Korean pronunciation is vastly different from English, and it takes a lot of practice to be able to pronounce words correctly. The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that the pronunciation of a Korean letter is identical to the pronunciation of that letter’s Romanization in English. This is simply not the case and is a mistake that virtually all new learners of Korean make.
I discuss different aspects of Korean pronunciation in this lesson. I will use this lesson to discuss aspects of Korean pronunciation that are not intuitive to an English speaker. I’ve divided this lesson into different sections:
General Pronunciation and the Movement of Sounds to Other Syllables
Listen to some of the syllables in sequence so you can get a feel for what they should sound like:
Korean pronunciation is entirely different in structure compared to English pronunciation. You may have noticed this from listening to the recording files above. In English, whenever a word ends in a consonant, we always make a little sound after saying that last letter. It is very faint and difficult to hear for a person with a ‘non-Korean ear’ to hear. But try to hear the difference.
In English, if I were to say “ship”, there is a tiny sound of breath following the ‘p’ when our lips open.
In English, if I were to say “dock”, there is a tiny sound of breath following the ‘ck’ when your throat opens.
In English, if I were to say “cod”, (or kod) there is a tiny sound of breath following the ‘d’ when your tongue is removed from the roof of your mouth.
In Korean, they do not have this final ‘breath’ sound. This is called an “aspiration.” That is, the final letter in a Korean consonant is not aspirated. This is hard to understand at first to English speakers. Whatever position one’s mouth is in when they make the sound of a final consonant in a syllable – it stays like that. Listen to the following differences in English and Korean pronunciation of the same syllables:
If a word has a consonant as its final sound, and the first letter on the following syllable is ‘ㅇ’ (meaning that the first sound is a vowel) the breath from the final consonant from the first syllable gets pronounced with the vowel from that syllable. It is confusing to write in a sentence, so I will show you an example:
먹 in Korean is pronounced the same way as described earlier (i.e. by cancelling out the ‘last-breath’ after the ‘ㄱ’ in ‘먹.’ For example
If the following syllable is a consonant, nothing changes and the two syllables are pronounced as usual:
However, if the next syllable starts with a vowel the ‘breath’ after the ‘k’ sound is made along with this vowel. For example:
Technically, it sounds like:
Note that it is not actually written like this, but only sounds like this.
Also note that if these two syllables were pronounced separately (먹 and 어), this phenomenon would not happen.
먹 + 어 (pronounced separately)
The most confusing of this rule is when ㅅ or ㅆ are the last letters in a syllable. When either of these is the final letter of a syllable, they are NOT pronounced as ‘S.’ Instead, they are pronounced similar to a ‘D’ sound. The reason for this is the same as I described earlier, that is, Korean people don’t allow that ‘breath’ of air out of their mouth on a final consonant. As soon as one’s tongue touches their teeth when making the “S” sound, the sound stops and no breath is made after it.
Listen to the following syllables to train your ear:
싯, 했, 겠, 었, 았, 짓
But, just like 먹 and 어, if syllables ending in ㅅ or ㅆ connect to another syllable where the first sound is a vowel, that ㅅ or ㅆ is pronounced as S combined with the following vowel (I know, it is very confusing).
As with 먹다, if the following syllable starts with a consonant, it gets pronounced normally:
Explaining why different endings would come after a word (for example, 먹다 vs. 먹어 and 했다 vs. 했어) is something you will understand as you learn about Korean grammar. In Lesson 5 and Lesson 6 of Unit 1, you will be introduced to conjugation and when you would have to use these different pronunciation rules. For now, it is good enough to simply understand that this phenomenon occurs.
No Aspiration Sometimes Leads to Funny Sounding Syllables
In the previous section of this lesson, it was explained that the final letter in a Korean syllable is not aspirated. You saw how this causes the pronunciation of syllables to differ if the next syllable in a word begins with a consonant (먹다) or a vowel (먹어).
Try pronouncing the word “먹다” again.
Try it again.
Try it again. As you pronounce it, think about the movement of your tongue from the ㄱ sound in “먹” to the ㄷ sound in “다.” There isn’t anything hindering or stopping this movement.
