Korean phonology: Wikis


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This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
For assistance in making phonetic transcriptions of Korean for Wikipedia articles, see WP:IPA for Korean.

This article is a technical description of the phonetics and phonology of Korean.

Korean has many allophones, so it is important here to distinguish morphophonemics (written in vertical pipes | |) from corresponding phonemes (written in slashes / /) and allophones (written in brackets [ ]).



The following are phonemic transcriptions of Korean consonants.

The simplex Korean consonant letters
Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ2
plain1 p~b t~d tɕ~dʑ5 k~ɡ
tense tɕ͈5
aspirated tɕʰ5
Fricative plain s~ɕ3 h~ɦ1
tense s͈~ɕ͈3
Liquid l~ɾ4
Approximant w j ɰ
  1. /p, t, tɕ, k, h/ are voiced [b, d, dʑ, ɡ, ɦ] between voiced sounds, voiceless elsewhere. Voiced [ɦ] may become inaudible or disappear in many cases.
  2. /ŋ/ appears only between vowels and in the syllable coda.
  3. /s, s͈/ are palatalized [ɕ, ɕ͈] before /i, j/
  4. /l/ is an alveolar flap [ɾ] between vowels or between a vowel and an /h/; and is [l] or [ɭ] at the end of a word, before a consonant other than /h/, or next to another /l/. It is unstable at the beginning of a word, tending to become [n] before most vowels, and silent before /i, j/, though it is not uncommonly [ɾ] in English loanwords.
  5. /tɕ͈, tɕʰ, tɕ~dʑ/ may be pronounced /ts͈, tsʰ, ts~dz/ by some speakers, especially before back vowels.

Example words for consonants:

Phoneme Example Romanized English
/p/ [pul] bul 'fire' or 'light'
/p͈/ [p͈ul] ppul 'horn'
/pʰ/ [pʰul] pul 'grass' or 'glue'
/m/ [mul] mul 'water' or 'liquid'
/t/ [tal] dal 'moon'
/t͈/ [t͈al] ttal 'daughter'
/tʰ/ [tʰal] tal 'mask'
/n/ [nal] nal 'day'
/tɕ/ 자다 [tɕada] jada 'to sleep'
/t͈ɕ/ 짜다 [t͈ɕada] jjada 'to squeeze' or 'to be salty'
/tɕʰ/ 차다 [tɕʰada] chada 'to kick' or 'to be cold'
/k/ 가다 [kada] gada 'to go'
/k͈/ 까다 [k͈ada] kkada 'to peel'
/kʰ/ [kʰal] kal 'knife'
/ŋ/ [paŋ] bang 'room'
/s/ [sal] sal 'flesh'
/s͈/ [s͈al] ssal 'uncooked grains of rice'
/l/ 바람 [paɾam] baram 'wind' or 'wish'
/h/ 하다 [hada] hada 'to do'

The IPA symbol ‹◌͈› (a subscript double straight quotation mark, shown here with a placeholder circle) is used to denote the tensed consonants /p͈/, /t͈/, /k͈/, /t͈ɕ/, /s͈/. Its official use in the Extensions to the IPA is for 'strong' articulation, but is used in the literature for faucalized voice. The Korean consonants also have elements of stiff voice, but it is not yet known how typical this is of faucalized consonants. They are produced with a partially constricted glottis and additional subglottal pressure in addition to tense vocal tract walls, laryngeal lowering, or other expansion of the larynx.

Sometimes the tense consonants are indicated with the apostrophe-like symbol ‹ʼ› symbolising glottalization, as in Americanist phonetic notation. This should not be confused with official IPA, as IPA ‹ʼ› represents the ejective consonants, with their piston-like upward glottal movement and non-pulmonic air pressure, which the Korean tense consonants do not feature.

An alternative analysis[1] proposes that the "tensed" series of sounds are (fundamentally) regular voiceless, unaspirated consonants; that the "laxed" sounds are voiced consonants which become devoiced initially; and that the primary distinguishing feature between word-initial "laxed" and "tensed" consonants is that initial laxed sounds cause the following vowel to assume a low-to-high pitch contour — a feature reportedly associated with voiced consonants in many Asian languages — whereas tensed (and also aspirated) consonants are associated with a uniformly high pitch.


