Phonology refers to the sounds a language makes. Often times, it bears little resemblance to the writing system. Those of you who know English and who can pronounce it correctly know this to be true.
I will introduce the Korean Phonology from my perspective, which is probably different than what you learned before.
- 1 Basics of Phonology
- 2 The Consonants
- 3 Combining Consonants
- 4 Vowels
- 5 Dipthongs
- 6 Intonation
- 7 Regional Accents
- 8 What's Next?
Basics of Phonology
Koreans, like every language, distinguish between consonants and vowels. Consonants are sounds like 'k' and 'd', and vowels are the sounds in between, like 'a' and 'oo'.
This section gives some general guidelines, hopefully to prepare you for what is coming in the details.
The Korean consonants are organized rather differently than English and many other languages. Once you understand the Korean consonant system, you will see that other languages use parts of it, even though they don't realize it.
If you look at your mouth, you will notice that your tongue makes different shapes when it pronounces the consonants. Try right now making the following sounds, and note what your tongue and mouth do:
- 'p', 'f', 'th','t', 'k', 'ng'
You'll note that you started with your lips together ('p'), then you touched your lips to your teeth ('f'), and then you touched your tongue to your teeth ('th'), then your tongue to gums immediately behind the teeth ('t'), followed by the middle of your tongue to the top of your mouth ('k'), and then finally, the back of your tongue to the back of your throat.
This is what I will refer to as "mouth position". Many letters in English share the same mouth position, so mouth position is not enough information about what consonant is being made.
Voiced v. Unvoiced?
In English, we distinguish 't' and 'd', which have the same mouth position, by listening whether one is voiced or not. Feel your throat, your vocal chords, with your fingers when you say "t" versus "d". Note that 'd' is voiced, meaning, the vocal chords are vibrating. The 't' sound, however, is unvoiced.
I tell you this because in Korean, speakers and listeners do not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced sounds. It doesn't matter to them. The sound for 'ㄷ' is sometimes voiced, and sometimes unvoiced. They don't care, it's the same sound. If you're wondering, consonants in the beginning of a word tend to be unvoiced, and those in the middle tend to be voiced, although in reality they are somewhere in between, never quite reaching the extremes we have for 't' and 'd'.
Koreans do, however, distinguish between aspirated and non-aspirated consonants. Make the shape of 't', and say it with an airy, raspy voice. You should almost be spitting. That's an aspirated 't', or 'ㅌ'. Now, say the same sound, but try to say it so that a piece of paper hanging in front of your mouth only moves slightly. That's non-aspirated 't', or the 'ㄷ' sound.
In English, the 't' sound is sometimes aspirated, and sometimes not, and we don't care which you use. Some words prefer aspiration, some do not, but who cares anyway?
In Korean, aspiration is a critical discriminating factor. You'll have to learn to listen for it, and learn to say it.
Koreans treat final consonants differently than we do in English. Take a word, like "hat". Note that you're really saying "hatu". There's a very small vowel sound that comes after the "t" so that it will make the "t" sound.
For Koreans, if a word ends on a consonant, they end with the shape of the consonant, but do not necessarily pronounce it! For this reason, consonants that have a similar mouth shape (s, t, d) and end a word sound exactly the same. So, to a Korean, "has", "had", and "hat" would all sound like "hat", but your tongue would be touching the roof of your mouth with no air passing over.
Understanding how Koreans end on a consonant will help you understand double consonants better.
Stops / Double Consonants
In English, we have lots of words with double consonants, and it doesn't matter to us. Take the word "hat" and put it next to "top", and say "hattop". In English, those two words just share the 't' sound to make something like "hatop".
In Korean, when you double a consonant, the air and sound have to come to a complete stop. This is represented with the 'ㄸ', which is called ssang (쌍), which means "twin" or "double".
Words that start with ssang consonants must stop everything before making their sound. This produces a very hard, very interruptive sound, almost like you are a stutterer who is finally able to make his words come out. In the middle of a word, it is similar. Just treat the syllable before the doubled consonant as a complete stop --- as if you are ending on that consonant. And then start the next one completely fresh.
Some of the "softer" consonants also double. These are harder to pronounce, and sometimes Koreans have a harder time distinguishing them. Thankfully, it is rare indeed that these make a difference in the word. The way to pronounce these double-consonants is to hold the consonants with a little more force and a little longer than you otherwise would. Or, in other words, have the single-consonants form a slightly softer and quicker sound than you would in English.
