Tensing and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants

Recall that tensing is one of the 3 important concepts for Korean pronunciations, and it is the easiest one to memorize – all the “doubles” are tense. The opposite of tenseness is lax, and as you expect, are lax consonants.

So when would you pronounce a lax consonant as a tense one? The whole idea of this kind of phonetic change is to make the pronunciation more natural, and if you ask a native speaker, most probably they would simply tell you “When it sounds more natural that way.” Fortunately, a lot of tensing occur with a regular rule, as follows:

When a consonant ㅂ ㅈ ㄷ ㄱ or ㅅ follows another consonant other than the nasal (ㄴ ㅁ ㅇ) or ㄹ, you need to pronounce it as ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ or ㅆ (i.e. tensing).

Examples

WordPronunciationMeaning
덥다[덥따]hot
학기[학끼]semester
학생[학쌩]student
같다[갇따]same
낮잠[낟짬]nap
좋습니다[졷씀니다]It is good
책 보세요[책 뽀세요]Please read the book

As you can see from the last example, this tensing process can apply across word boundary, depending on the focus of the phrase or sentence.

Tensing without a Rule

While we have a regular rule for tensing, unfortunately there are many other Korean words which tensing applies without a rule. You will need to learn them on a case-by-case basis down the road of your Korean learning career.

Examples

WordMeaning [Pronunciation]
한자Chinese characters [한짜]; one character [한 자]
시가market price [시까]; city streets [시가]
장기special talent [장끼]; chess [장기]
인기popularity [인끼]
출장business trip [출짱]
먹을 거things to eat [머글 꺼]
먹은 거things that I ate [머근 거]

In the first 3 examples, you can see that different meanings in the same word are distinguished by with or without tensing in the second hangul. The last 2 examples is to demonstrate that the pattern with future tense modifier …을 거 is always tense but not the pattern with present/past tense modifier 는/은 거.

A lot of borrowed words have an optional tensing in the initial consonant, such as 바스 [바스 or 빠스] for bus, 바나나 [바나나 or 빠나나] for banana, or 게임 [게임 or 께임] for game. For native Korean words, very often tensing for the initial consonant is to emphasize intensity, such as 작아요 [짜가요] to emphasize it is small.

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