The short vowel phonemes of Korean The long vowel phonemes of Korean
The simple Korean vowel letters
Monophthongs /i/ , /e/ , /ɛ/ , /a/ , /o/ , /u/ , /ʌ/ , /ɯ/ , /ø/
Vowels preceded by intermediaries,
or Diphthongs
/je/ , /jɛ/ , /ja/ , /yi/ , /we/ , /wɛ/ , /wa/ , /ɰi/ , /jo/ , /ju/ , /jʌ/ , /wʌ/


Korean has 8 different vowel qualities and a length distinction for each. Two more vowels, the close-mid front rounded vowel (IPA: /ø/, hangul: ) and the close front rounded vowel (IPA: /y/, hangul: ), can still be heard in the speech of some older speakers, but they have been largely replaced by the diphthongs [we] and [wi] respectively. In a 2003 survey of 350 speakers from Seoul, nearly 90% pronounced the vowel '' as [wi]. Length distinction is almost completely lost; length distinction for all vowels can still be heard from older speakers, but almost all younger speakers either do not distinguish length consistently or do not distinguish it at all. The distinction between /e/ and /ɛ/ is another decreasing element in the speech of some younger speakers, mostly in the area of Seoul, whereas in other dialectal areas the two vowels can be distinctly heard. For those speakers who do not make the difference [e̞] seems to be the dominant form. Long /ʌː/ is actually [ɘː] for most speakers.[2]

Short vowel Long vowel
/i/ 시장 (sijang [ɕi.dʑäŋ] 'hunger') /iː/ 시장 (sijang [ɕiː.dʑäŋ] 'market')
/e/ 베개 (begae [pe.ɡɛ] 'pillow') /eː/ 베다 (beda [peː.dä] 'to cut')
/ɛ/ 태양 (taeyang [tʰɛ.jäŋ] 'sun') /ɛː/ 태도 (taedo, [tʰɛː.do] 'attitude')
/a/ (mal [mäl] 'horse') /ɑː/ (mal [mɑːl] 'word, language')
/o/ 보리 (bori [po.ɾi] 'barley') /oː/ 보수 (bosu [poː.su] 'salary')
/u/ 구리 (guri [ku.ɾi] 'copper') /uː/ 수박 (subak [suː.bäk̚] 'watermelon')
/ʌ/ (beol [pʌl] 'punishment') /ɘː/ (beol [pɘːl] 'bee')
/ɯ/ 어른 (eoreun [ɘː.ɾɯn] 'seniors') /ɯː/ 음식 (eumsik [ɯːm.ɕik̚] 'food')
/ø/ 교회 (gyohoe [kjoː.ɦwe ~ kjoː.ɦø] 'church') /øː/ 외투 (oetu [weː.tʰu ~ øː.tʰu] 'overcoat')[2]

Diphthongs and glides

Because they may follow consonants in initial position in a word, which no other consonant can do, and perhaps due also to hangul orthography, which transcribes them as vowels, semivowels such as /j/ and /w/ are sometimes considered to be elements of diphthongs rather than separate consonant phonemes.

j w ɰ
          wi [twi] dwi 'back' ɰi [ɰi.sä] 의사 uisa 'doctor'
je [jeː.sän] 예산 yesan 'budget' we [kwe] gwe 'chest' or 'box'          
[jɛː.ɡi] 얘기 yaegi 'story' [wɛ] wae 'why'          
ja [jɑː.ɡu] 야구 yagu 'baseball' wa [kwɑː.il] 과일 gwail 'fruit'          
jo [kjoː.sä] 교사 gyosa 'teacher'                    
ju [ju.ɾi] 유리 yuri 'glass'                    
[jʌ.ɡi] 여기 yeogi 'here' [mwʌ] mwo 'what'[2]          

Positional allophones

Korean consonants have three principal positional allophones: initial, medial (voiced), and final (checked). The initial form is found at the beginning of phonological words. The medial form is found in voiced environments, intervocalically and after a voiced consonant such as n or l. The final form is found in checked environments, such as at the end of a phonological word or before an obstruent consonant such as t or k. Nasal consonants (m, n, ng) do not have noticeable positional allophones, though ng cannot appear in initial position.

