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Korean phonology

This article is a technical description of the phonetics and phonology of Korean.

Korean has many allophones, so it is important here to distinguish morphophonemics (written in pipes | |) from corresponding phonemes (written in slashes / /) and allophones (written in brackets [ ]).

Consonants

The following are phonemic transcriptions of Korean consonants.

Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Post-
alveolar
Velar Glottal
Nasal |m| |n| |ŋ|2
Plosive
and
Affricate
plain1 |p| |t| |tɕ| |k|
tense |p͈| |t͈| |tɕ͈| |k͈|
aspirated |pʰ| |tʰ| |tɕʰ| |kʰ|
Fricative plain |s| |h|
tense |s͈|
Liquid |l|3

  1. become voiced between voiced sounds.
  2. |ŋ| appears only in the syllable coda.
  3. |l| becomes an alveolar flap [ɾ] between vowels, and [l] or [ɭ] at the end of a syllable or next to another |l|. A syllable-final |l|, when followed by a vowel or a glide or |h| (i.e., when the next character starts with 'ㅇ' or 'ㅎ'), migrates to the next syllable and thus becomes [ɾ].

Example words for consonants:

Phoneme Example Romanized English
ㅂ |p| [pul] bul 'fire' or 'light'
ㅃ |p͈| [p͈ul] ppul 'horn'
ㅍ |pʰ| [pʰul] pul 'grass' or 'glue'
ㅁ |m| [mul] mul 'water' or 'liquid'
ㄷ |t| [tal] dal 'moon'
ㄸ |t͈| [t͈al] ttal 'daughter'
ㅌ |tʰ| [tʰal] tal 'mask'
ㄴ |n| [nal] nal 'day'
ㅈ |tɕ| 자다 [tɕada] jada 'to sleep'
ㅉ |tɕ͈| 짜다 [tɕ͈ada] jjada 'to squeeze' or 'to be salty'
ㅊ |tɕʰ| 차다 [tɕʰada] chada 'to kick' or 'cold'
ㄱ |k| 가다 [kada] gada 'to go'
ㄲ |k͈| 까다 [k͈ada] kkada 'to peel'
ㅋ |kʰ| [kʰal] kal 'knife'
ㅇ |ŋ| [paŋ] bang 'room'
ㅅ |s| [sal] sal 'flesh'
ㅆ |s͈| [s͈al] ssal 'uncooked grains of rice'
ㄹ |l| 바람 [paɾam] baram 'wind' or 'wish'
ㅎ |h| 하다 [hada] hada 'to do'

The IPA symbol <◌͈> (a subscript double straight quotation mark, shown here with a placeholder circle) is used to denote the tensed consonants . Its official use in the Extensions to the IPA is for 'strong' articulation, but is used in the literature for faucalized voice. The Korean consonants also have elements of stiff voice, but it is not yet known how typical this is of faucalized consonants. They are produced with a partially constricted glottis and additional subglottal pressure in addition to tense vocal tract walls, laryngeal lowering, or other expansion of the larynx.

Sometimes the tense consonants are indicated with the apostrophe-like symbol <ʼ> symbolising glottalization, as in Americanist phonetic notation. This should not be confused with official IPA, as IPA <ʼ> represents the ejective consonants, with their piston-like upward glottal movement and non-pulmonic air pressure, which the Korean tense consonants do not feature.

Vowels

Monophthongs /i/ ㅣ, /e/ ㅔ, /ɛ/ ㅐ, /a/ ㅏ, /o/ ㅗ, /u/ ㅜ, /ʌ/ ㅓ, /ɯ/ ㅡ, /ø/ ㅚ
Vowels preceded by intermediaries,
or Diphthongs
/je/ ㅖ, /jɛ/ ㅒ, /ja/ ㅑ, /wi/ ㅟ, /we/ ㅞ, /wɛ/ ㅙ, /wa/ ㅘ, /ɰi/ ㅢ, /jo/ ㅛ, /ju/ ㅠ, /jʌ/ ㅕ, /wʌ/ ㅝ

Monophthongs

Korean has 8 different vowel qualities and a length distinction for each. Two more vowels, the close-mid front rounded vowel (IPA: /ø/, hangul: ㅚ) and the close front rounded vowel (IPA: /y/, hangul: ㅟ), can still be heard in the speech of some older speakers, but they have been largely replaced by the diphthongs [we] and [wi] respectively. In a 2003 survey of 350 speakers from Seoul, nearly 90% pronounced the vowel 'ㅟ' as [wi]. Length distinction is almost completely lost; length distinction for all vowels can still be heard from older speakers, but almost all younger speakers either do not distinguish length consistently or do not distinguish it at all. The distinction between /e/ and /ɛ/ is another decreasing element in the speech of some younger speakers, mostly in the area of Seoul, whereas in other dialectal areas the two vowels can be distinctly heard. For those speakers who do not make the difference [e] seems to be the dominant form. Long /ʌː/ is actually [əː] for most speakers.

