I don't understand why, but Korean and Japanese sound very similar to me, and also to other native speakers of English. I think I once read a comment saying something like "If it sounds like Japanese but you can't understand what is being said, then it's Korean".

What characteristics, apart from the lack of tones, are shared by the two languages making them sound similar? And what explanations, apart from the Altaic Hypothesis, are there for the two languages being similar for those characteristics?

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    The Altaic Hypothesis is that they're related to Turkic and Mongolic. Few linguists believe this nowadays; but most linguists I know of still find it pretty plausible that Japanese and Korean, specifically, came from the same source. (Even if they didn't, a long history of contact and a shared stratum of Literary Chinese loanwords would still ensure some of the similarity). The set of vowels and consonants in Korean is richer, but isn't that different from Japanese (compare the Wpedia phonology pages). BTW, pitch accent languages like J and dialects of K are considered a kind of tonal lang. – melboiko Jul 1 '17 at 12:07
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    When you don't know a language, there's no telling what other language you might think it sounds similar to. I've heard from people that my language (Norwegian) sounds like Arabic. When I hear languages I'm not expecting to hear - even languages I understand perfectly - I've more than once identified them as exotic languages from other language families, and when I suddenly discover what language I'm listening to, I can't believe how I managed to perceive it so differently at first. I know some Japanese and Korean, and I don't think they sound very similar. – Sverre Jul 1 '17 at 13:25
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    I don't think genetic relationship has much bearing on the question. By any measure, French and Italian sound very different. – Colin Fine Jul 1 '17 at 17:14
  • Japanese and Korean definitely share grammatical similarities, and a huge amount of (similar) Chinese loans, but I don't think their phonological properties are similar at all! This is the first time I have heard anyone claim they sound similar; so, this might be a personal thing for you. As @Sverre says above, what (exotic) languages you find similar is entirely up to your perception. I also don't believe that Chinese loans add to this 'perceived' similarity, as each language has adapted the loans to its own phonology... – sami.spricht.sprache Jul 1 '17 at 21:10
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    I landed at this page, because I was curious why I always think of Japanese as soon as I hear a Korean talking. My knowledge of Korean is almost zero, but I can manage to make myself clear in Japanese. So there must be at least some similarity at least in sentence intonation and phonetics... – Wim Feb 9 '18 at 20:13

The similarity in sound is the result of two factors: overlapping phonetic inventories, and word length (which affects syllable duration). If you wanted to quantify the similarity, those would be the factors to focus on. The other part of "why" focuses not on what you are reacting to, but what causes the languages to be similar. The best explanation is that this is an areal feature. Japanese and Korean sound similar, but Korean and Khakas do too, likewise you can fold in Kazakh, Mongolian and Chukchi (possibly other languages of the area that I haven't heard). However, Chukchi doesn't sound a lot like Japanese, it sounds more like Mongolian, which sounds like Khakas, which sounds like Korean... We can rule out common genetic basic because (1) errm, Altaic isn't really a valid historical linguistic group, (2) Turkic spoken further west does not sound like related Khakas etc. and (3) Chukchi is not vaguely hypothesized to be related to Japanese.

Lack of tone would not be relevant, since Korean has tonal and non-tonal dialects and virtually all dialects of Japanese (maybe indeed all) have tone, the reduced-contrast system type most common in tone languages (as contrasted with Chinese and SE Asian languages).

A similar phenomenon exists in the Pacific Northwest, where the languages all sound alike, but they are split up into a half-dozen or more genetic groups. For some reason, in contact situations, people can easily pick up a "foreign accent" without the kind of deep linguistic contact that results in exchange of many words and morphemes.

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    I would add the intonation among the features that influence the perception of a language by foreigners. The intonational curves in Japanese and Korean could be similar, due to a prolonged contact between them. – Artemij Keidan Jul 2 '17 at 16:19
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    Another factor might be, let's say, the "fine tuning" of the articulations, which seems to be typical for whole areas. E.g., in the Western Europe, the lateral continuant /l/ is generally more palatal than the "corresponding" phoneme in Slavic languages (phonetically, [ʟ]), which makes their accent so recognisable. Or, English and German /t/ (and perhaps also that of the other Germanic languages) is shifted towards the alveopalatal zone comparing to the Slavic /t/, which is more dental. I don't know any study on this topic (my fault), but this is the answer I've always given myself about it. – Artemij Keidan Jul 2 '17 at 16:55
  • This "fine tuning" is what I mean in referring to phonetic inventories. I distinguish phonetic and phonological, so rather than transcribing the German and a Slavic laterals as [l] I would transcribe the Slavic one with [ʟ] (maybe: Russian is confusing and my grip on Slovenian is virtually non-existent). Though one might still give them the same phonological analysis. – user6726 Jul 2 '17 at 18:24
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    Minor nitpick: Japanese has pitch, but not tone in the sense generally referred to when talking about languages such as Chinese or Vietnamese. unless linguistic "pitch" been redefined as a binary version of tone while I wasn't looking, of course. I wonder if expectation of similarity (especially if the speaker is visible to the listener) might not have more to do with the perceived similarity than any actual phonetic or phonological resemblance. – Philippe Jul 4 '17 at 13:17
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    Tone never referred to "just what Chinese has". Most tone languages are typologically closer to Japanese than to Chinese, which is a minor subtype in tonology. I agree that visual resemblance is a confounding factor, which is why the test has to be performed with randomized recordings. Still, expectation would not then set Chinese apart. – user6726 Jul 4 '17 at 13:50
  1. Extremely similar phonemic systems. In particular, both languages tightly limit syllable-ending consonants, unlike English which permits almost any consonant to end a syllable.

  2. Large numbers of loan words from Chinese converted into those similar phonemic systems means that there are many phonetic cognates.



Besides what others mentioned here, there's also the fact that as foreigners, we are more likely to hear the similarities (especially when we know a few words) than the differences.

For me, after I met a few people from the south and from the north of China, Cantonese and Mandarin seemed pretty similar. Mostly because my limited vocabulary (of maybe 10 words) would only cover words which have some similarities, and I would ignore the 'minor' differences in intonation, pronunciation, a phoneme here or there and so on. Locals, who know a lot of words where those 'minor' differences decide which word it is, have more difficulties understanding the other version of Chinese if they only know their own one.

This is more vocabulary than sound, but the underlying simplifications our brains make explain why for some (but not all) people, two languages may sound very similar.


I’m Japanese American and unless I’m paying attention to every Korean spoken word I get confused. But Japanese I think flows more evenly whereas Korean may take on more of a Chinese or short sounding speech. Ending of sentences seems similar in structure. Apart from that I don’t hear words meaning the same thing.

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