The table below is out of alphabetical order in order to make the relationships between the consonants explicit.



















Initial allophone k t s tɕʰ t͈ɕ n (n) p m h
Medial allophone ɡ ŋ d ɾ b (ɦ)
Final allophone l

All obstruents (plosives, affricates, fricatives) are unreleased [p̚, t̚, k̚] at the end of a word. That is, all coronals collapse to [t̚], all labials to [p̚], and all velars to [k̚].[note 1] Final r is a liquid [l] or [ɭ].

h does not occur in final position,[note 2] though it does occur at the end of non-final syllables, where it affects the following consonant. (See below.) Intervocalicly it is realized as voiced [ɦ], and after voiced consonants either [ɦ] or silent.

ng does not occur in initial position. In native Korean words, neither does ᄅ r, though it does in Chinese loans (Sino-Korean vocabulary), where it is silent before /i/ and /j/, pronounced [n] before other vowels, and only pronounced [ɾ] in compound words after a vowel. The prohibition on word-initial r is called the "initial law" (두음법칙) in South Korea. Initial r is officially pronounced [ɾ] in North Korea. In both countries, initial r in words of European origin is pronounced [ɾ].

  • "labour" - North Korea: rodong (로동), South Korea: nodong (노동)
  • "history" - North Korea: ryŏksa (력사), South Korea: yeoksa (역사)
  • "female" - North Korea: nyŏja (녀자), South Korea: yeoja (여자)

Vowel assimilation

The vowel which most affect consonants is i /i/ which, along with its semivowel homologue y /j/, palatalizes s /s/ and ss /s͈/ to alveolo-palatal [ɕ] and [ɕ͈] for most speakers (but see differences in the language between North Korea and South Korea). As noted above, initial r is silent in this palatalizing environment, at least in South Korea. Similarly, an underlying d |t| or t |tʰ| at the end of a morpheme becomes a phonemically palatalized affricate /tɕʰ/ when followed by a word or suffix beginning with /i/ or /j/,[note 3] though this does not happen within a word root such as /ʌti/ [ʌdi] "where?".

K /kʰ/ is more affected by vowels, often becoming an affricate when followed by either i /i/ or eu /ɯ/: ki [kçi], keu [kxɯ]. The most variable consonant is h /h/, which becomes a palatal [ç] before /i/ or /j/, a velar [x] before /ɯ/, and a bilabial [ɸ] before o /o/, u /u/, and w /w/.

before: /i/,
/ɯ/ /o/,
/s/ and ᄊ /s͈/ [ɕ], [ɕ͈] [s], [s͈]
/t/ + suffix [dʑ]- [d]-
/tʰ/ + suffix [tɕʰ]- [tʰ]-
/kʰ/ [kç] [kx] [kʰ]
/h/ [ç] [x] [ɸ] [h]

In many morphological processes, a vowel |i| before another vowel may become the semivowel /j/. Likewise, |u| and |o| before another vowel may reduce to /w/. In some dialects and speech registers, the semivowel /w/ assimilates into a following /e/ or /i/ to produce the front rounded vowels [ø] and [y].