There are some combination of syllables where – when pronounced – the movement of one’s tongue is not so easy. In these cases, it is hard to move one’s tongue fast enough to make the appropriate sound. Most (but not all) of these occur when the letter ㄹ is involved. For example, try pronouncing the syllable “복.” Now, try pronouncing the syllable “리.” Pronounced separated, they sound like this:
복 + 리 (pronounced separately)
If those two syllables are pronounced together (which would happen in the word “복리”), one’s tongue cannot move immediately from the ㄱ sound to the ㄹ sound. Therefore, the two syllables pronounced together sound like this:
복리 (pronounced together)
Notice that the ㄹ sound isn’t distinct. It sounds more like an ㄴ sound. Let’s discuss why this phenomenon occurs. As mentioned earlier in this lesson, the ㄱ sound is not aspirated. Therefore, immediately after the unaspirated ㄱ sound, one must pronounce the ㄹ sound. Without an aspiration (i.e. without a breath), there is no time for one’s tongue to move to correctly pronounce the ㄹ sound.
There are many words that are like this. There is no use in listing all of them, because that would over-stress you into thinking that memorizing all of this is important. The ideas that I am presenting in this section (and in this lesson in general) are things that you should keep in mind, but don’t need to specifically memorize yet. Your pronunciation of Korean words as a beginner will inevitably be off – even for words where the pronunciation is relatively straightforward.
I have gone through the list of vocabulary presented in every lesson in Unit 1 and Unit 2. There are a total of 1850 words in these two Units. From all of these words, I found twenty-two words that exhibit this phenomenon (the fact that only 22 of 1850 words have this might be an indication of how much attention you should give to it at this stage. Again, be aware of it, but don’t worry about it too much as an absolute beginner).
I have separated these words into groups. The words in each group have the same respective letters as the final consonant in one syllable and the first consonant in the next syllable. For example, in the first section, all of the words (somewhere in the word) have a syllable where the final consonant is ㅇ, and the first consonant of the next syllable is ㄹ:
Words where one syllable ends in ㅇ and the next syllable starts with ㄹ
In these words, the ㄹ sound changes to a ㄴ sound. Listen to an audio recording of each of these words to train your ear:
Words where one syllable ends in ㄴ and the next syllable starts with ㄹ
In these words, the ㄴ sound changes to a ㄹ sound. Listen to an audio recording of each of these words to train your ear:
Words where one syllable ends in ㄱ and the next syllable starts with ㄹ
In these words, the ㄱ sound changes to a ㅇ sound and the ㄹ sound changes to an ㄴ sound. Listen to an audio recording of each of these words to train your ear:
Words where one syllable ends in ㅁ and the next syllable starts with ㄹ
In these words, the ㄹ sound changes to a ㄴ sound. Listen to an audio recording of each of these words to train your ear:
음료수 (pronounced as 음뇨수)
Words where one syllable ends in ㅍ and the next syllable starts with ㄴ
In these words, the ㅍ sound changes to a ㅁ sound. Listen to an audio recording of each of these words to train your ear:
앞니 (pronounced as 암니)
Words where one syllable ends in ㅌ and the next syllable starts with ㄴ
In these words, the ㅌ sound changes to a ㄴ sound. Listen to an audio recording of each of these words to train your ear:
Words where one syllable ends in ㄱ and the next syllable starts with ㅁ
In these words, the ㄱ sound changes to a ㅇ sound. Listen to an audio recording of each of these words to train your ear:
Words where one syllable ends in ㅊ and the next syllable starts with ㅁ
In these words, the ㅊ sound changes to a ㄴ sound. Listen to an audio recording of each of these words to train your ear:
몇몇 (pronounced as 면멷)
(Notice that the second “ㅊ” also doesn’t sound like ㅊ. It sounds like “ㄷ” because ㅊ is not aspirated)
Words where one syllable ends in ㅅ
If a syllable ends in ㅅ, it’s possible that it might be a “Middle ㅅ.” This is a very difficult concept, and is discussed in detail in Lesson 131.
