Korean phonology

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This article is a technical description of the phonetics and phonology of Korean. Unless otherwise noted, statements in this article refer to South Korean standard language based on the Seoul dialect.

Morphophonemes are written inside double slashes (⫽ ⫽), phonemes inside slashes (/ /), and allophones inside brackets ([ ]).


Korean has 19 consonant phonemes.[1]

For each stop and affricate, there is a three-way contrast between unvoiced segments, which are distinguished as plain, tense, and aspirated.

  • The "plain" segments, sometimes referred to as "lax" or "lenis," are considered to be the more "basic" or unmarked members of the Korean obstruent series. The "plain" segments are also distinguished from the tense and aspirated phonemes by changes in vowel quality, including a relatively lower pitch of the following vowel.[2]
  • The "tense" segments, also referred to as "fortis," "hard," or "glottalized," have eluded precise description and have been the subject of considerable phonetic investigation. In the Korean alphabet as well as all widely used romanization systems for Korean, they are represented as doubled plain segments: pp, tt, jj, kk. As it was suggested from the Middle Korean spelling, the tense consonants came from the initial consonant clusters sC-, pC-, psC-.[3][4]:29, 38, 452
  • The "aspirated" segments are characterized by aspiration, a burst of air accompanied by the delayed onset of voicing.

Korean syllable structure is maximally CGVC, where G is a glide /j, w, ɰ/. Any consonant except /ŋ/ may occur initially, but only /p, t, k, m, n, ŋ, l/ may occur finally. Sequences of two consonants may occur between vowels.

Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Alveolo-palatal/Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
plain p t , ts k
tense t͈ɕ, t͈s
aspirated tɕʰ, tsʰ
Fricative plain/aspirated s h
Liquid l~ɾ
Approximant w j ɰ
Example words for consonant phonemes
IPA Example
/p/ bul [pul] 'fire' or 'light'
/p͈/ ppul [p͈ul] 'horn'
/pʰ/ pul [pʰul] 'grass' or 'glue'
/m/ mul [m͊ul] 'water' or 'liquid'
/t/ dal [tal] 'moon' or 'month'
/t͈/ ttal [t͈al] 'daughter'
/tʰ/ tal [tʰal] 'mask' or 'trouble'
/n/ nal [n͊al] 'day' or 'blade'
/tɕ/ 자다 jada [tɕada] 'to sleep'
/t͈ɕ/ 짜다 jjada [t͈ɕada] 'to squeeze' or 'to be salty'
/tɕʰ/ 차다 chada [tɕʰada] 'to kick' or 'to be cold'
/k/ gi [ki] 'energy'
/k͈/ kki [k͈i] 'talent' or 'meal'
/kʰ/ ki [kʰi] 'height'
/ŋ/ bang [paŋ] 'room'
/s/ sal [sal] 'flesh'
/s͈/ ssal [s͈al] 'uncooked grains of rice'
/ɾ/ 바람 baram [paɾam] 'wind' or 'wish'
/l/ bal [pal] 'foot'
/h/ 하다 hada [hada] 'to do'


/p, t, tɕ, k/ are voiced [b, d, dʑ, ɡ] between sonorants (including all vowels and certain consonants) but voiceless elsewhere. Among younger generations, they may be just as aspirated as /pʰ, tʰ, tɕʰ, kʰ/ in initial position; the primary difference is that vowels following the plain consonants carry low tone.[5][6]

h does not occur in final position,[a] though it does occur at the end of non-final syllables, where it affects the following consonant. (See below.) Intervocalically, it is realized as voiced [ɦ], and after voiced consonants it is either [ɦ] or silent.[7]


/pʰ, tʰ, tɕʰ, kʰ/ are strongly aspirated, more so than English voiceless stops. They generally don't undergo intervocalic voicing, but a 2020 study reports that it still occurs in around 10~15% of cases. It's more prevalent among older male speakers who have aspirated stops voiced in as much as 28% of cases.[8]

The analysis of /s/ as phonologically plain or aspirated has been a source of controversy in the literature.[9][2] Similarly to aspirated stops, it generally doesn't undergo intervocalic voicing word-medially, and it triggers high tone in the following vowel. It shows moderate aspiration word-initially (in the same way "plain" stops /p/, /t/, /k/ do), but no aspiration word-medially.[2][7]


The IPA diacritic ⟨◌͈⟩, resembling a subscript double straight quotation mark, shown here with a placeholder circle, is used to denote the tensed consonants /p͈/, /t͈/, /k͈/, /t͈ɕ/, /s͈/. Its official use in the Extensions to the IPA is for strong articulation, but is used in literature for faucalized voice. The Korean consonants also have elements of stiff voice, but it is not yet[when?] known how typical that is of faucalized consonants. Sometimes the tense consonants are marked with an apostrophe, ⟨ʼ⟩, but that is not IPA usage; in the IPA, the apostrophe indicates ejective consonants. Some works use full-size ʔ or small ˀ before tensed consonants, this notation is generally used to denote pre-glottalization. Asterisk * after a tensed consonant is also used in literature.[7]

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.
An alternative analysis[10] proposes that the "tensed" series of sounds are (fundamentally) regular voiceless, unaspirated consonants: the "lax" sounds are voiced consonants that become devoiced initially, and the primary distinguishing feature between word-initial "lax" and "tensed" consonants is that initial lax sounds cause the following vowel to assume a low-to-high pitch contour, a feature reportedly associated with voiced consonants in many Asian languages, whereas tensed (and also aspirated) consonants are associated with a uniformly high pitch.

