Tensing and Pronunciations of Korean Consonants

Posted: 2011-01-18 / Updated: 2018-02-07

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 follows another consonant other than the nasal (ㄴ ㅁ ㅇ) or , you need to pronounce it as ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ or (i.e. tensing).

Examples

English MeaningWordPronunciation
hot 덥다 [덥따]
semester 학기 [학끼]
student 학생 [학쌩]
same같다[갇따]
nap낮잠[낟짬]
It is good좋습니다[졷씀니다]
Please read the book책 보세요[책 뽀세요]

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]
한자 Chinese characters [한짜]; one character [한 자]
시가market price [시까]; city streets [시가]
장기special talent [장끼]; chess [장기]
인기 popularity [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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