multi-linguistic person or when learning a new language?

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