Consonant assimilation

As noted above, tenuis stops and /h/ are voiced after the voiced consonants /m, n, ŋ, l/, and the resulting voiced [ɦ] tends to be elided. Tenuis stops become fortis after obstruents (which, as noted above, are reduced to [k̚, t̚, p̚]); that is, /kt/ is pronounced [k̚t͈]. Fortis and nasal stops are unaffected by either environment, though /n/ assimilates to /l/ after an /l/. After /h/, tenuis stops become aspirated, /s/ becomes fortis, and /n/ is unaffected.[note 4] /l/ is highly affected: it becomes [n] after all consonants but /n/ (which assimilates to the /l/ instead) or another /l/. For example, underlying |tɕoŋlo| is pronounced /tɕoŋno/.[3]

These are all progressive assimilation, and except for /l/ becoming [n] are not unusual in the world's languages. However, Korean also has regressive (anticipatory) assimilation, and this is somewhat more unusual: In Korean, a consonant tends to assimilate in manner but not in place of articulation: Obstruents become nasal stops before nasal stops (which, as just noted, includes underlying |l|), but do not change their position in the mouth. Velar stops (that is, all consonants pronounced [k̚] in final position) become [ŋ]; coronals ([t̚]) become [n], and labials ([p̚]) become [m]. For example, |hankukmal| is pronounced /hankuŋmal/ (phonetically [hanɡuŋmal]).[3]

Before the fricatives /s, s͈/, coronal obstruents assimilate to a fricative, resulting in a geminate. That is, |tʰs| is pronounced /ss͈/ ([s͈ː]). A final /h/ assimilates in both place and manner, so that |hC| is pronounced as a geminate (and, as noted above, aspirated if C is a stop). The two coronal sonorants, /n/ and /l/, in whichever order, assimilate to /l/, so that both |nl| and |ln| are pronounced [lː].[3]

There are lexical exceptions to these generalizations. For example, voiced consonants occasionally cause a following consonant to become fortis rather than voiced; this is especially common with |ls| and |ltɕ| as [ls͈] and [lt͈ɕ], but is also occasionally seen with other sequences, such as |kjʌ.ulpaŋhak| ([kjʌulp͈aŋak̚]), |tɕʰamtoŋan| ([tɕʰamt͈oŋan]) and |wejaŋkanɯlo| ([wejaŋk͈anɯɾo]).[3]

Phonetic realization (before /a/) of underlying consonant sequences in Korean
1st C; 2nd C: #


















ᇂ -h   k̚.kʰ   t̚.tʰ   n.n   p̚.pʰ   s.s͈   t̚.tɕʰ  
velar stops1 k̚.k͈ k̚.t͈ ŋ.n ŋm k̚.p͈ k.s͈ k̚.t͈ɕ k̚.tɕʰ k̚.kʰ k̚.tʰ k̚.pʰ .kʰ
ᆼ -ng ŋ ŋ.ɡ ŋ.k͈ ŋ.d ŋ.t͈ ŋ.b ŋ.p͈ ŋ.s ŋ.s͈ ŋ.dʑ ŋ.t͈ɕ ŋ.tɕʰ ŋ.kʰ ŋ.tʰ ŋ.pʰ ŋ.ɦ~.ŋ
coronal stops2 t̚.k͈ t̚.t͈ n.n n.m t̚.p͈ s.s͈ t̚.t͈ɕ t̚.tɕʰ t̚.kʰ t̚.tʰ t̚.pʰ .tʰ
ᆫ -n n n.ɡ n.k͈ n.d n.t͈ n.n l.l n.b n.p͈ n.s n.s͈ n.dʑ n.t͈ɕ n.tɕʰ n.kʰ n.tʰ n.pʰ n.ɦ~.n
ᆯ -r l l.ɡ l.k͈ l.d l.t͈ l.l l.m l.b l.p͈ l.s l.s͈ l.dʑ l.t͈ɕ l.tɕʰ l.kʰ l.tʰ l.pʰ l.ɦ~.ɾ
labial stops3 p̚.k͈ p̚.t͈ m.n m.m p̚.p͈ p.s͈ p̚.t͈ɕ p̚.tɕʰ p̚.kʰ p̚.tʰ p̚.pʰ .pʰ
ᆷ -m m m.ɡ m.k͈ m.d m.t͈ m.b m.p͈ m.s m.s͈ m.dʑ m.t͈ɕ m.tɕʰ m.kʰ m.tʰ m.pʰ m.ɦ~.m
  1. Velar obstruents found in final position: ᆨ g, ᄁ kk, ᆿ k
  2. Final coronal obstruents: ᆮ d, ᇀ t, ᆺ s, ᆻ ss, ᆽ j, ᆾ ch
  3. Final labial obstruents: ᆸ b, ᇁ p