Vowels before tense consonants (as well as aspirated) tend to be shorter than before lax stops.[7]

Gyeongsang dialect is known for realization of tense ss as plain s.


Sonorants resemble vowels in a sense that plain stops become voiced between a sonorant or a vowel and another vowel.

ㅁ, ㄴ /m, n/ tend to be denasalized word-initially. [11]

ng does not occur in initial position, reflected in the way the hangeul jamo has a different pronunciation in the initial position to the final position. These were distinguished when hangeul was created, with the jamo with the upper dot and the jamo without the upper dot; these were then conflated and merged in the standards for both the North Korean and South Korean standards. /ŋ/ can technically occur syllable-initially, as in 명이, which is written as /mjʌŋ.i/, but pronounced as /mjʌ.ŋi/.

/l/ is an alveolar flap [ɾ] between vowels or between a vowel and an /h/; it is [l] or [ɭ] at the end of a word, before a consonant other than /h/, or next to another /l/. There is free variation at the beginning of a word, where this phoneme tends to become [n] before most vowels and silent before /i, j/, but it is commonly [ɾ] in English loanwords.

In native Korean words, r does not occur word initially, unlike in Chinese loans (Sino-Korean vocabulary).[11] In South Korea, it is silent in initial position before /i/ and /j/, pronounced [n] before other vowels, and pronounced [ɾ] only in compound words after a vowel. The prohibition on word-initial r is called the "initial law" or dueum beopchik (두음법칙). Initial r is officially spelled with in North Korea, but is often pronounced the same way as it is in South Korea.

  • "labour" (勞動) – North Korea: rodong (로동), South Korea: nodong (노동)
  • "history" (歷史) – North Korea: ryŏksa (력사), South Korea: yeoksa (역사)

This rule also extends to n in many native and all Sino-Korean words, which is also lost before initial /i/ and /j/ in South Korean; again, North Korean preserves the [n] phoneme there.

  • "female" (女子) – North Korea: nyŏja (녀자), South Korea: yeoja (여자)

In both countries, initial r in words of foreign origin other than Chinese is pronounced [ɾ]. Very old speakers may pronounce word-initial r as [n] even in Western loanwords, e.g. in "writer" 라이터 [naitʰɔː].

When pronounced as an alveolar flap [ɾ], is sometimes allophonic with [d], which generally does not occur elsewhere.[clarification needed]

The features of consonants are summed up in the following table.

Features of consonants[7][12][10]
Consonant class Voice Tension Aspiration Pitch of following vowel
Sonorants ㅁㄴㄹ[ㅇ] yes lenis no low
Plain ㅂㅈㄷㄱ intervocally lenis slight/heavy (word-initially) low
h intervocally (or absent) lenis (yes) high
s no lenis slight/heavy (word-initially) high
Aspirated ㅍㅊㅌㅋ no fortis heavy high
Tense ㅃㅉㄸㄲㅆ no fortis no high


Morphemes may also end in CC clusters, which are both expressed only when they are followed by a vowel. When the morpheme is not suffixed, one of the consonants is not expressed; if there is a /h/, which cannot appear in final position, it will be that. Otherwise it will be a coronal consonant (with the exception of /lb/, sometimes), and if the sequence is two coronals, the voiceless one (/s, tʰ, tɕ/) will drop, and /n/ or /l/ will remain. /lb/ either reduces to [l] (as in 짧다 [t͡ɕ͈alt͈a] "to be short"[13]) or to [p̚] (as in 밟다 [paːp̚t͈a] "to step"[14]); 여덟 [jʌdʌl] "eight" is always pronounced 여덜 even when followed by a vowel-initial particle.[15] Thus, no sequence reduces to [t̚] in final position.











