Is ㄱ g or k? (with similar questions) – Korean Pronunciation Tips #8

English speakers who learn Korean frequently ask whether ㄱ is g or k. There are similar questions like this: Is ㄷ d or t; Is ㅂ b or p; Is ㅈ j or ch? In this episode, I will tell you about this FAQ.

Original Intention of King Sejong, the Creator of 한글

When King Sejong made 한글, he made consonants by imitating the vocal organs. For example, ㄱ is the right angle from inside of mouth to throat. ㅁ is from the shape of our lips, etc. After making basic shapes, he doubled characters like ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, ㅆ to indicate stronger sound(된소리). And he added strokes in the basic consonants to create much stronger sound(거센소리), ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅊ.

I used the word "strong" here. It means that you need more effort to create that sound. When you are pronouncing 된소리, double consonants, you should strain your throat harder than 예사소리, basic consonants and let the air less out of your mouth. When pronouncing 거센소리, you should let the more air out of your mouth. In linguistic jargon, 거센소리 consonants need more aspiration.

English Speakers Use Voicing While Koreans Use the Strength

The sounds of Korean is decided by these strength of sounds. On the other hand, English sounds are decided by voicing. When you pronounce g or k, you use the same vocal organ. However, the difference is that there is a vibration in your throat when you are pronouncing g and there isn't when pronouncing k. How about checking it out by pronouncing gate and Kate? You can feel the difference in vibration. It happens with the pairs like g/k, v/f, d/t, j/ch and b/p.

It's the main difference between Korean and English when the native speakers feel the difference of the sounds. In English, they use vibration to distinguish sounds while Koreans used the strength of the sounds.

The Answer? "It Depends"

It was long and a bit linguistic. Now, let's talk about our original question. Is ㄱ g or k? The answer is "it depends." It sometimes sounds like k and it sometimes sounds like g.

After Voiced Sounds in Korean, 노란양말 with Vowels

As I said earlier, Koreans don't use voicing to distinguish sounds. However, there are voiced sounds in Korean, too. They are ㄴ, ㄹ, ㅇ, ㅁ. In school, teachers teach us to memorize them as 노란 양말(yellow socks). As you can see, there are ㄴ, ㄹ, ㅇ, ㅁ in the first sound of each character. In addition to these 4 consonants, all vowels are voiced sounds.

When voiceless sounds are after voiced sounds, 노란 양말 with vowels, it is hard to stop vibrating your throat and pronounce the consonant voiceless. So, after voiced sounds, voiceless sounds become voiced. It's called 유성음화 or 울림소리되기. 유성음 or 울림소리 is voiced sound in Korean. We've been talking something hard so long. Let's see them with examples.

아기가 기차에서 자고 있어요.
Baby is sleeping in the train.

그 부부는 정말 사이가 좋다.
The husband and wife get along really well.

냉장고에 있는 갈비 언제 먹은 거야?
When did you eat the rib in the fridge?

In the word, 아기, ㄱ in 기 sounds like g not k while the ㄱ in 기차 sounds like k not g. As 아 is voiced, so ㄱ sounds voiced. Because there is no sound in front of 기차, 기 in 기차 sounds like k.

In the word, 부부, first ㅂ sounds like p and second 부 sounds like b. The reason is the same. The first ㅂ is like p, because there is no sound in front of it and the second ㅂ sounds like b because the character in front of it ends with a vowel.

With same reason, ㄱ, ㅈ in 냉장고, ㅂ in 갈비, ㅈ in 언제 sounds voiced, because all of them have the voiced sound in front of them.

It might be happy for you and me if the story ends here. However, like in almost every grammar rule, there are exceptions. The sounds that looks like to be changed to voiced sounds happen to be voiceless 된소리s. It's called 경음화 or 된소리되기. I'll talk about them in the next episode. Stay tuned!