The resulting geminate obstruents, such as [k̚k͈], [ss͈], [p̚pʰ], and [t̚tɕʰ] (that is, [k͈ː], [s͈ː], [pʰː], and [tːɕʰ]), tend to reduce ([k͈], [s͈], [pʰ], [tɕʰ]) in rapid conversation. Heteroganic obstruent sequences such as [k̚p͈] and [t̚kʰ] may, less frequently, assimilate to geminates ([p͈ː], [kːʰ]) and also reduce ([p͈], [kʰ]).

These sequences assimilate with following vowels the way single consonants do, so that for example |ts| and |hs| palatalize to [ɕɕ͈] (that is, [ɕ͈ː]) before /i/ and /j/; |hk| and |lkʰ| affricate to [kx] and [lkx] before /ɯ/; |ht|, |s͈h|, and |th| palatalize to [t̚tɕʰ] and [tɕʰ] across morpheme boundaries, etc.

Hangul orthography does not generally reflect these assimilatory processes, but rather maintains the underlying morphology in most cases.


Korean syllable structure is maximally /CgVC/, where g is a glide /j/ or /w/. Any consonant but /ŋ/ may occur initially, whereas only /p, t, k, m, n, ŋ, l/ may occur finally. Sequences of two consonants may occur between vowels, as outlined above. However, morphemes may also end in CC clusters, which are only both expressed when followed by a vowel. When the morpheme is not suffixed, one of the consonants is not expressed; if there is a /h/, which cannot appear in final position, it will be that; otherwise it will be a coronal consonant, and if the sequence is two coronals, then the voiceless one (/s, tʰ, tɕ/) will drop, and /n/ or /l/ will remain. That is, no sequence reduces to [t̚] in final position.











Medial allophone [k̚s͈] [lɡ] [ndʑ] [n(ɦ)] [ls] [ltʰ] [l(ɦ)] [p̚s͈] [lb] [lpʰ] [lm]
Final allophone [k̚] [n] [l] [p̚] [m]

When such a sequence is followed by a consonant, the same reduction takes place, but a trace of the lost consonant may remain in its effect on the following consonant. These effects are the same as in a sequence between vowels: an elided obstruent will leave the third consonant fortis, if it's a stop, and an elided |h| will leave it aspirated. Most conceivable combinations do not actually occur;[note 5] a few examples are: |lh-tɕ| = [ltɕʰ], |nh-t| = [ntʰ], |nh-s| = [ns͈], |ltʰ-t| = [lt͈], |ps-k| = [p̚k͈], |ps-tɕ| = [p̚t͈ɕ]; also |ps-n| = [mn], as /s/ has no effect on a following /n/, and |ks-h| = [kʰ], with the /s/ dropping out.

When the second and third consonants are homorganic obstruents, they merge, becoming fortis or aspirate, and—depending on the word, and a preceding |l| might not elide: |lk-k| is [lk͈].

An elided |l| has no effect: |lk-t| = [k̚t͈], |lk-tɕ| = [k̚t͈ɕ], |lk-s| = [k̚s͈], |lk-n| = [ŋn], |lm-t| = [md], |lp-k| = [p̚k͈], |lp-t| = [p̚t͈], |lp-tɕ| = [p̚t͈ɕ], |lpʰ-t| = [p̚t͈], |lpʰ-tɕ| = [p̚t͈ɕ], |lp-n| = [mn].

Among vowels, the sequences /*jø, *jɯ, *ji, *wo, *wɯ, *wu/ do not occur, and it is not possible to write them using standard hangul.[note 6] The semivowel [ɰ] only occurs in the diphthong /ɰ͡i/.