The Pronunciation of ~습니다 or ~ㅂ니다
In Lesson 6, you will be introduced to politeness in Korean. One way to make a sentence polite, is to add ~습니다 or ~ㅂ니다 to the end of a verb or adjective (the distinction between the two will be made in that lesson). When saying ~습니다 or ~ㅂ니다, the ㅂ sound changes to an ㅁ sound. For example:
~습니다 (pronounced as 슴니다)
The Pronunciation of Syllables with Four Letters
The pronunciation of syllables that contain a fourth letter is a little bit different than above. If you are a beginner, you definitely do not need to memorize these rules/sounds/concepts from the very beginning. Being comfortable with Korean pronunciation takes years, and is not something that you can wrap your head around in a day. The best thing you can do as a beginner is to simply familiarize yourself with what is presented below (and above, for that matter). As you progress through our lessons, you will eventually come across these words in our Vocabulary Lists and in example sentences in our Lessons. Lucky for you, our vocabulary words and example sentences have audio files attached to them so you can listen to them as they are presented (if they don’t have an audio link, they will eventually). Familiarizing yourself with what is presented below will help you when you are introduced to these words later in our lessons. I’ll repeat my point one more time: While it is important to know how to pronounce things in Korean – this will not happen overnight. Use the concepts presented here to set yourself off on the right foot, but don’t get too bogged down on memorizing everything right now. It will come – with time.
If a syllable contains a fourth letter and is pronounced by itself, usually only one of the two final consonants is audible.
For example, if you listen to the word “닭“, the “ㄹ” is not audible and the word is actually pronounced as “닥”
Another example is the word “삶”, where the “ㄹ” is not audible and the word is actually pronounced as “삼”
This is hard for me to explain because you probably haven’t learned very much (if any) Korean grammar by this point. If I explain something that goes over your head in terms of grammar – don’t worry about that too much and try to just focus on the pronunciation notes I mention.
The two words above are nouns.
For all intents and purposes, it would be rare to find a noun just sitting by itself in a sentence. Rather, in Korean, one of many particles (or other things) would be attached to it. You haven’t learned about these particles yet, but you will be introduced to them throughout our lessons.
You will learn about the meanings of all of these in later lessons, but don’t worry about that now. Let’s just focus on pronunciation.
If the thing that attaches to these words starts with a consonant, the same rule from above applies, and only one of the two bottom consonants is pronounced. For example (There are two separate examples in the audio file below. I thought it would be better to give two examples instead of one in each case):
닭과 – 닭만
(This sounds closer to “닥과 – 닥만”)
However, if the thing that attaches to these words starts with a vowel, the pronunciation of the final consonant, in theory, should move to the upcoming syllable. For example:
닭을 – 닭이다
(This should sound closer to “달글 – 달기다”… but I admit it does sound like 닥을 – 닥이다.)
That is a native Korean speaker pronouncing those words, and there probably is a reason why she pronounced it that way. This is way beyond the scope of this lesson. Again, just try to understand what is being presented here in theory. You will have thousands of audio files to help you as you progress to later lessons.
닭 is a noun, but various things are also attached to verbs/adjectives as well that change pronunciation.
The following are three common verbs in Korean that have this fourth letter (All verbs end with “~다” but don’t worry about that for now):
Listen to the pronunciation of each of those words. You will notice that (just like the word “닭” above), because each of the four-letter syllables is followed by a consonant (다), only one of the two final consonants is pronounced. As you can see here, the letter that is not pronounced is not the same in every word.
This is beyond your understanding right now, but various grammatical principles can replace “다” to have different meanings. You will learn about all of these in later lessons. For example:
If the thing that replaces “다” starts with a consonant, the same rule from above (with nouns) applies, and only one of the two bottom consonants is pronounced. For example, if 앉 is followed by a consonant:
앉겠다 – 앉고
(This sounds closer to “안겠다 – 안고”)
However, if the thing that replaces “다” starts with a vowel, the pronunciation of the final consonant moves to the upcoming syllable. For example, if 앉 is followed by a vowel:
앉아 – 앉으면
(This sounds closer to “안자 – 안즈면”)
You can see the same phenomenon with all words that have this 4th letter. Let’s listen to “읽다” when “다” is replaced by something starting with a consonant compared to a vowel.