Medial allophone [k̚s͈] [lɡ] [ndʑ] [n(ɦ)] [ls͈] [ltʰ] [l(ɦ)] [lb] [p̚s͈] [lpʰ] [lm]
Final allophone [k̚] [n] [l] [p̚] [m]

When such a sequence is followed by a consonant, the same reduction takes place, but a trace of the lost consonant may remain in its effect on the following consonant. The effects are the same as in a sequence between vowels: an elided obstruent will leave the third consonant fortis, if it is a stop, and an elided |h| will leave it aspirated. Most conceivable combinations do not actually occur;[b] a few examples are ⫽lh-tɕ⫽ = [ltɕʰ], ⫽nh-t⫽ = [ntʰ], ⫽nh-s⫽ = [ns͈], ⫽ltʰ-t⫽ = [lt͈], ⫽ps-k{⫽ = [p̚k͈], ⫽ps-tɕ⫽ = [p̚t͈ɕ]; also ⫽ps-n⫽ = [mn], as /s/ has no effect on a following /n/, and |ks-h| = [kʰ], with the /s/ dropping out.

When the second and third consonants are homorganic obstruents, they merge, becoming fortis or aspirate, and, depending on the word and a preceding ⫽l⫽, might not elide: ⫽lk-k⫽ is [lk͈].

An elided ⫽l⫽ has no effect: ⫽lk-t⫽ = [k̚t͈], ⫽lk-tɕ⫽ = [k̚t͈ɕ], ⫽lk-s⫽ = [k̚s͈], ⫽lk-n⫽ = [ŋn], ⫽lm-t{⫽ = [md], ⫽lp-k⫽ = [p̚k͈], ⫽lp-t⫽ = [p̚t͈], ⫽lp-tɕ⫽ = [p̚t͈ɕ], ⫽lpʰ-t⫽ = [p̚t͈], ⫽lpʰ-tɕ⫽ = [p̚t͈ɕ], ⫽lp-n⫽ = [mn].

Positional allophones[edit]

Korean consonants have three principal positional allophones: initial, medial (voiced), and final (checked). The initial form is found at the beginning of phonological words. The medial form is found in voiced environments, intervocalically and after a voiced consonant such as n or l. The final form is found in checked environments such as at the end of a phonological word or before an obstruent consonant such as t or k. Nasal consonants (m, n, ng) do not have noticeable positional allophones beyond initial denasalization, and ng cannot appear in this position.

The table below is out of alphabetical order to make the relationships between the consonants explicit:



















Initial allophone k~ n/a t~ ~tɕʰ tɕʰ t͈ɕ n~n͊ ɾ, n~n͊ p~ pʰː m~m͊ h
Medial allophone ɡ ŋ d s n ɾ b m h~ɦ~n/a
Final allophone n/a l n/a n/a

All obstruents (stops, affricates, fricatives) become stops with no audible release at the end of a word: all coronals collapse to [t̚], all labials to [p̚], and all velars to [k̚].[c] Final r is a lateral [l] or [ɭ].


The vowel that most affects consonants is /i/, which, along with its semivowel homologue /j/, palatalizes /s/ and /s͈/ to alveolo-palatal [ɕ] and [ɕ͈] for most speakers (but see differences in the language between North Korea and South Korea).

ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅉ are pronounced [tɕ, tɕʰ, t͈ɕ] in Seoul, but typically pronounced [ts~dz, tsʰ, t͈s] in Pyongyang.[16] Similarly, /s, s͈/ are palatalized as [ɕ, ɕ͈] before /i, j/ in Seoul. In Pyongyang they remain unchanged.[citation needed] This pronunciation may be also found in Seoul Korean among some speakers, especially before back vowels.

As noted above, initial |l| is silent in this palatalizing environment, at least in South Korea. Similarly, an underlying ⫽t⫽ or ⫽tʰ⫽ at the end of a morpheme becomes a phonemically palatalized affricate /tɕʰ/ when followed by a word or suffix beginning with /i/ or /j/ (it becomes indistinguishable from an underlying ⫽tɕʰ⫽), but that does not happen within native Korean words such as /ʌti/ [ʌdi] "where?".

/kʰ/ is more affected by vowels, often becoming an affricate when followed by /i/ or /ɯ/: [cçi], [kxɯ]. The most variable consonant is /h/, which becomes a palatal [ç] before /i/ or /j/, a velar [x] before /ɯ/, and a bilabial [ɸʷ] before /o/, /u/ and /w/.[7]

Allophones of consonants before vowels
/i, j/ /ɯ/ /o, u, w/ /a, ʌ, ɛ, e/
/s/ [ɕ] [s]
/s͈/ [ɕ͈] [s͈]
/t/ + suffix [dʑ]- [d]-
/tʰ/ + suffix [tɕʰ]- [tʰ]-
/kʰ/ [cç] [kx] [kʰ]
/h/ word-initially [ç] [x] [ɸʷ] [h]
/h/ intervocalically [ʝ] [ɣ] [βʷ] [ɦ]

In many morphological processes, a vowel /i/ before another vowel may become the semivowel /j/. Likewise, /u/ and /o/, before another vowel, may reduce to /w/. In some dialects and speech registers, the semivowel /w/ assimilates into a following /e/ or /i/ and produces the front rounded vowels [ø] and [y].