Vowel harmony

Korean Vowel Harmony
Positive/"light"/Yang Vowels ㅏ (a) ㅑ (ya) ㅗ (o) ㅛ (yo)
ㅐ (ae) ㅘ (wa) ㅚ (oe) ㅙ (wae)
Negative/"heavy"/Yin Vowels ㅓ (eo) ㅕ (yeo) ㅜ (u) ㅠ (yu)
ㅔ (e) ㅝ (wo) ㅟ (wi) ㅞ (we)
Neutral/Centre Vowels ㅡ (eu) ㅣ (i) ㅢ (ui)

Traditionally, the Korean language has had strong vowel harmony; that is, in pre-modern Korean, as in most Altaic languages, not only did the inflectional and derivational affixes (such as postpositions) change in accordance to the main root vowel, but native words also adhered to vowel harmony. It is not as prevalent in modern usage, although it remains strong in onomatopoeia, adjectives and adverbs, interjections, and conjugation. There are also other traces of vowel harmony in Korean.

There are three classes of vowels in Korean: positive, negative, and neutral. The vowel eu is considered partially a neutral and negative vowel. The vowel classes loosely follow the negative and positive vowels; they also follow orthography. Exchanging positive vowels with negative vowels usually creates different nuances of meaning, with positive vowels sounding diminutive and negative vowels sounding crude.

Some examples:

  • Onomatopoeia:
    • 퐁당퐁당 (pongdangpongdang) and 풍덩풍덩 (pungdeongpungdeong), light and heavy water splashing
  • Emphasised adjectives:
    • 노랗다 (norata) means plain yellow, while its negative, 누렇다 (nureota) means very yellow
    • 파랗다 (parata) means plain blue, while its negative, 퍼렇다 (peoreota) means deep blue
  • Particles at the end of verbs:
    • 잡다 (japda) (to catch) → 잡았다 (jabatda) (caught)
    • 접다 (jeopda) (to fold) → 접었다 (jeobeotda) (folded)
  • Interjections:
    • 아이고 (aigo) and 어이구 (eoigu) expressing surprise, discomfort or sympathy
    • 아하 (aha) and 어허 (eoheo) expressing sudden realization and mild objection, respectively

Pitch accent

Standard Seoul Korean only uses pitch for intonational purposes. However, several dialects outside Seoul retain the Middle Korean pitch accent system. In the dialect of Northern Gyeongsang, in southeastern South Korea, any syllable may have pitch accent in the form of a high tone, as may the two initial syllables. For example, in trisyllabic words, there are four possible tone patterns:[4]

  • [mé.nu.ɾi] ('daughter-in-law')
  • [ʌ.mú.i] ('mother')
  • [wʌ.nʌ.mín] ('native speaker')
  • [ó.ɾé.pi] ('elder brother')

For standard Korean, Kim and Duanmu[1] have proposed an analysis of "tensed" vs. "laxed" consonants which associates word-initial laxed consonants with a low-to-high pitch contour, as opposed to a default high pitch after tensed or aspirated consonants.


  1. ^ The only fortis consonants to occur finally are ᄁ kk and ᄊ ss.
  2. ^ Orthographically, it is found at the end of the name of the letter ᄒ, hieut.
  3. ^ That is, it becomes indistinguishable from an underlying |tɕʰ|
  4. ^ Other consonants do not occur after /h/, which is uncommon in morpheme-final position.
  5. ^ For example, morpheme-final |lp| only occurs in verb roots such as 밟 balb, and is only ever followed by the consonants d, j, g, n.
  6. ^ While 워 is romanized as wo, it does not represent /wo/, but rather /wʌ/ instead.


  1. ^ a b Mi-Ryoung Kim and San Duanmu, "'Tense' and 'Lax' Stops in Korean", Journal of East Asian Linguistics 13, 59–104, 2004.
  2. ^ a b c International Phonetic Association (1999). Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge University Press. pp. 120–122. ISBN 0-521-63751-1.  
  3. ^ a b c d ハングル入門, NHK (1988)
  4. ^ The Prosodic Structure and Pitch Accent of Northern Kyungsang Korean, Jun et al., JEAL 2005[ling.snu.ac.kr/jun/work/JEAL_final.pdf]

See also


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