Friday, January 03, 2014

Tonal Vestige in Korean Language

Dear Korean,

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?

Funny Canadian

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:
  1. mā (媽/妈) "mum/mom"
  2. má (麻/麻) "hemp"
  3. mǎ (馬/马) "horse"
  4. mà (罵/骂) "scold"
By using the four tones, the Chinese language is able to ascribe four different meanings to a single syllable "ma", and distinguish the four meanings in an ordinary speech.

(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.
The tonal marks in hangeul begin to disappear around late 16th century and completely vanishes around early 17th century, indicating that the use of tone in Korean also disappeared around then.

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


  1. I once came across this very question in an online forum. The question had been posted whether the Korean language distinguished between long and short vowels, and someone had confidently answered No, there are no long and short vowels in Korean. I wanted so badly to correct that 'mistake', but the question was long closed.

  2. You say the "long syllable rule" is still taught in school in a standard curriculum for Korean language, but the vast majority of Koreans quickly forget the rule as soon as the final exam is over.

    Do you mean to say they forget the rule and no longer attempt to apply it?

    I ask because it seems to me that while Koreans might not conscientiously apply this rule - in the natural course of speech - they subconsciously "apply" it. In other words, they add that tiny fraction of a second to certain syllables. Not because they learned in a Korean language class that they were supposed to say it that way - rather they learned it through natural language acquisition - and they don't even realize they are doing it.

    1. Fair question. My experience has been that Koreans do not even subconsciously apply it, although apparently certain dialects lends itself to easier application.

  3. About the "배" example, I'd add it can also mean "ship".

    It is just a percievement resulting out of personal observation, but it seems to me that the way a syllable is pronounced in Korean is rather a matter of vocal flow than a matter of strict rules. Staying on the "배" exmple provided above, the "double" 배 usually goes pronounced after a number (just to clarify, if it's 2 두, then it means double, if it's another number, the meaning changes in its quantity), and the beginning consonant sounds more like [b], while the "stomach" 배's consonant is closer to [p]. Since, however, that doesn't justify the fact that "stomach" isn't too differently pronounced even when preceeded by another syllable either ending in a wovel or consonant sound and, thinking of it, neither "ship" seems to, then I'm guessing it might also be a matter of the grammatical group of words. Note that "ship" and "stomach" are both simple nouns, while the "double" one is more of an addition to another word.

  4. The fact that tones existed can be seen from the regional dialects(or, 사투리) in Korea. The link below is an example of distinguishing "이" for the number "2" and 이 for the alphabet "E" in Gyeongsangdo dialect(경상도 사투리).

  5. Is there any relation between tonal vestiges and the double consonants?

  6. Hi I'm a native Korean living in Gyeongsangdo. So, I have dialect. I've been living in my home town almost whole my life.
    First of all, people here misunderstand tones in Korea. The reason why tones dissapear is because Korean language are not Tonal language from the beginning.

    Then why first Korean letters were written with tones?? That's because of Chinese influence. As we all know that Korean has strong Chinese culture influence. So when King Sejong invented Korean alphabet first, he also refered many of characters like Chinese, Japanese and Mongolian etc.
    That's why he put tones on language. However, these tones rapidly dissapear. Simply because Korean language never been Tonal language.

    And some comment say my home town dialect having tone still.
    As a native speaker in that dialect, We don't use tone. I've never used tone. And I've never distinguish word with tone.


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