I got sick and then I got busy, so of course my program of self-study went right down the toilet. Today I attempted to climb back into the saddle–predictably I had to look up really basic words I used to know very well, plus I seem to have lost my preposition flash cards. But, hey, at least I’m back at work on it.
Anyway, in the spirit of reminding myself that I do still know a (very) few things about Korean, I thought I’d post again about some of the more confusing-to-the-English-speaker aspects of Korean. Korean consonants are, of course, a bottomless well of weirdness, but there’s even more strangeness than what I mentioned before.
A quick review: In Korean, unlike in English, certain changes of pronunciation don’t matter. Depending on the letter, a consonant can be pronounced guh or kuh, or buh or puh, or tuh or duh, and the letter won’t change.
But certain other changes of pronunciation do matter, do change the letter used, and do change the meaning of a word!
One change that matters is whether or not you aspirate a lot–breathe out a lot when you say buh or puh, and you’ve pronounced a different letter. Being breathy makes no difference in English, but it makes all the difference in the world in Korean.
Another change is even trickier: You can double a consonant in Korean. But–and this is very important–it doesn’t work the same way as when you double a consonant in English. Like, at all. A double consonant is a different kind of letter in Korean–it’s not just two consonants next to each other, like it is in English.
This gets all the more confusing because when people romanize Korean, they will use double English consonants to indicate double Korean consonants. I understand why people do this, but just like when people throw in random consonants to force you to say the vowel right, the result can be quite misleading.
Let’s take that good old standby found throughout the K-Pop world: oppa.
Oppa is a word women use that means “older brother.” It can also be used to address close male friends or one’s boyfriend. It’s thrown about in K-Pop like it means nothing, but normally women in Korea do not address random older men as oppa unless they charge money for dates or something.
But how do you pronounce oppa?
Well, if you’re an English speaker, that’s easy–oppa has a double consonant, so it’s a two-syllable word split between the ps. Op-pa, right?
In Korean, the double consonant indicates that a syllable is stressed. It’s not just two consonants together, like in English, it has a very specific effect on pronunciation as a stress marker. Since the double consonant in oppa is in the second syllable, it is telling you that the word is pronounced o-PA, not O-pa or o-pa. (In Korean, a multisyllable word doesn’t have to have a stressed syllable.)
In multisyllable Korean words, the double consonant works just like an English stress marker would–the ‘ people use sometimes, or the use of italics or (as I am doing) all caps. It means you come down hard on that particular syllable–the entire syllable, not just the one consonant. So the Korean word babbayo (which means that someone is busy) is pronounced ba-BA-yo, not BA-ba-yo.
(Notice how I spelled oppa with a p and babbayo with a b? Yeah, you could do it obba or pappayo or even bappayo–it doesn’t really matter. When people romanize double consonants they’ll go for the k or the p or the t instead of the g or the b or the d because you’re more likely to make the k/p/t sound when you stress a syllable. There’s nothing wrong with them doing that–just don’t get perplexed if you hear the heroine of a Korean drama screaming “Obba!”)
Where it gets more confusing for English speakers is when the word is one syllable but has a double consonant. For example, ssal means uncooked rice, but sal means flesh–the first is stressed while the second is not. I can’t think of an equivalent in English–all our one-syllable words are stressed the same. I just try to really ease off the one-syllable words if I know there’s another, similar word out there with a double consonant.
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There is a consonant that is never doubled or even aspirated–it doesn’t even change pronunciation at the end of a syllable! But it will give you fits nonetheless.
That letter is: ㄹ. Looks kind of like a backwards S, and is pronounced kind of like an English l, but not really. Often it’s described as an l/r, but unlike the Korean g/k, b/p, and d/t, the r pronunciation only happens under specific circumstances, and I would argue that it’s better to think of this letter as the Korean l.
As an English speaker, in order to understand the Korean l, you have to first understand the English l and the English r.
Ever notice something about those two letters? No one can pronounce them right.
I mean, if you’re an adult, sober, well-rested native English speaker with absolutely no impairments to your hearing, your muscle control, or your mental functioning, you can. But man, try to teach a kid to say “rabbit” and “yellow” instead of “wabbit” and “yeyow,” and you will realize just how freaking difficult these two consonants are to say.
The reason is because both require extremely precise placement of the tongue. In order to say the English l, you press the tip of your tongue firmly against the back of your front teeth. At the exact same time, you pull the sides of your tongue away from the insides of your molars.
In order to say the English r, you hold your lips pretty much the same way you do when you say the English l. You pronounce it in the same part of your mouth that you do the English l. What makes the difference in the sound? You’re reversing the tongue action: You press the sides of your tongue firmly against the insides of your molars while pulling the tip of your tongue away from the back of your front teeth.
If you are in any way imprecise in the placement of your tongue, you will not pronounce the English l or the English r correctly.
On to the Korean l. It is pronounced very much like the English l, except that, instead of jamming the tip of your tongue firmly against the back of your front teeth the way English speakers do, you just flit it against the teeth. It barely touches, and that, just for a moment.
If the other letters around the Korean l make it hard for you to hit the back of your front teeth with your tongue, you just don’t. Since the rest of your mouth is more or less in the position to make an English r, you wind up with something that sounds kind of like that.
So, 몰라요, which means “don’t know,” gets pronounced mor-ra-yo or mol-ra-yo, because that’s easier to say than mol-la-yo. But 빌려요, “borrow,” is pronounced bil-lye-yo, because the i and y make it easier to place your tongue so that you hit the l sound. Making an r sound in Korean isn’t really a deliberate thing–it’s like how English speakers say wanna instead of want to.
(I realize there’s a lot of stereotyping regarding the Asian “confusion” of l and r, as well as totally justifiable resentment against said stereotyping, but as this post points out, the stereotype, while massively overgeneralized, does have some small basis in reality.)