Posted: 2011-01-04 / Updated: 2018-02-07

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
voiceless, lightly aspirated, laxㅂ ㅈ ㄷ ㄱ ㅅ
voiceless, strongly aspiratedㅍ ㅊ ㅌ ㅋ
voiceless, unaspirated, tenseㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ
voicedㅁ ㄴ ㄹ
no sound

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