Short vowel Long vowel
/i/ 시장 (sijang [ɕidʑaŋ] 'hunger') /iː/ 시장 (sijang [ɕiːdʑaŋ] 'market')
/e/ 베개 (begae [peɡɛ] 'pillow') /eː/ 베다 (beda [peːda] 'cut')
/ɛ/ 태양 (taeyang [tʰɛjaŋ] 'sun') /ɛː/ 태도 (taedo, [tʰɛːdo] 'attitude')
/a/ (mal [mal] 'horse') /aː/ (mal [maːl] 'word, language')
/o/ 보리 (bori [poɾi] 'barley') /oː/ 보수 (bosu [poːsu] 'salary')
/u/ 구리 (guri [kuɾi] 'copper') /uː/ 수박 (subak [suːbak] 'watermelon')
/ʌ/ (beol [pʌl] 'punishment') /əː/ (beol [pəːl] 'bee')
/ɯ/ 어른 (eoreun [əːɾɯn] 'seniors') /ɯː/ 음식 (eumsik [ɯːmɕik] 'food')
/ø/ 교회 (gyohoe 'church') /øː/ 외투 (oetu 'overcoat')

Diphthongs and glides

/j/ and /w/ are considered to be components of diphthongs rather than separate consonant phonemes.

j

w

ɰ
          wi [twi] dwi 'back' ɰi [ɰisa] 의사 uisa 'doctor'
je [jeːsan] 예산 yesan 'budget' we [kwe] gwe 'chest' or 'box'          
[jɛːgi] 얘기 yaegi 'story' [wɛ] wae 'why'          
ja [jaːɡu] 야구 yagu 'baseball' wa [kwaːil] 과일 gwail 'fruit'          
jo [kjoːsa] 교사 gyosa 'teacher'                    
ju [juɾi] 유리 yuri 'glass'                    
[jʌɡi] 여기 yeogi 'here' [mwʌ] mwo 'what'          

Allophones and assimilation

|s| becomes an alveolo-palatal [ɕ] before [j] or [i] for most speakers (but see Differences in the language between North Korea and South Korea). This occurs with the tense fricative and all the affricates as well. At the end of a syllable, |s| is realized as /t/ (Example: beoseot (버섯) 'mushroom').

|h| may become a bilabial [ɸ] before [o] or [u], a palatal [ç] before [j] or [i], a velar [x] before [ɯ], a voiced [ɦ] between voiced sounds, and a [h] elsewhere. It aspirates a following stop.

Traditionally, |l| was disallowed at the beginning of a word. It disappeared before /j/, and otherwise became /n/. However, the inflow of western loanword changed the trend, and now word-initial |l| (mostly from English loanwords) are pronounced as a free variation of either [ɾ] or [l]. The traditional prohibition of word-initial |l| became a morphological rule called "initial law" (두음법칙) in South Korea, which pertains to Sino-Korean vocabulary. Such words retain their word-initial |l| in North Korea.

/kʰ/ can appear together with fricatives in front of [ɯ] or [i], as [kʰxɯ] and [kʰɕi].

All obstruents (plosives, affricates, fricatives) are unreleased at the end of a word.

Plosive stops become nasal stops before nasal stops, and the lateral |l| likewise becomes a nasal /n/ after a nasal stop. These phonemic assimilation rules can be seen in the following:

  • |tɕoŋlo| is pronounced /tɕoŋno/
  • |hankukmal| as /hankuŋmal/ (phonetically [hanɡuŋmal]).

Hangul spelling does not reflect these assimilatory rules, but rather maintains the underlying morphology.