Consonant assimilation[edit]

As noted above, tenuis stops and /h/ are voiced after the voiced consonants /m, n, ŋ, l/, and the resulting voiced [ɦ] tends to be elided. Tenuis stops become fortis after obstruents (which, as noted above, are reduced to [k̚, t̚, p̚]); that is, /kt/ is pronounced [k̚t͈]. Fortis and nasal stops are unaffected by either environment, though /n/ assimilates to /l/ after an /l/. After /h/, tenuis stops become aspirated, /s/ becomes fortis, and /n/ is unaffected.[d] /l/ is highly affected: it becomes [n] after all consonants but /n/ (which assimilates to the /l/ instead) or another /l/. For example, underlying |tɕoŋlo| is pronounced /tɕoŋno/.[17]

These are all progressive assimilation. Korean also has regressive (anticipatory) assimilation: a consonant tends to assimilate in manner but not in place of articulation: Obstruents become nasal stops before nasal stops (which, as just noted, includes underlying ⫽l⫽), but do not change their position in the mouth. Velar stops (that is, all consonants pronounced [k̚] in final position) become [ŋ]; coronals ([t̚]) become [n], and labials ([p̚]) become [m]. For example, |hankukmal| is pronounced /hankuŋmal/ (phonetically [hanɡuŋmal]).[17]

Before the fricatives /s, s͈/, coronal obstruents assimilate to a fricative, resulting in a geminate. That is, |tʰs| is pronounced /ss͈/ ([s͈ː]). A final /h/ assimilates in both place and manner, so that ⫽hC is pronounced as a geminate (and, as noted above, aspirated if C is a stop). The two coronal sonorants, /n/ and /l/, in whichever order, assimilate to /l/, so that both ⫽nl⫽ and ⫽ln⫽ are pronounced [lː].[17]

There are lexical exceptions to these generalizations. For example, voiced consonants occasionally cause a following consonant to become fortis rather than voiced; this is especially common with ⫽ls⫽ and ⫽ltɕ⫽ as [ls͈] and [lt͈ɕ], but is also occasionally seen with other sequences, such as ⫽kjʌ.ulpaŋhak⫽ ([kjʌulp͈aŋak̚]), ⫽tɕʰamtoŋan⫽ ([tɕʰamt͈oŋan]) and ⫽wejaŋkanɯlo⫽ ([wejaŋk͈anɯɾo]).[17]

Phonetic realization (before /a/) of underlying consonant sequences in Korean
2nd C
1st C



















h- n/a k̚.kʰ n/a t̚.tʰ n/a n.n n/a p̚.pʰ n/a s.s͈ n/a t̚.tɕʰ n/a
velar stops1 k̚.k͈ k̚.t͈ ŋ.n ŋ.m k̚.p͈ k.s͈ k̚.t͈ɕ k̚.tɕʰ k̚.kʰ k̚.tʰ k̚.pʰ .kʰ
ng- ŋ ŋ.ɡ ŋ.k͈ ŋ.d ŋ.t͈ ŋ.b ŋ.p͈ ŋ.sː ŋ.s͈ ŋ.dʑ ŋ.t͈ɕ ŋ.tɕʰ ŋ.kʰ ŋ.tʰ ŋ.pʰ ŋ.ɦ ~ .ŋ
coronal stops2 t̚.k͈ t̚.t͈ n.n n.m t̚.p͈ s.s͈ t̚.t͈ɕ t̚.tɕʰ t̚.kʰ t̚.tʰ t̚.pʰ .tʰ
n- n n.ɡ n.k͈ n.d n.t͈ n.n l.l n.b n.p͈ n.sː n.s͈ n.dʑ n.t͈ɕ n.tɕʰ n.kʰ n.tʰ n.pʰ n.ɦ ~ .n
r- l l.ɡ l.k͈ l.d l.t͈ l.l l.m l.b l.p͈ l.sː l.s͈ l.dʑ l.t͈ɕ l.tɕʰ l.kʰ l.tʰ l.pʰ l.ɦ ~ .ɾ
labial stops3 p̚.k͈ p̚.t͈ m.n m.m p̚.p͈ p.s͈ p̚.t͈ɕ p̚.tɕʰ p̚.kʰ p̚.tʰ p̚.pʰ .pʰ
m- m m.ɡ m.k͈ m.d m.t͈ m.b m.p͈ m.sː m.s͈ m.dʑ m.t͈ɕ m.tɕʰ m.kʰ m.tʰ m.pʰ m.ɦ ~ .m
  1. Velar obstruents found in final position: g, kk, k
  2. Final coronal obstruents: d, t, s, ss, j, ch
  3. Final labial obstruents: b, p

The resulting geminate obstruents, such as [k̚k͈], [ss͈], [p̚pʰ], and [t̚tɕʰ] (that is, [k͈ː], [s͈ː], [pʰː], and [tːɕʰ]), tend to reduce ([k͈], [s͈], [pʰ], [tɕʰ]) in rapid conversation. Heterorganic obstruent sequences such as [k̚p͈] and [t̚kʰ] may, less frequently, assimilate to geminates ([p͈ː], [kːʰ]) and also reduce ([p͈], [kʰ]).

