Pronouncing Difficult Korean Sounds

You’ve carefully perused the fantasmic page on learning hangeul, right? Excellent… [drums fingertips together]

But what Sejong didn’t tell you with that wise man / stupid man one-liner is that Hangeul isn’t perfectly phonetic. [Collective gasp!] Just like many other scripts, there are irregularities and pronunciation tricks that must be learned. I’ve adapted an excellent Korean grammar book, Elementary Korean by Ross King and Jae-Hoon Yeon, for this section.

Is ㅂ p or b??

By default, ㅂ, ㄱ, ㄷ, and ㅈ are p, k, t and ch, respectively. However when one of these consonants is between a vowel, y, w, n, ng, or l it gains a harder sound: b, g, d, and j, respectively. Also, ㅅ  makes an s sound, except when it comes before ㅣ, in which case it makes an sh sound: for example 사 (sa) and 시 (shi).

Syllables ending in non-release consonants (is 옷 os or ot?)

Many Korean syllables end in ㄱ, ㅋ, ㅂ, ㅍ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅌ, and ㅅ. When this happens, the final sound is clenched and held in the mouth. This means the ㅌ, ㅈ, ㅊ, and ㅅ become similar dental stops, like the t sound in the word bat.

Example word Example word Pronunciation
Final ㄱ 국 (soup) 목 (throat, neck) Clenched G
Final ㅋ 부엌 (kitchen) Clenched K
Final ㅂ 입 (mouth) 굽 (hoof) Clenched B
Final ㅍ 앞 (in front) 옆 (beside) Clenched P
Final ㅈ 낮 (day) Clenched T
Final ㅊ 꽃 (flower) 및 (in addition) Clenched T
Final ㅌ 밭 (field) 같 (like) Clenched T
Final ㅅ 옷 (clothing) 못 (pond, nail) Clenched T

Carrying a sound over to the next syllable

The last letter of a syllable is often influenced by the first letter of the next. The consonant ㅅ is a particularly frequent syllable swinger. ㅅ makes a ㄷ (clenched t) sound if it comes at the end of a syllable (as seen above). However, when the following syllable starts with 으 then ㅅ makes an s sound and when the following syllable starts with 이 then ㅅ makes a sh sound. Lastly, before a syllable starting with ㄷ, ㅅ makes the ㄷ sound double, like ㄸ.

Korean word Pronunciation English meaning
옷안 [옫안] odan clothing lining
옷을 [오슬] osul clothes (+direct object particle)
옷이 [오시] oshee clothes (+subject particle)
옷도 [오또] oddo clothes too

Other examples of syllables that swing the sound across to the following syllable block are as follows:

Korean word Pronunciation English meaning
닭고기 [다꼬기] takkogi chicken meat
밭도 [바또] patto in the field too
밭안에 [바단에] padan-e inside the field
낮에 [나제] naje in the daytime
꽃을 [꼬츨] ggochul flower (+ direct object marker)

When anglophones can’t pronounce R/L (ㄹ)

The Korean letter ㄹ often makes a double “ll” sound if it comes before or after ㄴ; it also makes some sounds that are very different from either r or l; moreover, if the first letter in the next syllable is ㄷ, ㅈ, or ㅅ, a preceding ㄹ will make the letter sound like a double letter.

Korean word Pronunciation English meaning
일년 [일련] illyeon one year
신라 [실라] shilla Shilla dynasty
강릉 [강능] kangneung Gangneung city
심리 [심니] shimni psychology
철도 [철또] cheolddo railway
결정 [결쩡] gyeoljjeong decision
설사 [설싸] seolssa diarrhea

Is it 합니다 or 함니다?

When ㅂ, ㄷ, or ㄱ come directly before ㅁ, ㄴ, or ㄹ they make the sounds m, n and ng, respectively.

Korean word Pronunciation English meaning
죄송합니다 [죄송함니다] choesonghamnida Please excuse me.
닫는다 [단는다] dannunda closes it
먹는다 [멍는다] meongneunda eats it
십륙 [십뉵] shiamnyuk sixteen
독립 [동닙] dongnip independence
합리 [함니] hamni reason

2 responses to “Pronouncing Difficult Korean Sounds

  1. Wow, thanks I owe a lot to you guys and the Kimchi Krew for helping me learn Korean as well as get a handle on what I wanna do when I get there!


  2. Thank you! You have presented the most clear and concise explanation of conjugation and pronunciation shifts that I have seen anywhere. I spent months of confusion looking for a relatively simple set of patterns to facilitate learning. Now I am back to saying “Fighting!”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s