Korean/Essential Pronunciation Rules
Note: If you are not aware of the general interpretations of the Korean alphabet, please first read Alphabet before continuing.
This page uses the International Phonetic Alphabet to transcribe pronunciation. All text within square brackets [skwɛər ˈbrækət̩s] uses that system. See the Wikipedia entry on IPA for more information.
The few essential pronunciation rules and exceptions in this lesson will improve your accuracy in speaking and interpreting Korean.
Plain, aspirated, and tense
In English, certain pairs of consonants, like p/b, t/d, s/sh/z, and k/g, have a pronunciation that differs mostly in whether they are voiced or voiceless. Korean consonants do not have that same distinction, but rather differ according to whether they are "plain", "aspirated", or "tense".
|g or k
[g] or [k]
|d or t
[d] or [t]
|b or p
[b] or [p]
|j or ch
[ʥ] or [ʨ]
|gg or kk
|dd or tt
|bb or pp
Aspirated consonants (ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ) are pronounced with a burst of air that does not accompany their plain counterparts. To feel or see the difference between aspirated and unaspirated sounds, put a hand or a lit candle in front of your mouth and say "tore" ([tʰɔɹ]) and then "store" ([stɔɹ]). You should either feel a puff of air or see a flicker of the candle flame with "tore" that does not appear with "store". In English, the t should be aspirated in "tore" and unaspirated in "store". In Korean, the aspirated consonants are like the t in "tore", in that you must expel a burst of air to say them correctly.
Tense consonants (ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ) are said with a harder, stiffer voice than their plain counterparts. With these "tense" consonants, the diaphragm, glottis, and tongue are tense. For example, imagine you were to say "duck!" rather loudly. The hard d sound in "duck!" is like the sound made by the Korean ㄸ.
Proper pronunciation of the Korean letter ㄹ takes some practice for most English speakers. It is pronounced sort of like a half r and half l sound. Specifically, it is either an alveolar tap or an alveolar lateral approximant, depending on the following sound. While difficult at first, mastery is fairly easy.
Initial, Medial, and Final Consonants
Korean alphabet charts have two tables: initial sounds, and final sounds. The sound of a Korean consonant can change slightly when it is preceded or followed by another consonant. For example, ㄱ can be pronounced as a voiced sound (the English g) or voiceless (like the English k). To know how to pronounce such letters, it's important to know the difference between an initial, a medial, and a final consonant.
An initial consonant is any consonant at the beginning of a word. Initial consonants (especially at the beginning of sentences and phrases) are usually unvoiced. For example, the ㅈ in the word 저 ("I") is typically voiceless, especially as the first word of a sentence. That makes it sound more like "ch" than "j" to an English speaker. The consonants that follow this rule are ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅈ, and ㅂ. Thus, an initial ㄱ sounds more like "k" than "g", an initial ㄷ sounds more like "t" than "d" and an initial ㅈ sounds more like "ch" than "j". However, an initial ㅂ sounds more like "B" than "p":
- 가 ([ka]): initial sound is unvoiced.
- 다 ([ta]): initial sound is unvoiced.
- 바 ([ba]): initial sound is voiced.
- 자 ([ʨa], "cha"): initial sound is unvoiced.
Consonants that come in the middle of a sentence can follow some complex sound changes, but the two most important changes are whether the consonant follows another consonant or a vowel. For example, the word 막대기 ("stick") has a middle consonant-consonant sequence (ㄱㄷ) and a vowel-consonant sequence (ㅐㄱ). In many cases, a middle consonant with a preceding consonant becomes slightly more tensified, meaning a "tighter, stronger" pronunciation. So the ㄷ becomes a slightly harder "d" ([d̬]), but the second ㄱ is pronounced "normally" ([g]). The same consonants listed in the section above (ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅈ, and ㅂ) are also mainly the ones that follow this rule.
- 막대기 ([mak̚d̬ɛːgi]): Middle consonant ㄷ follows another consonant, so it is more tense.