These sequences assimilate with following vowels the way single consonants do, so that for example ⫽ts⫽ and ⫽hs⫽ palatalize to [ɕɕ͈] (that is, [ɕ͈ː]) before /i/ and /j/; ⫽hk⫽ and ⫽lkʰ⫽ affricate to [kx] and [lkx] before /ɯ/; |ht|, |s͈h|, and |th| palatalize to [t̚tɕʰ] and [tɕʰ] across morpheme boundaries, and so on.

Hangul orthography does not generally reflect these assimilatory processes, but rather maintains the underlying morphology in most cases.


Most Standard Korean speakers have seven vowel phonemes.

Seoul Korean monophtongs
Front Central Back
unrounded rounded
Close [i] [ɯ] [u] [o]
Mid [e̞] [ʌ̹]
Open ɐ
Pyongyang Korean monophtongs
Front Central Back
unrounded rounded
Close [i] [ɯ] [u]
Mid [e̞] ( [ɛ]) [ʌ] [ɔ]
Open ɐ

Korean /a/ is actually [ɐ].

The distinction between /e/ and /ɛ/ is lost in South Korean dialects, both are most commonly realized as [e̞]. As for North Korean, some works report the distinction to be robust, but the data from one study suggests that while younger KCTV anchors try to produce them more or less distinctly, it's not clear whether it's learned or natural pronunciation, as they do that inconsistently. Also, older anchor Ri Chun-hee and even Kim Jong-un both have /e/ and /ɛ/ merged.[18][19][20][4]:4–6

In Seoul Korean, /o/ is produced higher than /ʌ/, while in North Korean dialects the two are comparable in height, and /ʌ/ is more fronted. In Gyeongsang dialect, /ɯ/ and /ʌ/ once have merged into [ə] in speech of older speakers, but they are distinct among young and middle-aged Daegu residents (they actually have the same vowels as Seoulites due to influence from Standard Korean).[20][7][18]

In Seoul, /u/ is fronted, while /o/ is raised, and both are almost the same height, but /o/ is still more rounded and back. Due to that, alternative transcriptions like [u̹] and [u̠] for /o/, and [u̜] and [u̟] for /u/ are proposed.[18] In both varieties, /ɯ/ is fronted away from /u/, and in North Korean it is also lower, shifting more towards [ɘ].[20][7][18]

Korean used to have two additional phonemes, [ø] and [y] , but they are replaced by the diphthongs [we] and [ɥi] in the speech of the majority of speakers.[7][18]

Middle Korean had an additional vowel phoneme denoted by , known as arae-a (literally "lower a"). The vowel merged with [a] in all mainland varieties of Korean but remains distinct in Jeju, where it is pronounced [ɒ].

Diphthongs and glides[edit]

Because they may follow consonants in initial position in a word, which no other consonant can do, and also because of Hangul orthography, which transcribes them as vowels, semivowels such as /j/ and /w/ are sometimes considered to be elements of rising diphthongs rather than separate consonant phonemes.

Diphthongs, disregarding length[21]
IPA Hangul Example
/je/ 예산 yesan [je̞ː.sɐn] 'budget'
/jɛ/ 얘기 yaegi [jɛ̝ː.ɡi] 'story'
/ja/ [jɐ] 야구 yagu [jɐː.ɡu] 'baseball'
/jo/ 교사 gyosa [kʲoː.sa] 'teacher'
/ju/ 유리 yuri [ju.ɾi] 'glass'
/jʌ/ 여기 yeogi [jʌ.ɡi] 'here'
/wi ~ y/ [ɥi] dwi [tʷi] 'back'
/we/ gwe [kʷe̞] 'chest' or 'box'
/wɛ/ wae [wɛ̝] 'why'
/wa/ [wɐ] 과일 gwail [kʷɐː.il] 'fruit'
/wʌ/ mwo [mʷəː] 'what'
/ɰi/ [ɰi ~ i] 의사 uisa [ɰi.sɐ] 'doctor'

In current pronunciation, /ɰi/ merges into /i/ after a consonant.[citation needed] Some analyses treat /ɯ/ as a central vowel and thus the marginal sequence /ɰi/ as having a central-vowel onset, which would be more accurately transcribed [ȷ̈i] or [ɨ̯i].[22]:12

Modern Korean has no falling diphthongs, with sequences like /a.i/ being considered as two separate vowels in hiatus. Middle Korean had a full set of diphthongs ending in /j/, which monophthongized into the front vowels in Early Modern Korean (/aj/ > /ɛ/, /əj/ [ej] > /e/, /oj/ > /ø/, /uj/ > /y/, /ɯj/ > /ɰi ~ i/).[22]:12 This is the reason why the hangul letters , , and so on are represented as back vowels plus i.