With this introduction, the consonants in Korean are ready to be introduced. I've provided the names for them, so you will know what to call them when someone tries to correct your pronunciation.
|p/b||ㅍ (피옆)||ㅂ (비엽)||ㅃ (쌍비엽)||ㅁ (미음)|
|t/d||ㅌ (티읕)||ㄷ (디걷)||ㄸ (쌍디걷)||ㄴ (니은)|
|k/g||ㅋ (키옄)||ㄱ (기역)||ㄲ (쌍기역)||ㅇ (이응)|
There are some miscellaneous consonants as well, that don't categorize in one of the above groups.
|s||ㅅ (시옷), ㅆ (쌍시엇)|
|ch/j||ㅊ (치읓), ㅈ (지읒), ㅉ (쌍지읒)|
It is important to note that the s and ch/j sounds have the same mouth shape as t/d. That will be important.
Velars (top of the mouth): ㅋ, ㄱ, ㄲ
The first group of words is the k/g sounds. The all share the same mouth shape as k/g in English.
ㅋ is a strong, aspirated 'k': 'kh' is probably the best way to describe it. Since it is aspirated, you should be moving a lot of air when you say it. The 'k' sound in English usually gets interpreted as a ㅋ so be aware that that's what you're starting at as an English speaker. The "kh" sound comes from the front of the throat, not the back, as you might hear in Scottish "loch" or in Arab or Hebrew's strong H sound.
ㄱ is a very gentle, almost subtle k/g sound. If you start with the 'g' sound in English, then move it a little closer to 'k', you're probably very close to where you should be. Be sure only a little bit of air moves through the mouth with this sound so as to not confuse it with ㅋ. Usually, 'g' in English gets interpreted as ㄱ. But keep in mind it may or may not be voiced, or even half-voiced. Koreans ignore voicing.
ㄲ is a forceful stop in the shape of 'g'.
Note that at the end of a word, as long as no sounds follow them, these all behave the same since they form the same mouth shape.
Practice: 카, 가, 까, 아카, 아가, 아까, 악
Please find a native speaker to help you practice those sounds.
Alveolar (behind the teeth): ㅌ, ㄷ, ㄸ
The t/d sounds ㅌ, ㄷ, and ㄸ all share the same mouth shape. This is similar to t/d in English but is slightly behind them, higher in the mouth. This is the same position as for ㄹ, ㄴ, ㅈ, ㅉ, ㅊ, ㅅ, and ㅆ.
ㅌ is strongly aspirated, like ㅋ. Be sure to move a lot of air. Because of the forward position of the tongue, you are likely to create a little spit that flies out of your mouth if you aren't careful. That's a good thing; it means you are doing it right. The English 't' is often translated as ㅌ.
ㄷ is not aspirated. In addition to being made slightly behind/upward where the English 'd' is made, it also has slightly less voice than 'd'. Make sure that only very little air moves through the mouth as you make this sound. The English 'd' is often translated as ㄷ.
ㄸ is a full stop in the ㄷ shape. Be sure to stop all the air and let this one explode a bit when you say it.
Practice: 타, 다, 따, 아타, 아다, 아따, 앋
Bilabials (two lips): ㅍ, ㅂ, ㅃ
These sounds are made with the two lips touching each other. This is exactly the same as the shape of p/b in English, except the lips sometimes do not close completely, making a sound that could be interpreted as f/v. F/v do not exist separately in Korean, so they just sound like a weird way to make these sounds.
ㅍ is aspirated, meaning, a lot of air has to move through your mouth to make it. This is almost an f sound since sometimes the lips don't fully close when making the sound.
ㅂ is not aspirated, and make be voiced or not. Again, the mouth doesn't necessarily close all the way, meaning it may almost sound as a 'v'.
ㅃ makes complete, tight seal, and explodes with some force.
Practice: 파, 바, 빠, 아파, 아바, 아빠, 압
Nasals (nose): ㅁ, ㄴ, ㅇ
The three nasals are represented by ㅁ, ㄴ, and ㅇ.
ㅁ is made with both lips like ㅂ. Just put them together and hum through your nose, like 'm'. However, this consonant is much lighter and quicker than what we are used to in English.
ㄴ is made with the tongue in the same position as ㄷ. Just stick your tongue there and hum, like 'n' except slightly more backward / upward. Like ㅁ, this is lighter and quicker.
ㅇ is made with the tongue in the same position as ㄱ. This is the English 'ng' sound. Like in English, this is usually made with other sounds, so it is lightly and quickly pronounced.
For ㅁ and ㄴ, sometimes the sounds are doubled, and you can hear the speaker doing this with a longer or more heavy pronunciation of the consonant that matches more closely with what we are used to in English. Practice: 마, 아마, 암마, 암, 나, 아나, 안나, 안, 앙.
