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Voicing and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants

You may wonder why when you hear Korean words with consonants or , sometimes they are b-, d-, g- and j-like, but some other times they are p-, t-, k-, and ch-like respectively. One of the factors effecting their pronunciations is voicing.

Voicing is one of the 3 important concepts for Korean pronunciations. If you are not sure what voicing is, please review this post. In a nutshell, all Korean vowels are always voiced, so are nasal consonants and consonant . On the other hand, all other consonants are voiceless when they are at the beginning of a word. As a result, or are more p-like, t-like, k-like, and ch-like than b-like, d-like, g-like and j-like respectively at the beginning of a word.

But how about when these consonants are pronounced in between a word? They become fully voiced, i.e., or becomes b-, d-, g- and j-like respectively when they are pronounced in between voiced sounds. It explains why, for the same consonant symbol, you may hear different sounds at different situations.

Examples

WordMeaningNotes
rainㅂ is voiceless
나비butterflyㅂ is b-like
allㄷ is voiceless
바다seaㄷ is d-like
dogㄱ is voiceless
무지개rainbowㄱ is g-like
자리locationㅈ is voiceless
여자womanㅈ is j-like
PhrasePronunciationMeaningNotes
아니야[입] 아니야it is not a leafㅂ is b-like
없어요[맏] 없어요it is tastelessㄷ is d-like
어두워 [박] 어두워outside is darkㄱ is g-like

As you can see from the second set of examples, voicing can apply across word boundary, if the ending consonant needs to be pronounced as or , and the following word begins with a vowel.

Summary of Voicing and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants

At the beginning of a word
voiceless, more p-like than b-like
voiceless, more t-like than d-like
voiceless, more k-like than g-like
voiceless, more ch-like than j-like
Between two voiced sounds within a word
fully voiced, b-like
fully voiced, d-like
fully voiced, g-like
fully voiced, j-like
At the end of a word followed by a word beginning with a vowel
fully voiced, b-like
fully voiced, d-like
fully voiced, g-like
does not apply

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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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Nasal Assimilation and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants

When you say thank you (감사합니다) in Korean, you say gam-sa-ham-ni-da. You do not say gam-sa-hab-ni-da, due to nasal assimilation.

Nasal assimilation, or nasalization, is a process to convert a consonant into one of the nasal sound ㅁ(m) ㄴ(n) ㅇ(ng). When an ending consonant of a hangul is followed by a hangul with a beginning consonant ㅁ(m) or ㄴ(n), then nasal assimilation takes place. See the table below for the assimilation process.

Ending ConsonantPronunciationAfter AssimilationExample
ㅂ ㅍ ㅄ ㄿ ㄼ감사합니다 [감사함니다]
ㄷ ㅌ ㅈ ㅊ ㅅ ㅆ ㅎ믿는다 [민는다]
ㄱ ㅋ ㄲ ㄳ ㄺ작년 [장년]

Here are more examples:

ExamplePronunciation After AssimilationMeaning
고맙습니다[고맙슴니다]thank you
앞문[암문]front door
몇년[면년]how many years
없나요[엄나요]
갔나요?[간나요]Is he gone?
밥 먹어요[밤 머거요]I am eating rice
옷 많아요[온 마나요]There are many clothes

As you can see in the last 2 examples, the nasal assimilation process can apply across word boundary, especially when you say it fast enough and do not pause between the words.

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Resyllabification and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants

Recall that in spoken Korean, a sequence of sound is easier to pronounce when it is in a consonant-vowel sequence. It leads to an important pronunciation rule that, if a final consonant in a hangul is followed by a hangul without a beginning consonant, that final consonant “spills over” to the next hangul. A simple example is that you pronounce 음악 (music) as [으막], with the final consonant “spills over” to 악 to make it 막.

Technically it is called resyllabification, or in a more layman term, consonant relinking. Consider when you say Thank you in English, you don’t utter “thank” and “you” separately, but you link the ending “k” to “you” in your pronunciation. In Korean, as you will see, this pronunciation rule is very common.

In the previous example, 음악 is a single word. How about cases like those in between word boundary in a phrase? In fact, as long as no pause is required between the words, this resyllabification rule applies. For example, 밖에 (outside) is pronounced as [바께], and 꼭 오세요 (please come by for sure) is pronounced as [꼬고세요].

When the final consonant is a complex one, i.e. or , you only “spill over” the final consonant that is on the right for the double final consonants. For example, you “spill over” to make 앉아요 (sit down) pronounce as [안자요].

Here is a summary of the resyllabification rule:

Case Description Example Pronunciation Meaning
1 spill over within a word 음악 [으막] music
2 spill over before a particle 밖에 [바께] outside
3 spill over between words in a phrase 꼭 오세요 [꼬고세요] please come by for sure
4 spill over for a complex final consonant 앉아요 [안자요] sit down

This resyllabification rule will get more complicated when it combines with other pronunciation rules, such as tensification or nasal assimilation, which I will talk about next.

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Pronunciations of Korean Consonants at the Beginning of a Word

It is often confusing to beginning (or even more advanced) Korean learners, that a consonant sounds different when it appears at different positions of a word. The good news is, there is a clear set of rules to dictate how a consonant should be pronounced in Korean. But we will need to go over a few basic technical concepts before we can understand the rules.

First of all, the concept of voicing. If you put your fingers on your throat (to where your vocal cords locate) and try to say something, sound that you can feel the vocal cord vibration is called voiced, otherwise it is voiceless. In English, for example, b is voiced and p is voiceless, z is voiced and s is voiceless. In Korean, all vowels are always voiced, so are nasal consonants ㅁ ㄴ ㅇ and consonant . On the other hand, all other consonants are voiceless when they are at the beginning of a word.

Next, the concept of aspiration. If you put your fingers in front of your mouth and try to say something, sound that you can feel a puff of air out of your mouth is called aspirated, otherwise it is unaspirated. In English, for example, p is aspirated and b is unaspirated. In Korean, at the beginning of a word, ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ are not aspirated, ㅂ ㅈ ㄷ ㄱ ㅅ are lightly aspirated, and ㅍ ㅊ ㅌ ㅋ are strongly aspirated. It explains, for instance, why is denoted as g (g is unaspirated in English) but you may hear it as [ka] for the word 가요, as is slightly aspirated (and voiceless) in this case.

Last, the concept of tenseness. It is used to distinguish the contrast of similar consonants, such as and . is tense, in the sense that it is pronounced with an extra effort, such as quicker opening and firmer closing of the lips. The following vowel is usually of higher pitch too. On the other hand, is lax, without all these features. As you can predict, all the “doubles” ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ are tense.

Pronunciations of Korean consonants at the beginning of a word
ㅂ ㅈ ㄷ ㄱ ㅅ voiceless, lightly aspirated, lax
ㅍ ㅊ ㅌ ㅋ voiceless, strongly aspirated
ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ voiceless, unaspirated, tense
ㅁ ㄴ ㄹ voiced
no sound

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