The sequences /*jø, *jy, *jɯ, *ji; *wø, *wy, *wo, *wɯ, *wu/ do not occur, and it is not possible to write them using standard hangul.[e] The semivowel [ɰ] occurs only in the diphthong /ɰi/, and is prone to being deleted after a consonant. There are no offglides in Korean; historical diphthongs /*aj, *ʌj, *uj, *oj, *ɯj/ have become modern monophthongs /ɛ/, /e/, /y ~ ɥi/, /ø ~ we/, /ɰi/.[22]:12

Loss of vowel length contrast[edit]

The vowel phonemes of Korean on a vowel chart, from (Lee, 1999).[21] The bottom chart represents long vowels.

Korean used to have a length distinction for each vowel, but now it's reported to be almost completely neutralized, although it's still prescriptive.[23] Long vowels were pronounced somewhat more peripherally than short ones. For most of the speakers who still utilize vowel length contrastively, long /ʌː/ is actually [ɘː].[21]

The vowel length was a remnant of high tone in Middle Korean. It was preserved only in first syllables and was often neutralized, particularly in following cases:[24]

  • In compound words: 사람 [sʰa̠ːɾa̠m] "man", but 눈사람 [nuːns͈a̠ɾa̠m] "snowman"; 벌리다 [pɘːʎʎida̠] "to open, to spread", but 떠벌리다 [t͈ʌ̹bʌ̹ʎʎida̠] "to brag".
  • In most monosyllabic verbs when attaching a suffix starting in a vowel (굶다 [kuːmt͈a̠] "to starve", but 굶어 [kulmʌ̹]; 넣다 [nɘːtʰa̠] "to put", but 넣으니 [nʌ̹ɯni]), or a suffix changing transitivity (붇다 [puːt̚t͈a̠] "to swell up", but 불리다 [puʎʎida̠] "to soak"; 꼬다 [k͈o̞ːda̠] "to twist", but 꼬이다 [k͈o̞ida̠] "to be entangled"). There were exceptions though: 얻다 [ɘːt̚t͈a̠] "to obtain" or 없다 [ɘːp̚t͈a̠] "to not be" still had long vowels in 얻어 [ɘːdʌ̹], 없으니 [ɘːp̚s͈ɯni].

It disappeared gradually, some middle-aged speakers are still aware of it and can produce it in conscious speech. The long-short merger had two main aspects, the first one is phonetical, the duration of long vowels in relation to short ones have reduced by a lot (from 2.5:1 in 1960s to 1.5:1 in 2000s). Some studies suggest that the length of all vowels is dependent on the age (older speakers have slower speech rate and even their short vowels are produced relatively longer). The second aspect is lexical, the subset of words produced with long vowels has gotten smaller, the long vowels tend to reduce particularly in high-frequency words.[24]

Vowel phonemes with length distinction[21]
IPA Hangul Example
/i/ 시장 sijang [ɕi.dʑɐŋ] 'hunger'
/iː/ 시장 sijang [ɕiː.dʑɐŋ] 'market'
/e/ 베개 begae [pe̞.ɡɛ̝] 'pillow'
/eː/ 베다 beda [peː.dɐ] 'to cut'
/ɛ/ bae [pɛ̝] 'pear'
/ɛː/ bae [pɛː] 'double'
/a/ mal [mɐl] 'horse'
/aː/ mal [mɐːl] 'word, language'
/o/ 보리 bori [po̞.ɾi] 'barley'
/oː/ 보수 bosu [poː.su̞] 'salary'
/u/ nun [nun] 'eye'
/uː/ nun [nuːn] 'snow'
/ʌ/ beol [pʌl] 'punishment'
/ʌː/ beol [pɘːl] 'bee'
/ɯ/ 어른 eoreun [ɘː.ɾɯn] 'seniors'
/ɯː/ 음식 eumsik [ɯːm.ɕik̚] 'food'
/ø/ [we] 교회 gyohoe [ˈkʲoːɦø̞] ~ [kʲoː.βʷe̞] 'church'
/øː/ [weː] 외투 oetu [ø̞ː.tʰu] ~ [we̞ː.tʰu] 'overcoat'
/y/ [ɥi] jwi [t͡ɕy] ~ [t͡ɕʷi] 'mouse'
/yː/ [ɥiː] 귀신 gwisin [ˈkyːɕin] ~ [ˈkʷiːɕin] 'ghost'

Vowel harmony[edit]

Korean vowel harmony
Positive, "light", or "yang" vowels a ya o wa yo ( ə)
ae yae oe wae ( yoe) ( əi)
Negative, "heavy", or "yin" vowels eo yeo u wo yu eu
e ye wi we ( ywi) ui
Neutral or center vowels i
Obsolete and dialectal sounds in parentheses.

