Korean phonology

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

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


Korean has 19 consonant phonemes.[1][2]

For each stop and affricate, there is a three-way contrast between unvoiced segments, which are distinguished as plain, tense, and aspirated.

Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m͊ (m~b) n͊ (n~d) ŋ
plain p~b t~d tɕ~dʑ k~ɡ
tense t͈ɕ
aspirated tɕʰ
Fricative non-tense s~ɕ h~ɦ
tense s͈~ɕ͈
Liquid l~ɾ
Approximant w j ɰ
Example words for consonant phonemes
IPA Example
/p/ bul [pul] 'fire' or 'light'
/p͈/ ppul [p͈ul] 'horn'
/pʰ/ pul [pʰul] 'grass' or 'glue'
/m/ mul [m͊ul] 'water' or 'liquid'
/t/ dal [tal] 'moon'
/t͈/ ttal [t͈al] 'daughter'
/tʰ/ tal [tʰal] 'mask'
/n/ nal [n͊al] 'day'
/tɕ/ 자다 jada [tɕada] 'to sleep'
/t͈ɕ/ 짜다 jjada [t͈ɕada] 'to squeeze' or 'to be salty'
/tɕʰ/ 차다 chada [tɕʰada] 'to kick' or 'to be cold'
/k/ 가다 gada [kada] 'to go'
/k͈/ 까다 kkada [k͈ada] 'to peel'
/kʰ/ kal [kʰal] 'knife'
/ŋ/ bang [paŋ] 'room'
/sʰ/ sal [sʰal] 'flesh'
/s͈/ ssal [s͈al] 'uncooked grains of rice'
/l/ 바람 baram [paɾam] 'wind' or 'wish'
/h/ 하다 hada [hada] 'to do'

The IPA symbol ◌͈, resembling a subscript double straight quotation mark, shown here with a placeholder circle, is used to denote the tensed consonants /p͈/, /t͈/, /k͈/, /t͈ɕ/, /s͈/.[note 1] Its official use in the Extensions to the IPA is for strong articulation, but is used in literature for faucalized voice. The Korean consonants also have elements of stiff voice, but it is not yet known how typical that 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. According to a recent study, this glottalization is disappearing from the "tense" consonants, while the "lax" and "aspirated" consonants are slack, particularly in the latter.[7]

An alternative analysis[8] proposes that the "tensed" series of sounds are (fundamentally) regular voiceless, unaspirated consonants: the "lax" sounds are voiced consonants that become devoiced initially, and the primary distinguishing feature between word-initial "lax" and "tensed" consonants is that initial lax 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.

/p, t, tɕ, k/ are voiced [b, d, dʑ, ɡ] between voiced sounds but voiceless elsewhere. Among younger generations, they may be just as aspirated as /pʰ, tʰ, tɕʰ, kʰ/ in initial position; the primary difference is that the following vowel carries a low tone.[9][10] /pʰ, tʰ, tɕʰ, kʰ/ are strongly aspirated, more so than English voiceless stops. /tɕ͈, tɕʰ, tɕ~dʑ/ may be pronounced /ts͈, tsʰ, ts~dz/ by some speakers, especially before back vowels.

The sibilant /sʰ/ has behavior of both the plain and aspirated stops: it is aspirated, at least word-initially, and it does not become voiced intervocalically like the plain stops but has relatively brief contact (shorter than /s͈/), like the plain stops.[11] The analysis of /sʰ/ as phonologically plain or aspirated has been a source of controversy in the literature; phonetically, however, it is aspirated.[12][13] /sʰ, s͈/ are palatalized [ɕʰ, ɕ͈] before /i, j/.

/m, n/ tend to be denasalized word-initially.[14] Often, they are not actual stops either, but sometimes l, a stop release burst is audible: 그런데메밀 /kɯlʌnte memil/[kɯɾʌnde bemil].[15][note 2] /ŋ/ appears only between vowels and in the syllable coda.

/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/, but it is commonly [ɾ] in English loanwords.

Between vowels, /h/ may either be voiced [ɦ] or become inaudible or even often disappear.


The vowel phonemes of Korean on a vowel chart, from Lee (1999, p. 121). The bottom chart represents long vowels.

Korean has eight vowel phonemes and a length distinction for each. Long vowels are pronounced somewhat more peripherally than short ones. Two more vowels, the mid front rounded vowel ([ø] ) and the close front rounded vowel ([y] ),[16] can still be heard in the speech of some older speakers, but they have been largely replaced by the diphthongs [we] and [ɥi], respectively.[17] In a 2003 survey of 350 speakers from Seoul, nearly 90% pronounced the vowel '' as [ɥi].[17] Vowel length is maintained only in the first syllable of a word and there is a tendency toward the loss of these distinctions.[18] Jeong-Woon Park wrote in 1994 that "it would not be unreasonable to say that younger generations have lost the distinctive vowel-length distinction in most cases".[19] The distinction between /e/ and /ɛ/ is another decreasing element in the speech of some younger speakers, mostly in the area of Seoul, but in other dialectal areas, the two vowels can be distinctly heard. For the speakers who do not make the difference, [e̞] seems to be the dominant form.[17] Long /ʌː/ is actually [ɘː] for most speakers.[20]

Middle Korean had an additional vowel phoneme denoted by , known as arae-a (literally "lower a"). The vowel merged with [a] in all mainland varieties of Korean but remains distinct in Jeju, where it is pronounced [ɒ].