Followed by a consonant:
읽겠다 – 읽고
(Sounds closer to “익겠다 – 익고”)
Followed by a vowel:
읽어 – 읽으면
(Sounds closer to “일거 – 일그면”)
Let’s do the same thing with 없다
Followed by a consonant
없겠다 – 없고
(Sounds closer to “업겠다 – 업고”)
Followed by a vowel
없어 – 없으면
(Sounds closer to “업서 – 업스면)
Let’s do the same thing with 긁다 (to scratch)
Followed by a consonant
긁겠다 – 긁고
(Sounds closer to “극겠다 – 극고”)
Followed by a vowel
긁어 – 긁으면
(Sounds closer to “글거 – 글그면”)
Again, explaining the difference in meaning and purpose between…
앉다 vs. 앉고 vs. 앉아
읽다 vs. 읽고 vs. 읽어
없다 vs. 없고 vs. 없어
닭 vs. 닭과 vs. 닭을
… is a matter of Korean grammar, which will be explained in our lessons. As I mentioned earlier, our later lessons will have many example sentences with audio recordings so you can continue to train your ear as you progress through your studies. You absolutely do not need to memorize these concepts before you move on. You will memorize them naturally as you progress with our Lessons.
The Pronunciation of ㅢ
The pronunciation of ㅢ often causes confusion for foreigners learning Korean. In Unit 0: Lesson 3, you can find a recording of a Korean person pronouncing “ㅢ” when different starting consonants. Here is that recording again:
Aside from 의, you will rarely (or never) come across the other syllables in that recording. Pay more attention to the sound that is being made.
Though that can be good practice, syllables are rarely just used by themselves. More often, syllables are connected to make words or some sort of grammatical principle. The pronunciation of “ㅢ” can change depending on where and how it is used.
If you are reading this without having read any lessons in Unit 1, this explanation might go over your head. In order to understand some of what is presented below, some understanding of Korean word structure and grammar might help. I’m including this explanation in this lesson (in Unit 0) because this is my lesson about pronunciation. In reality, you probably don’t need to worry about this until you come across it in my lessons. I’ll link back to this part of this lesson when it becomes important in your studies.
Officially, the correct pronunciation of “ㅢ” is “ㅢ” (as recorded above). Makes sense. The following are alternate pronunciations that are seen as “acceptable” and are common in speech.
When ㅢ is found in the first syllable of a word, and the syllable begins with “ㅇ” (making the first sound be “ㅢ), the pronunciation is “ㅢ.” Here is a recording of two words where this can be heard:
When ㅢ is found in the first syllable of a word, but the syllable begins with a consonant, the pronunciation can be “이.”
When ㅢ is found somewhere other than the first syllable of a word, the pronunciation can be “이.” For example:
In Unit 1: Lesson 3, you will learn about “~의” and how it can be used to have a meaning of possession. In English, we can put “’s” on the end of a word, or change “I” to “my” or “him” to “his.” For example:
저 = I/me
친구 = friend
저의 친구 = My friend
책 = book
저의 책 = My book
저의 친구의 책 = My friend’s book
차 = car
저의 차 = My car
When used like this, the pronunciation can be “에.” For example:
A word that you will learn much later in your studies is “의의,” which translates to “meaning” or “significance.” For you, the translation is not important right now. Instead, let’s focus on the pronunciation. Imagine if I wanted to ask about “의의”’s pronunciation. In Korean, I would have to use the additional “~의” as talked about above (and introduced in Unit 1: Lesson 3). In theory, I could write:
의의의 발음 = 의의’s pronunciation
Again, “의의” is a word. The third “의” is attached to the word to have the function of “’s” in English. Don’t worry about the grammar for now.
The first syllable begins with ㅇ, and therefore “의” is pronounced as “의”
“ㅢ” is also found in the second syllable. In this case, “의” can be pronounced as “이”
“의” is attached to the word to have the function described in Lesson 3. In this case, “의” can be pronounced as “에”.
The whole construction can be pronounced as “의이에.”