One difference between the pronunciation standards of North and South Korea is the treatment of initial |l| and /n/. For example,

  • "labour" - north: rodong (로동), south: nodong (노동)
  • "history" - north: ryŏksa (력사), south: yeoksa (역사)
  • "female" - north: nyŏja (녀자), south: yeoja (여자)

Phonotactics

Syllable-final plosives are realized as unreleased . Only seven consonants are found at the ends of syllables: , with all of the coronal obstruents as well as the occasional |h|, conflating to /t/ ([t̚]). If there is a following plain obstruent the /t/ disappears and the obstruent becomes emphatic , or—if the first consonant is |h|, the following obstruent instead becomes aspirated, .

Spoken syllables may not start or end with consonant clusters, even though some morphemes may end with one. Consequently, consonant clusters are usually limited to sequences of two. When a morpheme ends with a consonant cluster before a vowel, both consonants are pronounced, like in . However, when a morpheme ending in one of these consonant clusters is said without a following vowel, one of the consonants is elided. The elided consonant is the obstruent that would otherwise become [t̚] in this position, or if there is none, then the other coronal, |l|, drops out. Therefore, word-finally or before a consonant, these clusters are pronounced ㄳ [k̚], ㄵ [n], ㄶ [n], ㄺ [k̚], ㄻ [m], ㄼ [p̚], ㄽ [l], ㄾ [l], ㄿ [p̚], ㅀ [l], ㅄ [p̚], with the same effects on the following consonant as single consonants. (For example, ㄶ |nh| and ㅀ |lh| cause a following plain stop to become aspirated.)

The combinations are not allowed and it is impossible to write them using standard hangul.

Vowel harmony

Korean Vowel Harmony
Positive/"light"/Yang Vowels ㅏ (a) ㅑ (ya) ㅗ (o) ㅛ (yo)
ㅐ (ae) ㅘ (wa) ㅚ (oe) ㅙ (wae)
Negative/"heavy"/Yin Vowels ㅓ (eo) ㅕ (yeo) ㅜ (u) ㅠ (yu)
ㅔ (e) ㅝ (wo) ㅟ (wi) ㅞ (we)
Neutral/Centre Vowels ㅡ (eu) ㅣ (i) ㅢ (ui)
Traditionally, the Korean language has had strong vowel harmony; that is, in pre-modern Korean, as in most Altaic languages, not only did the inflectional and derivational affixes (such as postpositions) change in accordance to the main root vowel, but native words also adhered to vowel harmony. It is not as prevalent in modern usage, although it remains strong in onomatopoeia, adjectives and adverbs, interjections, and conjugation. There are also other traces of vowel harmony in Korean.

There are three classes of vowels in Korean: positive, negative, and neutral. The vowel eu is considered partially a neutral and negative vowel. The vowel classes loosely follow the negative and positive vowels; they also follow orthography. Exchanging positive vowels with negative vowels usually creates different nuances of meaning, with positive vowels sounding diminutive and negative vowels sounding crude.

Some examples:

  • Onomatopoeia:
    • 퐁당퐁당 (pongdangpongdang) and 풍덩풍덩 (pungdeongpungdeong), light and heavy water splashing
  • Emphasised adjectives:
    • 노랗다 (norata) means plain yellow, while its negative, 누렇다 (nureota) means very yellow
    • 파랗다 (parata) means plain blue, while its negative, 퍼렇다 (peoreota) means deep blue
  • Particles at the end of verbs:
    • 잡다 (japda) (to catch) → 잡았다 (Jabatda) (caught)
    • 접다 (jeopda) (to fold) → 접었다 (Jeobeotda) (folded)
  • Interjections:
    • 아이고 (aigo) and 어이구 (eoigu) expressing surprise, discomfort or sympathy
    • 아하 (aha) and 어허 (eoheo) expressing sudden realization and mild objection, respectively

Pitch accent

Standard Seoul Korean only uses pitch for prosodic purposes. However, several dialects outside Seoul retain the Middle Korean pitch accent system. In the dialect of Northern Gyeongsang, in southeastern South Korea, any syllable may have pitch accent in the form of a high tone, as may the two initial syllables. For example, in trisyllabic words, there are four possible tone patterns:

  • [mé.nu.ɾi] ('daughter-in-law')
  • [ə.mú.i] ('mother')
  • [wə.nə.mín] ('native speaker')
  • [ó.ɾé.pi] ('elder brother')

References

See also

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