Vowel phonemes[20]
IPA Hangul Example
/i/ 시장 sijang [ɕʰi.dʑɐŋ] 'hunger'
/iː/ 시장 sijang [ɕʰiː.dʑɐŋ] 'market'
/e/ 베개 begae [pe̞.ɡɛ̝] 'pillow'
/eː/ 베다 beda [peː.dɐ] 'to cut'
/ɛ/ 태양 taeyang [tʰɛ̝.jɐŋ] 'sun'
/ɛː/ 태도 taedo [tʰɛː.do] 'attitude'
/a/ mal [mɐl] 'horse'
/aː/ mal [mɐːl] 'word, language'
/o/ 보리 bori [po̞.ɾi] 'barley'
/oː/ 보수 bosu [poː.sʰu̞] 'salary'
/u/ 구리 guri [ku.ɾi] 'copper'
/uː/ 수박 subak [sʰuː.bäk̚] 'watermelon'
/ʌ/ beol [pʌl] 'punishment'
/ʌː/ beol [pɘːl] 'bee'
/o/ 어른 eoreun [ɘː.ɾɯn] 'seniors'
/oː/ 음식 eumsik [ɯːm.ɕik̚] 'food'
/ø/ 교회 gyohoe [kjoː.ɦø̞] 'church'
/øː/ 외투 oetu [ø̞ː.tʰu] 'overcoat'

Diphthongs and glides

Because they may follow consonants in initial position in a word, which no other consonant can do, and also because of 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.

Diphthongs, disregarding length[21]
IPA Hangul Example
/je/ 예산 yesan [je̞ː.sʰɐn] 'budget'
/jɛ/ 얘기 yaegi [jɛ̝ː.ɡi] 'story'
/ja/ [jɐ] 야구 yagu [jɐː.ɡu] 'baseball'
/jo/ 교사 gyosa [kjoː.sʰa] 'teacher'
/ju/ 유리 yuri [ju.ɾi] 'glass'
/jʌ/ 여기 yeogi [jʌ.ɡi] 'here'
/wi/ [ɥi] dwi [tɥi] 'back'
/we/ gwe [kwe̞] 'chest' or 'box'
/wɛ/ wae [wɛ̝] 'why'
/wa/ [wɐ] 과일 gwail [kwɐː.il] 'fruit'
/wʌ/ mwo [mwəː] 'what'
/ɰi/ 의사 uisa [ɰi.sʰɐ] 'doctor'

Some analyses treat /o/ as a central vowel and thus the marginal sequence /ɰi/ as having a central-vowel onset, which would be more accurately transcribed [ȷ̈i] or [ɨ̯i].[22]

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, but ng cannot appear in initial position.

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



















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

All obstruents (stops, affricates, fricatives) become stops with no audible release at the end of a word: all coronals collapse to [t̚], all labials to [p̚], and all velars to [k̚].[note 3] Final r is a lateral [l] or [ɭ].

h does not occur in final position,[note 4] though it does occur at the end of non-final syllables, where it affects the following consonant. (See below.) Intervocalically, it is realized as voiced [ɦ], and after voiced consonants it is either [ɦ] or silent.

ng does not occur in initial position. In native Korean words, r does not either, unlike in Chinese loans (Sino-Korean vocabulary) for which it is silent in initial position before /i/ and /j/, pronounced [n] before other vowels, and pronounced [ɾ] only 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 foreign origin other than Chinese is pronounced [ɾ].

North Koreans pronounce , as [ts], [tsʰ]

Vowel assimilation

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

/kʰ/ is more affected by vowels, often becoming an affricate when followed by /i/ or /o/: [kçi], [kxɯ]. The most variable consonant is /h/, which becomes a palatal [ç] before /i/ or /j/, a velar [x] before /o/, and a bilabial [ɸʷ] before /o/, /u/ and /w/.[23]

Allophones of consonants before vowels
/i, j/ /ɯ/ /o, u, w/ /a, ʌ, ɛ, e/
/sʰ/ [ɕʰ] [sʰ]
/s͈/ [ɕ͈] [s͈]
/t/ + suffix [dʑ]- [d]-
/tʰ/ + suffix [tɕʰ]- [tʰ]-
/kʰ/ [cç] [kx] [kʰ]
/h/ word-initially [ç] [x] [ɸʷ] [h]
/h/ intervocalically [ʝ] [ɣ] [β] [ɦ]

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/ and produces 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 5] /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/.[24]