Traditionally, the Korean language has had strong vowel harmony; that is, in pre-modern Korean, 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:

  • Onomatopoeia:
    • 퐁당퐁당 (pongdang-pongdang) and 풍덩풍덩 (pungdeong-pungdeong), light and heavy water splashing
  • Emphasized 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

Accent and pitch[edit]

In modern Standard Korean, in multisyllabic words the second syllable has high pitch that gradually comes down in subsequent syllables. The first syllable may have pitch as high as the second if it starts with a tense ㅃ, ㅉ, ㄸ, ㄲ, ㅆ /p͈, t͈ɕ, t͈, k͈, s͈/ or an aspirated ㅍ, ㅊ, ㅌ, ㅋ /pʰ, tɕʰ, tʰ, kʰ/ consonant, as well as ㅅ, ㅎ /sʰ, h/, or lower rising pitch if it starts with plain ㅂ, ㅈ, ㄷ, ㄱ /p, tɕ, t, k/ or a sonorant ㅁ, ㄴ, ㄹ /m, n, r/, including silent , i.e. a vowel.[10]

A 2013 study by Kang Yoon-jung and Han Sung-woo which compared voice recordings of Seoul speech from 1935 and 2005 found that in recent years, lenis consonants (ㅂㅈㄷㄱ), aspirated consonants (ㅍㅊㅌㅋ) and fortis consonants (ㅃㅉㄸㄲ) were shifting from a distinction via voice onset time to that of pitch change, and suggests that the modern Seoul dialect is currently undergoing tonogenesis.[25] Kim Mi-Ryoung (2013) notes that these sound shifts still show variations among different speakers, suggesting that the transition is still ongoing.[26] Cho Sung-hye (2017) examined 141 Seoul dialect speakers, and concluded that these pitch changes were originally initiated by females born in the 1950s, and has almost reached completion in the speech of those born in the 1990s.[27] On the other hand, Choi Ji-youn et. al. (2020) disagree with the suggestion that the consonant distinction shifting away from voice onset time is due to the introduction of tonal features, and instead proposes that it is a prosodically-conditioned change.[8]

Dialectal pitch accents[edit]

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:[28]

  • 메누리 ménuri [mé.nu.ɾi] 'daughter-in-law'
  • 어무이 eomú-i [ʌ.mú.i] 'mother'
  • 원어민 woneomín [wʌ.nʌ.mín] 'native speaker'
  • 오래비 órébi [ó.ɾé.bi] 'elder brother'

Age differences[edit]

Following changes have been observed since the mid-20th century and by now are widespread, at least in South Korea.

  • The vowel length has disappeared. Although still prescriptive, in 2012, the vowel length is reported to be almost completely neutralized in Korean, except for a very few older speakers of Seoul dialect,[23] for whom the distinctive vowel-length distinction is maintained only in the first syllable of a word.[29]
  • The mid front rounded vowel ([ø] ) and the close front rounded vowel ([y] ),[22]:6 can still be heard in the speech of some older speakers, but they have been largely replaced by the diphthongs [we] and [ɥi], respectively.[4]:4–6 In a 2003 survey of 350 speakers from Seoul, nearly 90% pronounced the vowel as [ɥi].[29]
  • The distinction between /e/ and /ɛ/ is lost in South Korean dialects. A number of homophones have appeared due to this change, and speakers may employ different strategies to distinguish them. For example, 내가 /nɛ-ga/ "I-subject" and 네가 /ne-ga/ "you-subject" are now pronounced as [ne̞gɐ] and [nigɐ] respectively, with the latter having changed its vowel; 새 잔 /sɛ jan/ "new glass" is pronounced with tensified [s͈] by some young speakers to not be conflated with 세 잔 /se jan/ "three glasses".

Some changes are still ongoing. They depend on age and gender, the speech of young females tends to be most innovative, while old males are phonologically conservative.

  • Plain stops in word-initial position are becoming as aspirated as "true" aspirated stops. They are still distinguished by their pitch.[8]
  • Some words experience tensification of initial plain consonants. It happens in both native and Sino-Korean words. It's considered proscribed in Standard Korean, but may be widespread or occur in free variation in certain words.[30] Examples:
    • 가시 /kasi/ "1) thorn; 2) worm" is pronounced 까시 /k͈asi/
    • 닦다 /tak̚t͈a/ "to polish" is pronounced 딲다 /t͈ak̚t͈a/
    • 조금 /tɕogɯm/ "a little" is pronounced 쪼금 /t͈ɕogɯm/, 쬐끔 /t͈ɕʷek͈ɯm/
  • Tensification is very common in Western loanwords: 배지 [p͈e̞t͈ɕi] "badge", 버스 [p͈ʌ̹s͈ɯ] "bus", [t͈ɕe̞m] "jam", although also proscribed in South Korea.