ㅊ, ㅈ, ㅉ
These are the ch/j sounds. They are made in the same position as ㄷ, which is slightly behind/above where ch/j are made in English.
ㅊ is the aspirated sound, and is an airy ch sound. Note that you shouldn't let the air stop before pronouncing this, otherwise it may sound like a ㅉ.
ㅈ is a 'j' sound that hints at 'ch'. It doesn't move much are at all.
ㅉ is a strong 'j' sound, stopping the air before exploding.
Note that the mouth shape is the same as for ㄷ, so as a final consonant, there is no difference between this and any of the ㄷ sounds.
Practice: 차, 자, 짜, 아차, 아자, 아짜, 앚.
ㅎ is simply an 'h' sound. It is the thing that you add to ㅂ, ㅈ, ㄷ, and ㄱ to make ㅍ, ㅊ, ㅌ, and ㅋ. If you look at these letters, you'll note that they all have an extra horizontal line, more or less. This indicates, "Move more air through your mouth!"
The 's' sounds are tricky for English speakers to get right.
ㅆ behaves like 's' in English---a long, forceful hissing.
ㅅ behaves like a very weak and subtle 's'. It is quick and light, and almost hints at a weak ㅎ. If you can make this sound without touching your tongue to your mouth, you are doing it right.
Both of these sounds change completely when put before 이. They turn into what in English we know as 'sh'. This is a shibboleth with Korean and many other languages. They simply cannot pronounce 'si'. Ask a Korean to try the tongue-twister "She sells seashells at the seashore" and you'll hear "She sells shesells at the shesore." That is, unless they've trained themselves to pronounce things in English properly.
Because the mouth shape is close to ㄷ, the consonant sounds the same when it is final.
Practice: 싸, 사, 아사, 아싸, 씨, 시, 이씨, 이시, 앗.
Of all the sounds in Korean, this is the one that drives English speakers crazy. It is the one consonant that will tell Korean speakers right away whether you have a thick foreign accent or not.
This sound manifests itself in four distinct ways. Note that in each of these cases, the tongue is behind where it would be for 'd' in English, even a little bit more behind where it would be for ㄷ.
Case #1: Initially, it may sound like and 'l' or and 'r'. In "true" Korean, no words start with ㄹ, so this is a moot point. If you force a Korean to say a word starting with ㄹ, they will most likely make an ㄹ sound as in case #3. But sometimes they will make the sound as in Case #2.
In the many words they have borrowed from Chinese that start with this sound, they simply drop the initial consonant rather than force themselves to say it. That's why the "Lee" family is pronounced "Ee".
Case #2: In the middle of a word, a single ㄹ will make a very light flap like an 'r'. Think of the way people may trill the 'r', especially in Spanish. Now do that exactly once instead of 3-5 times like the Spanish do. You have ㄹ. Another way to think of this is the lightest 'd' you have ever said in your life.
Case #3: When you have 2 ㄹ in the middle of a word, then you get an 'l' sound. This is lighter and quicker than the 'l' we have in English, but it is nonetheless entirely distinct from a single ㄹ.
Case #4: When you have an ㄹ at the end of a word, it forms the shape of an 'l', and then holds that shape after all voicing has stopped.
In NO CASE does the ㄹ every make the "dirty" vowel sound you hear in American English, such as with "hard" or "cord". If you are doing this, you sound like a foreigner.
Practice: 라, 아라, 알라, 알.
When Koreans put two consonants together, they allow no room at all for a vowel to mitigate the difference. In order to pronounce the combination properly, end the first syllable with the shape of the final consonant, then pronounce the second consonant without allowing any space in between. Often this implies a change in pronunciation. Consult the following chart to see how this works in practice.
Note: This chart is taking longer than I thought to put together, and many combinations never occur. I should instead focus on some basic rules. The rest you'll figure out just by listening.
- Be very careful not to make the ㅇ (ng) sound here.
Korean vowels are very precise. In fact, if you get the vowels of the word right, it almost doesn't matter what consonants you have used, Koreans will understand you.
Korean vowels do not shift based on how the word is used. Any changes in vowels due to grammatical changes are well-defined and precise.
If you want to sound like a Korean, first master your vowels.
One note: A lot of English vowels are actually two vowels put together. Korean vowels are pure, meaning, you do not start with one vowel and end with another. For instance, in English, the long "o" is actually two vowels: "o" plus "oo".
Note that Koreans think of some vowels (아, 오) as "bright" and the rest (어, 우, 으, 이) as "dark". You'll see why this is important as we get into grammar.
The first vowel is a very pure, very clean, 'ah' sound. It is the sound your make when you open your mouth at the dentist. Open your throat, open your mouth, move your tongue down, and let your voice sing in a beautiful, pure way.
