Sound Shifts in Korean Language

Since I started studying Korean alongside Japanese, I noticed some similarities. However, I’ve also noticed some differences. One of them is sound-shifts. Japanese has comparatively few, while Korean has a lot, and it affects how words are read. This is a little reference post I wrote to remind myself and other language students of the sound shifts, using a Japanese-langauge textbook on Korean I bought a few weeks ago. As I write in the conclusion, it seems to explain things a lot more easily than trying to explain it in English because the languages are similar and there’s more resources.

Anyhow, for example, the formal polite word for “to be” is 입니다. If you read it literally, it looks like ipnida, but in fact it’s read and pronounced as imnida (an ‘m’ sound, not a ‘p’). This is due to the complex way the different Korean letters affect each other, and how sounds have evolved over time in Korean language, while keeping their original spelling. Thankfully though the rules are pretty consistent. This post is to cover the common rules so that Korean can be read more easily. The end result is that when spoken, Korean tends to mold itself into a basic consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel pattern which is easy to pronounce, even though words may be spelled slightly different. The result below help explain exactly how this happens.

If you’re not comfortable with Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, this page is a good primer.

Hangeul Structure

Hangeul letters have consonants and vowels like English. For folks who studied Japanese previously,1 these are called ko-in 子音 (consonants) and bo-in 母音 (vowels) respectively.

Anyway, Hangeul uses the consonants and vowels to create “blocks” of sound called jamo (자모) like (“ma” or “m” + “a”), (“do” or “d” + “o”) and so on. Many jamo will also have a final consonant too called the batchim (받침) or pacchimu (パッチム) in Japanese-language texts on Korean. For the jamo above, adding ㄴ (called “nieun” but acts like “n”), you can make jamo like (“man”, m + a + n) and (“don”, d + o + n). This point is really important.

Also, there is a placeholder letter called ㅇ which is silent at the beginning or “ng” if the final consonant. It’s needed because all jamo have to start with a consonant, so it helps keep this rule consistent. So, you can make a jamo like (“an”) and although the ㅇ isn’t pronounced, the structure stays consistent with the rules of Hangeul.

Sound Shifts in Korean

Here are 7 rules for sound-shifts in Korean that help change speech into a simple consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel pattern:

Rule 1: softened sounds

Many consonants will soften their sound if they’re inside a word, as opposed to the beginning or end (batchim). In the revised-romanization system, the letter is still written the same, but pronunciation softens:

  • ㄱ has a “k” sound at the beginning or end of the word, and “g” sound in the middle.
  • ㅂ has a “p” sound at the beginning or end of the word, and “b” sound in the middle.
  • ㄷ has a “t” sound at the beginning or end of the word, and “d” sound in the middle.
  • ㅈ has a “ch” sound at the beginning or end of the word, and “j” sound in the middle.

The example used in my Japanese textbook is that 주소 or “address” is pronounced like chuso while 소주 or “Korean liquor” is pronounced like soju.

Rule 2: Hidden Pauses

If a jamo ends with the batchim ㄱ,ㅂ, ㅈ or ㄷ, and the next jamo starts with a regular consonant, the consonants sound will change to a double-consonant and you’ll hear a slight pause in pronunciation like in the English word bookkeeping.

Case in point: the word for school is 학교 has a ㄱ for batchim and a consonant (another ㄱ) after it, so the second consonant becomes ㄲ and the word sounds like 학꾜. Another word, 학생 (student) sounds more like 학쌩, while the word for magazine 잡지 sounds like 잡찌.

Rule 3: Filling in the blanks

If a jamo ends with a batchim and the next jamo starts with the “filler” letter ㅇ, the batchim letter “shifts” its sound to the next jamo, replacing the filler letter. The word for Korean language is 한국어 but the ㄱ shifts to the next jamo and sounds like 한구거. Naturally, in the process, it softens as well (see Rule 1). The word for Japanese language is 일본어 sounds more like 일보너.