  1. ^ Orthographically, it is found at the end of the name of the letter , 히읗 hieut.
  2. ^ For example, morpheme-final |lp| occurs only in verb roots such as balb and is followed by only the consonants d, j, g, n.
  3. ^ The only fortis consonants to occur finally are kk and ss.
  4. ^ Other consonants do not occur after /h/, which is uncommon in morpheme-final position.
  5. ^ While is romanized as wo, it does not represent [wo], but rather [wʌ].


  1. ^ Sohn, Ho-Min (1994). Korean: Descriptive Grammar. Descriptive Grammars. London: Routledge. p. 432. ISBN 9780415003186.
  2. ^ a b c Cho, Taehong; Jun, Sun-Ah; Ladefoged, Peter (2002). "Acoustic and aerodynamic correlates of Korean stops and fricatives" (PDF). Journal of Phonetics. 30 (2): 193–228. doi:10.1006/jpho.2001.0153. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0013-1A88-E.
  3. ^ Kim-Renaud, Young-Key, ed. (1997). The Korean Alphabet: Its History and Structure. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press. pp. 169–170. ISBN 9780824817237.
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  5. ^ Kim, Mi-Ryoung; Beddor, Patrice Speeter; Horrocks, Julie (2002). "The contribution of consonantal and vocalic information to the perception of Korean initial stops". Journal of Phonetics. 30 (1): 77–100. doi:10.1006/jpho.2001.0152.
  6. ^ Lee, Ki-Moon; Ramsey, S. Robert (2011). A History of the Korean Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 293. ISBN 9780521661898.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Shin, Jiyoung; Kiaer, Jieun; Cha, Jaeeun (2012). The Sounds of Korean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107672680.
  8. ^ a b c Choi, Jiyoun; Kim, Sahyang; Cho, Taehong (October 22, 2020). "An apparent-time study of an ongoing sound change in Seoul Korean: A prosodic account". PLoS ONE. 15 (10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0240682.
  9. ^ Chang, Charles B. (2013). "The production and perception of coronal fricatives in Seoul Korean: The case for a fourth laryngeal category" (PDF). Korean Linguistics. 15 (1): 7–49. doi:10.1075/kl.15.1.02cha.
  10. ^ a b c Kim, Mi-Ryoung; San, Duanmu (2004). "'Tense' and 'Lax' Stops in Korean". Journal of East Asian Linguistics. 13 (1): 59–104. doi:10.1023/B:JEAL.0000007344.43938.4e. hdl:2027.42/42997. S2CID 121197437.
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  12. ^ Choo, Miho; O'Grady, William (2003). The Sounds of Korean: A Pronunciation Guide. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 9780824826017.
  13. ^ "짧다 - Wiktionary". en.wiktionary.org. Retrieved June 2, 2019.
  14. ^ "밟다 - Wiktionary". en.wiktionary.org. Retrieved June 2, 2019.
  15. ^ "여덟 - Wiktionary". en.wiktionary.org. Retrieved June 2, 2019.
  16. ^ Kwang-Bock You; Kanghee Lee; Sin-Ae So (August 2019). "A Comparative Study of the Speech Signal Parameters for the Consonants of Pyongyang and Seoul Dialects - Focused on the affricates "ㅈ/ㅉ/ㅊ"". 한국지식정보기술학회논문지. 14 (4): 411–423. doi:10.34163/JKITS.2019.14.4.010.
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  20. ^ a b c Kang, Yoonjung; Schertz, Jessamyn L.; Han, Sungwoo (2015). "Vowels of Korean dialects". Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 137 (4): 2414. Bibcode:2015ASAJ..137Q2414K. doi:10.1121/1.4920798.
  21. ^ a b c d Lee, Hyun Bok (1999). "Korean". Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 120–123. ISBN 9780521637510.
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  24. ^ a b Kang, Yoonjung; Yoon, Tae-Jin; Han, Sungwoo (October 1, 2015). "Frequency effects on the vowel length contrast merger in Seoul Korean". Laboratory Phonology. 6 (3–4): 469–503. doi:10.1515/lp-2015-0014. ISSN 1868-6354.
  25. ^ Kang, Yoonjung; Han, Sungwoo (September 2013). "Tonogenesis in early Contemporary Seoul Korean: A longitudinal case study". Lingua. 134: 62–74. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2013.06.002.
  26. ^ Kim, Mi-Ryoung (2013). "Tonogenesis in contemporary Korean with special reference to the onset-tone interaction and the loss of a consonant opposition". The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 133 (3570). doi:10.1121/1.4806535.
  27. ^ Cho, Sunghye (2017). "Development of pitch contrast and Seoul Korean intonation" (PDF). University of Pennsylvania. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 29, 2020. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  28. ^ Jun, Jongho; Kim, Jungsun; Lee, Hayoung; Jun, Sun-Ah (2006). "The prosodic structure and pitch accent of Northern Kyungsang Korean" (PDF). Journal of East Asian Linguistics. 15 (4): 289–317. doi:10.1007/s10831-006-9000-2. S2CID 18992886.
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Further reading[edit]