These are all progressive assimilation. Korean also has regressive (anticipatory) assimilation: 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 [ɭ]. For example, |hankukmal| is pronounced /hankuŋmal/ (phonetically [hanɡuŋmal]).[24]

Before the fricatives /sʰ, 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].[24]

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]).[24]

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


















-h   k̚.kʰ   t̚.tʰ   n.n   p̚.pʰ   s.s͈   t̚.tɕʰ  
velar stops1 k̚.k͈ k̚.t͈ ŋ.n ŋ.m k̚.p͈ k.s͈ k̚.t͈ɕ k̚.tɕʰ k̚.kʰ k̚.tʰ k̚.pʰ .kʰ
-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
-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
-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
-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: g, kk, k
  2. Final coronal obstruents: d, t, s, ss, j, ch
  3. Final labial obstruents: b, 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. Heterorganic 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 /o/; |ht|, |s͈h|, and |th| palatalize to [t̚tɕʰ] and [tɕʰ] across morpheme boundaries, and so on.

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, w, ɰ/. Any consonant except /ŋ/ may occur initially, but 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 both expressed only when they are 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, the voiceless one (/s, tʰ, tɕ/) will drop, and /n/ or /l/ will remain. Thus, no sequence reduces to [t̚] in final position.











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

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. The effects are the same as in a sequence between vowels: an elided obstruent will leave the third consonant fortis, if it is a stop, and an elided |h| will leave it aspirated. Most conceivable combinations do not actually occur;[note 6] 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 /sʰ/ has no effect on a following /n/, and |ks-h| = [kʰ], with the /sʰ/ 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 7] The semivowel [ɰ] occurs only in the diphthong /ɰi/. There are no offglides in Korean; historical *aj, *ʌj, *uj, *oj, *ɯj have become modern /ɛ/, /e/, /ɥi/, /we/, /ɰi/.[22]

Vowel harmony

Korean vowel harmony
Positive/"light"/yang vowels a ya o wa yo ( ə)
ae yae oe wae ( yoe) ( əi)
Negative/"heavy"/yin vowels eo yeo u wo yu eu
e ye wi we ui
Neutral/center vowels i

Traditionally, the Korean language has had strong vowel harmony; that is, in pre-modern Korean, 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:

Pitch accent

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:[25]

Notes and references

Explanatory notes

  1. Sometimes the tense consonants are marked with an apostrophe, ʼ, but that is not IPA usage; in the IPA, the apostrophe indicates ejective consonants.
  2. The allophones can be transcribed as denasalized [m͊ n͊] or nasalized [b̃ d̃]. (Heselwood 2013 Phonetic Transcription in Theory and Practice, p. 211 fig. 5.2.
  3. The only fortis consonants to occur finally are kk and ss.
  4. Orthographically, it is found at the end of the name of the letter , "히읗" hieut.
  5. Other consonants do not occur after /h/, which is uncommon in morpheme-final position.
  6. For example, morpheme-final |lp| occurs only in verb roots such as balb and is followed by only the consonants d, j, g, n.
  7. While is romanized as wo, it does not represent [wo], but rather [wʌ].


  1. Sohn 1994, p. 432
  2. Lee 1989, p. 10
  3. Lee 1989, p. 5
  4. Kim-Renaud, Young-Key, ed. (1997). The Korean Alphabet: Its History and Structure. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press. pp. 169–170. ISBN 9780824817237.
  5. Brown, Lucien; Yeon, Jaehoon, eds. (2015). The Handbook of Korean Linguistics. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 29, 38, 452. ISBN 9781118370933.
  6. Cho et al 2001
  7. Chen, Wei-rong. "Non-glottalization in Korean Fortis Consonants". Research Gate. Canadian Social Science. Retrieved 2 August 2016.
  8. Kim & Duanmu 2004.
  9. Kim, Beddor & Horrocks 2002, p. 77.
  10. Lee & Ramsey 2011, p. 293.
  11. Chang 2008, p. 141–142.
  12. Chang 2013, p. 18.
  13. Chang 2008, p. 142.
  14. Kim 2011.
  15. Wells, John (4 July 2011). "denasalized nasals".
  16. Ahn & Iverson 2006, p. 6.
  17. 1 2 3 Brown, Lucien; Yeon, Jaehoon, eds. (2015). The Handbook of Korean Linguistics. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 4–6. ISBN 9781118370933.
  18. Lee, Iksop; Ramsey, S. Robert (2000). The Korean Language. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. p. 66. ISBN 9780791448311.
  19. Park, Jeong-Woon (1994). "Variation of Vowel Length in Korean". In Kim-Renaud, Young-Key. Theoretical Issues in Korean Linguistics. pp. 175–187.
  20. 1 2 Lee 1999, p. 121.
  21. Lee 1999, p. 121–122.
  22. 1 2 Ahn & Iverson 2006, p. 12.
  23. Shin, Kiaer & Cha 2012, p. 77.
  24. 1 2 3 4 ハングル入門, NHK (1988)
  25. Jun et al. 2005, p. 1.


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