Rule 4: The missing H

The letter ㅎ (h) tends to disappear in a lot of words. For example, the word for phone is 전화 but is pronounced more like 저놔. In other words, if the batchim ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅇ or ㄹ comes before the letter ㅎ, then ㅎ disappears. Likewise if ㅎ is the batchim itself, it’s pronunciation will disappear if the next letter is the filler ㅇ followed by a vowel (the vowel sound obscures it).

Rule 5: Smoothing things out

This one is kind of tricky to explain. If a certain jamo begins with either ㅁ (m) or ㄴ (n) and the previous jamo has a batchim of ㄱ,ㄷ, or ㅂ then that batchim’s sound will kind of smooth out like so:

  • Batchim ㄱ (g) will sound like ㅇ (ng)
  • Batchim ㄷ (d) or ㅅ (s) will sound like ㄴ (n)
  • Batchim ㅂ (b) will sound like ㅁ (m)

So, going back to the beginning of the post, the formal-polite word “to be” is written as 입니다, but because the middle jamo starts with ㄴ, the previous batchim (ㅂ) sounds like ㅁ. Another example in the book is the phrase “ten years” or 십년 which sounds more like 심년 (p -> m), or the phrase for a plant (e.g. a flower or fern), 식물 will sound 싱물. Another example is 존댓말 which is the word for honorific language on Korean. When pronounced it sounds more like 존댄말.

Rule 6: H finally makes a comeback

Unlike Rule 4, ㅎ sometimes also makes sounds stronger, more aspirated. If the batchim before is ㄱ, ㅂ or ㄷ (or if ㅎ is the batchim and the next letter is one of these three), then it becomes the aspirated version: ㅋ, ㅍ and ㅌ respectively and ㅎ sort of disappears (actually it fuses with the other letter in a way). So, the word for express is 급행 sounds more like 그팽 because of the way the ‘p’ and ‘h’ sounds fuse.

Rule 7: The double-R one-two punch

The last rule listed in the Japanese textbook I have is for cases when ㄹ and ㄴ are next to each other, regardless of which one is a batchim and which one starts a new jamo. Either way, if they’re side by side each other, the ㄴ becomes an ㄹ, creating 2 ㄹ’s. A great example of this less common rule is none other than Korean New Year, which is 설날 but is really pronounced as 설랄.

Conclusion

This is a brief look at sound shifts in Korean language. It’s an interesting look at how complex sound arrangements kind of naturally “smooth themselves out” in day to day speech. Such things happen in all languages, some more than others, but Korean seems a little more tricky. Also, pronunciation guides in English about Korean seem to struggle to explain this easily, so I was surprised to see how easy it was to understand once I studied it in a language that was closer to Korean (e.g. Japanese). I guess it’s a good lesson in the ladder approach mentioned by AJATT. :)

All you language students out there, good luck!

P.S. Blog misfire again. :)

1 I doubt a lot of people are doing this, but as I studied Japanese for years and now started on Korean, I am trying to leverage Japanese resources where I can. I found studying Korean through Japanese is a lot easier than through English because there’s more material, and the languages are more similar than English, so things like pronunciation can be more easily explained because I already know one language. Also it’s like studying two languages at once, because of the reading practice, etc. :)

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
This entry was posted in Japanese, Korean, Language and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sound Shifts in Korean Language

  1. Olivia says:

    Hello, anon here. I’d just like to say thanks for writing this wonderful blog on the differences between Japanese and Korean sound shifting. I really needed it since I’ll be studying the two for college next year.

    This whole sound shifting ordeal seems worse than learning the reasons for silent letters in English (like the ‘k’ in knife and such), but your explanation made things seem much easier. Thanks!

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Olivia and welcome. The sound shifts in Korean actually are very natural, because if you say those words literally (without sound shifts), they’ll sound awkward. If you say them fast, that’s how they’ll naturally shift.

    Good luck in your college studies. While you’re at it, check out AllJapaneseAllTheTime.com for additional language-learning tips. :)

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