아 is considered "bright".
If you start with 아, move your tongue forward, and close your mouth slightly, you will produce the 어 sound that seems to be unique to Korean. This is the vowel that most Americans mess up on, and it is the reason why Korean is considered hard. Master this vowel, and keep it distinct from 오, and you will be able to learn Korean quickly.
어 is considered "dark".
Open your mouth as for 아, but then close your lips into a tight "o" shape. Let your bass voice sing, and let your mouth resonate with all the rich goodness that this vowel possesses. Don't be afraid of making it to deep or too reverberant. The more, the better.
오 is considered "bright".
Make a circle with your lips, and stick your lips out all the way. This is the "oo" sound of 우.
우 is considered "dark".
This is a vowel that English speakers struggle with, although I cannot see why. We use it all the time.
Think of the sound you make when you don't care what the vowel is. This is the sound you make for "a" and "the" when you are trying to say something. This is the 으 sound.
Close your mouth, move your tongue forward, keeping the back of the tongue down. Open your lips about 1/4 of the way, and relax. This is the 으 vowel.
Another way to think of it is to imagine you are paralyzed but trying to say "ee". Start with "ee", and relax, relax, relax, relax.
으 is considered "dark".
This is between "ee" and "i".
Open your mouth a bit. Lift the back of your tongue, almost like you are going to make a "k" sound.
American speakers tend to choose "ee" or "i" and stick with it, while Korean speakers are very consistent with their 이 sound. I suggest thinking of it as one or the other, and then imagining that the Koreans simply pronounce that vowel slightly differently.
In Korean, you can combine vowel sounds to make new sounds. Koreans love their vowels so much they know where these vowels come from.
아 + 이 = 애
This is an 'e' sound, as in 'pet'. It's somewhere between 아 and 이.
Koreans have a hard time distinguishing between this and 에, but the distinction is important.
어 + 이 = 에
This is a long a sound, as in 'gate', except without the extra 'ee' sound we have in English. It is somewhere between 어 and 이.
오 + 아 = 와
This is simply a "wa" as in "water", which is the two vowels pronounced quickly.
오 + 애 = 왜
This is simple the two vowels pronounced quickly, one after the other, "we" as in "wet".
오 + 이 = 외
This sound exactly the same as 왜.
우 + 어 = 워
This is the two vowels pronounced quickly after another, "wo".
우 + 에 = 웨
This is the two vowels pronounced quickly after another, "way" without the final "ee" sound in English.
우 + 이 = 위
This is the two vowels pronounced quickly after another, "wee" or "wi" depending on how you think of it.
으 + 이 = 의
This combination manifests itself in many ways.
- Sometimes, it is the two vowels one after another, a sort of "wee" but without the lips.
- Sometimes, it is simply 이.
- Sometimes, it is simply 애.
이 + vowel
Putting 이 in front of a vowel gives you a 'y' sound.
- 이 + 아 = 야 (ya)
- 이 + 애 = 얘 (ye)
- 이 + 어 = 여 (yo)
- 이 + 에 = 예 (yay)
- 이 + 오 = 요 (yo)
- 이 + 우 = 유 (yu)
In English, we use accents to distinguish some words from another.
Korean is somewhat unique among languages because they do not use accents, or even tones like Japanese and Chinese. They speak like a machine gun.
However, there is some intonation in phrases and sentences. This is usually represented with slight variations in pitch.
In between phrases, Koreans will take a small break. However, they do not vary the tempo of their speech.
Intonation is also heavily influenced on where the speaker originates from. Speakers from the southwest area of South Korea, Pusan and Kyoungsan Province, speaking with exaggerated variations. To speakers in other regions, this sounds combative and emotional. Speakers in Seoul try to speak calmly and almost in a robot-like fashion. Speakers in other regions also have certain characteristics you will see. One area is know for speaking very, very slowly.
The various regions are remarkably consistent in their pronunciation. You shouldn't have a hard time understanding what other regions are saying, especially if you have a moderate ability in Korean to begin with.
Some regions vary the vowels by quite a bit. However, they are remarkably consistent, and understanding them is no different than understanding someone with a speech impediment.
- Practice making the sounds above. Check with a native Korean speaker to see if you are doing it correctly.
- Listen to a Korean speaker making the sounds.
- Try to discriminate the sounds one from another. Focus on the problem areas for English speakers:
- Aspirated vs. normal vs. stops.
- The different vowels and combinations.
- Try to mimic a Korean speaker.
Plan to revisit this section as you progress in Korean. Bad habits creep into your patterns that must be corrected. The better your pronunciation and hearing, the quicker you will hear what others are really saying.