Korean Pronunciation Basics

Korean pronunciation is relatively easy to learn.  It lacks several sounds that exist in the English alphabet such as z, th, and r.  Besides the alphabet, a significant difference between English and Korean language is the flow of the pronunciation of the words.  English focuses on a smooth pronunciation with emphasis only on certain accented syllables.  Correct Korean pronunciation divides each syllable within a word and places emphasis on each sound.

For instance, the English word “elephant” has an accent on el-, stressing that initial sound.  The rest of the word flows smoothly as from that initial syllable.  The Korean pronunciation of such a word would equally emphasize all syllables, el/le/phant, significantly affecting the cadence of its enunciation.  This often results in some initial awkwardness as native English speakers learn how to pronounce Korean words.

English words adopted into Korean pronunciations are usually very similar to their English counterpart.  A notable exception is when a particular phonetic sound does have a Korean counterpart.  Typically, a similar Korean phonetic sound takes its place   For example, the English f is replaced with the p sound and the English th is replaced with either t, tt, or s.  The letter “r” is replaced with the sound l or discarded entirely if it is at the end of a sentence.

Other examples include:

  •  “coffee” pronounced as cu-pee
  • “roller coaster” pronounced lol-luh coa-stuh
  • “three” pronounced ssree
  • “Thursday” pronounced ttu-ss-day

Short Words

In the Korean language, verbs are very short.  English verbs have a vast array of suffixes and modifiers to add length.  Korean, however, is much simpler and does not bother with modifiers.  In Korean, all syllables must be promptly ended, without being prolonged with a suffix such as -er or -ee.

There is no Korean equivalent to the sound -er.  Every English-adopted word using the sound -er  is pronounced instead as uh.  For example, the word “doctor” would be pronounced as doc-tuh in Korean.

Likewise, -ee is replaced instead with -i.  The word “attendee” would be pronounced as a-tten-di.  This rule applies not only to the ending of a word, but also in the beginning.  For example, “Egypt” would be read as I/gyp/t.  Note also that the –t at the end of this word is pronounced separately and given its own syllable.

Learners should practice simple Korean words from YouTube or other auditory source material to avoid these very common mistakes.  You may also learn a few basic words on this site.

Recommended Courses

There are many video series available on the web that can help you learn the basics.  It’s a good idea to try a sample lesson before investing in a full course.

Watch this short video to hear how to speak the Korean alphabet and basic words.  The good news is that you will find that it is a relatively easy language to learn.

Beyond the Basics: The Etiquette of jon dat mal

Pronunciation differences can be mastered through listening and repetition.  However, the most significant cultural difference in Korean speech is that one needs to consider who is the listener.

Referred to as “jon dat mal,” the speaker needs to modify his or her verb and preposition when the listener is elder than the speaker, out of politeness and respect.  This can be a complex matter to negotiate during an initial contact, and there are more than five different ways to use jon dat mal.  For simplicity’s sake, however, this article shall delve into the two most important.

Respect your Elder

Similar to other Asian countries, Confucianism heavily influences Korean culture.  Language derived from Confucian influence caters to the prevalent social norm that places a high regard for respect to the elderly.

It is considered extremely rude for a younger person to address a senior person with “ban-mal” (the more casual opposite of jon dat mal).  Because of this, it is customary that when two people meet and do not know which is the senior, that both use jon dat mal out of mutual respect.  It is also acceptable for junior person use ban-mal to the senior person, but only if the senior allows it.  This allowance generally means that the relationship is more of a casual nature.

One of the most basic methods to use jon dat mal is to add -yoh at the end of a spoken sentence.  Note that adding –yoh to the end of a sentence does not apply in written Korean, which uses a different suffix.

English sentence structure typically starts with subject and ends with an object or object phrase after the verb.  In contrast, a Korean sentence will end with a verb.  The suffix -yoh goes after the verb and ends the sentence.  Whilst this is the easiest and most basic method to use jon dat mal, in most cases the actual verb needs to be changed in addition to adding -yoh behind the verb.

Referring to a Third Party

Referring to a third party in a sentence adds another level of complexity.  If I (as the speaker) were to ask someone else to hand over this pencil to another person, I would need to consider three relationships:

  • Is the listener more senior than the speaker?

If the listener is more senior than the speaker, I will add -yoh to my sentence.

  • Is the recipient of the pencil more senior than I am?

In this case, I will use the different form of verb for “hand over” and add -yoh

  • Is the recipient of the pencil more senior than the listener?

When the listener is more senior than the recipient it is rude to change the verb.  The speaker would ignore the fact that the recipient is more senior and simply add -yoh without changing the verb.  Otherwise, the conversation would indicate that I do not acknowledge the listener’s seniority above the recipient’s.  If the recipient is more senior, I should properly change the verb and and -yoh.

Comparison with ban-mal

Other than adding -yoh to the sentence end, one needs to alter the preposition of the elder subject, if any, and add an additional prefix before -yoh to complete the sentence.  The preposition “to” is eh-geh in ban-mal Korean. Therefore, the phrase “to Jenny” in Korean is Jenny eh-geh in Korean (preposition comes after object – as discussed on this page).  However, if the speaker wishes to show respect for Jenny, instead of eh-geh, the speaker would use -ggeh and instead say Jenny ggehGa means “go” in Korean.

If the speaker is informing the elder listener that the speaker is going, a simple ga-yo is the correct form of jon dat mal.  On the other hand, if the speaker wishes to direct the senior listener to go somewhere, the speaker should add -se-yo and say ga-se-yo.  Similarly, Hae means “do” in Korean.  Hae in ban-mal means “do it” or “I am doing” but again, need to be altered to hae-yo or ha-se-yo when the listener is elder and deserves the appropriate respect.