Korean Consonants

Let’s talk about Hangul, Romanization, and why it’s always a bad idea to describe Korean in terms of English sounds.

This all came to me when I was watching a YouTube video of a Korean woman quizzing English speakers about loan words from English. The native speakers kept hearing a /k/ sound even as the Korean hostess was convinced that the native speakers would surely hear a /g/ sound.

I am also personally invested in this topic because every time I order at an American chain in Korea, the cashier corrects my Korean pronunciation of the English loan word.

(At Subway:

안녕하세요. 써브웨이 맬트 주세요. Hello, I’d like the “seo-bu-way mel-tuh” (Subway Melt).

….? Cashier doesn’t understand.

써브웨이 맬트… I repeat, losing confidence in both my English and Korean abilities.

써브웨이 맬트? She asks to clarify, as if that’s not what I think I’ve been saying this whole time. I guess my Konglish wasn’t Korean enough.)

Back to linguistics and not ongoing petty feud with loan words (especially the unnecessary ones like chee-keen mo-she-room puh-let-uh-buh-re-du. Come on, Dunkin Donuts, I know Korean has words for chicken, mushroom and bread!)

Anyways.

Our first stop: What is the IPA?

IPA is the international phonetic alphabet. It uses distinct and separate characters to represent every sound on earth. It even has symbols for languages with clicks!

We are not going to talk about every sound today, just the representations that aggravate me the most!

Korean has rules for how to transcribe Korean to English; this system is called “Romanization” because Korean letters are converted to their closest Roman alphabet English letter…. for better or for worse. Let’s take a look at three consonant families that are written as k/g, ch/j, and p/b in English.

TypeHangulKorean IPARomanizationEnglish IPA
aspiratedkʰ kk
plaingg
tensek͈ kkg
aspiratedtɕʰch
plainj
tenset͈ɕjj
aspiratedpʰ pp
plainpbb
tensep͈ bbb

You can see that the letters in each language family look similar :

k/g family: ㅋㄱㄲ
ch/j family: ㅊㅈㅉ
p/b family: ㅍㅂㅃ

But wait! Let me explain.

HangulIPAExplanation
kʰ k with some air
k͈ k with no air
tɕʰch* with some air
ch* 
t͈ɕch* with no air
pʰ p with some air
pp
p͈ p with no air
*tɕ is not quite the same as /ch/; the tongue is closer to the teeth when pronouncing tɕ but for ease of English speaking readers I have written /ch/.
What is the difference between the following IPA consonants: ʈʂ ...
If you really want a granular view, the tongue placement of English ch is represented by the top picture and Korean tɕ by the bottom picture.

So in essence, the pronunciation of the families is really like this:

k/g *some variation of k* family: ㅋㄱㄲ
ch/j *some variation of ch* family: ㅊㅈㅉ
p/b *some variation of p* family: ㅍㅂㅃ

You can see why my spelling in Korean can be riddled with errors…

In reality, even though Romanization uses g/j/b Korean doesn’t actually have these sounds. This leads to misunderstanding when learning either language. For example, you can see it clearly in this video as mentioned above where the Korean speaker thinks that ㄱ must sound like /g/ to English speakers because that’s how it’s Romanized from Korean. The reality is that ㄱ is actually English /k/.

Interestingly, our studied letters used to be Romanized as k/ch/p until the national revision in 2000.

HangulRomanization
Pre-Revision
Romanization
Post-Revision
k’k
kg
kkkk
ch’ch
chj
jjjj
p’p
pb
ppbb

This is of course an oversimplification; there are additional rules about how to spell these if the consonant is initial or final.

As you can see, there is no English “j” or “b” or “g” in Korean. That’s why my name sounds more like “ah-pee-kell” in Korean; there’s actually no way to get my true pronunciation. And why would there be? It’s a different language.

I think this fact is often lost in language education in South Korea. We can only ever approximate sounds of one language in the other but to learn proper pronunciation we need to think and study in the characters of the language itself.

Let’s keep getting linguistically aware!

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