- 막대기 ([mak̚d̬ɛːgi]): Middle consonant ㄱ follows another vowel, so it has the standard pronunciation.
A final consonant is a consonant that either ends a word, or is followed by another consonant. Examples are found in 밥 ([pap̚], "rice") and 식사 ([ɕik̚sa], "meal"). Notice that ㅂ is the final letter in 밥. This causes its pronunciation to shorten to an unreleased stop, like the p in the English word "apt" ([æp̚t]). The ㄱ in 식사 also has a similar change. It's pronounced similar to the c in the English word "act" ([æk̚t]). ㄱ,ㄷ,ㅈ, and ㅂ follow this rule in final position. Other consonants can sometimes follow more complex rules. Some of them will be discussed here, but many are very complex and will be discussed in the Advanced Pronunciation Rules section.
- 밥 ([pap̚], bap): Final consonant ㅂ is at the end of the word, so it sounds tensed and abbreviated.
- 식사 ([ɕik̚sa]): Final consonant ㄱ is followed by another consonant, so it sounds tensed and abbreviated.
ㅇ (ieung) is a special letter in Korean, because sometimes it makes a sound and sometimes it doesn't. This is determined by whether it is in the initial, middle, or final position.
- In initial position, such as in the word 엄마 ([eomma], "mother") ㅇ is not pronounced, and the vowel becomes the initial sound.
- In the middle position, there are two possibilities.
- When ㅇ follows a final consonant, that preceding consonant replaces ㅇ. For example, 한국어 (Hangugeo, "Korean language") has an ㅇ following the final consonant ㄱ in 국 . That ㄱ is pronounced as if it replaces the initial ㅇ of the following syllable, thus the word is pronounced as if it were written "한구거" [hangugʌ].
- However, when ㅇ is not preceded by a consonant, such as in the word 아이 ([ai], "child"), it is silent.
- Finally, if ㅇ is in the final position, such as in 강 ([kaŋ], "river") or 영어 ([jʌŋʌ], "English language"), then it is pronounced [ŋ], similar to the ng in the English word "sing".
- 엄마 ([ʌmma]): ㅇ in initial position is not pronounced.
- 한국어 ([hangugʌ]): ㅇ in middle position with preceding consonant is replaced by the consonant (한국어 -> "한구거").
- 아이 ([ai]): ㅇ in middle position with no preceding consonant is silent.
- 강 ([kaŋ]): ㅇ in final position is similar to ng sound.
Final-initial pairs ㄴㄹ and ㄹㄹ
The final-initial pairs ㄴㄹ and ㄹㄹ each become [ll] (or for some speakers, [ɭl]):
- 몰라 ([molla], low form for "don't know")
- 곤란 ([kollan], "troubles, difficulty")
- 원래 ([wʌllɛ], "originally")
Note that the final-initial pair ㄴㄴ does not follow this rule. Each ㄴ in ㄴㄴ retains its natural sound ([n̚n]).
- 맛 ([mat̚], "flavor, taste")
- 꽃 ([g̬ot̚], "flower")
- 끝 ([g̬ɯt̚], "end")
- 돋보기 ([tot̚pogi], "magnifying glass")
- 맞다 ([mat̚da], "to correct")
- 있다 ([it̚da], "to exist")
However, if an ㅇ (ieung) follows a t-stop letter, then the normal sound is simply carried over:
- 맛이 ([maɕi], as if it were spelled "마시")
(Note: this is the case where a particle (e.g. -이, -에) is affixed to a character ending with 'ㅅ'.)
If a character ending with 'ㅅ' is followed by another word that begins with 'ㅇ', the t-stop sound is carried over:
- 첫 인상 ([처 딘상], "first impression")
Pronounce the following:
If you want to know more about specific pronunciation rules, then you can read more in the Advanced Pronunciation Rules section. Otherwise, you are ready to start learning Korean vocabulary and grammar!