In your recent post about the meaning of Korean names, you wrote:
Note: the Chinese language does a much better job at distinguishing these characters because the Chinese language is tonal. Centuries ago, Korean language used to be tonal as well--which probably helped navigating the Sino-Korean words. But today, Korean language only has the tiniest vestiges of tones, most of which are unnoticed even by Koreans themselves.Could you explain those vestiges in some detail?
First of all, a brief explanation on the concept of "tone" in linguistics. A "tonal" language uses tones to distinguish different meanings of syllables that may otherwise sound the same.
One example of a tonal language is Mandarin Chinese, which uses four tones. Here is an example of four tones, each pronouncing the sound "ma".
These four tones are necessary because the meaning of the syllable "ma" changes depending on the tone, like so:
- mā (媽/妈) "mum/mom"
- má (麻/麻) "hemp"
- mǎ (馬/马) "horse"
- mà (罵/骂) "scold"
(Note: Tones are not the same thing as an accent. Tone changes the meaning, while accent does not. For example, reading "caramel" as two syllables (like "car-mel") versus as three syllables (like "ca-ra-mel") is an accent. Regardless of how you read "caramel," the meaning of the word does not change.)
According to written records, it appears that Korean language made use of tones until late 16th century. The original hangeul (known as Hunminjeongeum [훈민정음]), which was created in 1443 and promulgated in 1446 (i.e. mid-15th century,) contained a system of denoting the four tones that Korean language used at the time by placing one or two dots on the left of the letter. (See example below.)
No dot indicates a flat tone, unless
a letter ends with ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅅ; in such a case,
the tone starts high and ends abruptly.
One dot, a high tone.
Two dots, a low-to-high tone.
However, the vestiges of the tonal language survived for centuries afterward, and continued to serve their core function: a means to distinguish the different meanings inhabiting the same sound unit. Until very recently (i.e. until around early 20th century,) it was common for Koreans to distinguish certain words by pronouncing them for a little longer.
Example: in Korean, nun [눈] is a homophone for both "eye" and "snow." Under the strictest Korean grammar rules, the 눈 to denote "snow" is pronounced a little longer than the 눈 to denote "eye" (that is, almost like 누운.) Similarly, bae [배] is a homophone for (among other meanings) "stomach" and "double." To say "double" in Korean while avoiding confusion at the same time, one would pronounce the word 배 a little longer.
There are many more examples of Korean language's tonal vestiges, but the Korean need not present them all here. Why? Because today, most Koreans simply ignore this rule. Although the "long syllable rule" is still taught in school in a standard curriculum for Korean language, vast majority of Koreans quickly forget the rule as soon as the final exam is over. So if you are a Korean language learner, there is no need to bother learning this rule. The only place one could conceivably hear the long syllable in Korean might be the hallway of the National Institute of Korean Language [국립국어원].
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.