I've always had trouble with the distinction between the "e"-like vowels in European languages: /e/ vs /ɛ/. But pronouncing them the same has never caused me any problems.

In fact I don't even know whether my English "short e" is /e/ vs /ɛ/. I seem to recall it varies by English variety, even for IPA use (I always use /e/ for English IPA). In my idiolect there may even be some kind of merger. "Head" is /hEd/ and "haired" is /hEːd/ where E could be either e or ɛ - I'm not sure.

So now I'm in Korea trying to improve my Korean. Up until now I had always pronounced "ㅐ" as /æ/ and "ㅔ" as whatever my English "short e" is.

But lately people have been correcting me and telling me "ㅐ" should be what to me sounds like "short e".

Having done some reading I find Korean doesn't have /æ/ as I'd thought, but has two contrasting vowels that would both fall into the "short e" category for my idiolect:

"ㅐ" is /ɛ/ and "ㅔ" is /e/.

How can I learn to distinguish these sounds correctly, both for listening and speaking?

If I learn it for Korean it will also help for my linguistics generally.

Are there some minimal pairs in Korean I can practice with with my native Korean speaking friends here? (It's not easy trying to explain to non-linguists with imperfect English what minimal pairs are.)

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    I don't know Korean, but I recall reading that /e/ and /ɛ/ have largely merged in modern Korean. You can probably get away with using /e/ (or /e̞/) everywhere. – Mechanical snail Sep 25 '12 at 4:56
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    "Length distinction is almost completely lost; length distinction for all vowels can still be heard from older speakers, but almost all younger speakers either do not distinguish length consistently or do not distinguish it at all. The distinction between /e/ and /ɛ/ is another decreasing element in the speech of some younger speakers, mostly in the area of Seoul, whereas in other dialectal areas the two vowels can be distinctly heard. For those speakers who do not make the difference [e̞] seems to be the dominant form." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_phonology#Monophthongs) – Mechanical snail Sep 25 '12 at 4:59
  • Well now I have a reason to move around the country a bit! (-; It looks like these are pure vowels too so I better update my question... – hippietrail Sep 25 '12 at 5:00
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    I have the same problem with back vowels, only natively distinguishing 2 real back monophthongs (/o̞/ and /ɑ/), so when learning e.g. Portuguese/Catalan/etc. I map pt:/ɔ/ onto the otherwise-unused en:/ɑ/. – Mechanical snail Sep 25 '12 at 5:06
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    I did an analysis of a young female Korean speaker earlier this year, and I can tell you that her /e/s ranged from F1:500-720, F2:2000-2400 and her /ɛ/ ranged from F1:450-740, F2:2000-2250, so you can see that they're very similar in that respect. – thylacine222 Sep 26 '12 at 22:58
up vote 7 down vote accepted

There's a book called The Sounds of Korean [1] with an accompanying CD which is invaluable for getting the phonetic distinctions right.

Mechanical snail is right in that the distinction is being lost, particular among the young. However, in speakers who maintain the distinction, it sounds like a lowered [e]. I had a little look on Forvo for examples of speakers who maintain the distinction, but all the ones I checked were from people who merged the distinction.

As for basic minimal pairs, explain to your friends that you're interested in the difference between 새 (new) and 세 (combining form of 셋), and they should be able to come up with more.

EDIT: I have a few more minimal pairs for you.

  • crab vs 개 dog
  • 세 집 three houses vs 새 집 new house

The book also observes that while the distinction is not reliably made by many speakers', there is consistency when transcribing English words: English [æ] is reliably mapped to ㅐ while [eI] and [E] are mapped to ㅔ.

[1] Choo and O'Grady. The Sounds of Korean. University of Hawaii Press.

Here are the minimal pairs of more than one syllable that I could find in the English Wiktionary using a custom application I wrote in JavaScript:

    1. 모레 (more)
      the day after tomorrow
    2. 모래 (morae)
      sand
    1. 새로 (saero)
      anew, newly, for the first time
    2. 세로 (sero)
      height, length, vertical

I also found twenty minimal pairs of just a single syllable that I'll include if requested.


I tried the "crab v dog" test mentioned by jogloran with some Koreans here in Seoul.

  • Two guys in their 20s who I think are from Seoul both insisted they sound the same.
  • Another friend who is about 40 and not from Seoul insisted they sound different. He pronounced "crab" with a short sound like in English "bet" and "dog" with a long sound like in non-rhotic English "bear".

Apparently both the vowel length distinction and the ㅔ vㅐ distinction are in the process of disappearing and it's happening in Seoul before elsewhere. This is pretty much just what Wikipedia says.

In many Korean dialects, there are no sound difference between ㅐ and ㅔ. I mean almost every Korean pronounce those same. Of course, the standard pronunciation rules in both South and North Korea don't allow it.

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    Hi, welcome to the site and thanks for your contribution. We encourage answers that cite their sources. If you could provide references, your contribution would be even more valuable :) – robert Feb 27 '14 at 10:13

I can't add anything to the discussion from an academic point of view but I wanted to share my personal experience as an intermediate-level Korean-as-a-second-language speaker.

I was taught how to pronounce the ㅔ and ㅐ differently but my teacher said that since young Koreans don't distinguish between them there wasn't much point to it.

ㅔ is a relaxed mouth shape (same as for pronouncing ㅓ) while ㅐ is more of a wide, smiley mouth shape (same as for pronouncing ㅏ). Pronouncing them back to back I can notice subtle differences, but they are quite similar.

I like to contrast the difference between these two vowels with the different between ㅓ and ㅗ. These too differ only by mouth shape (relaxed vs. rounded, respectively). In very limited contexts in casual and colloquial speech I've noticed that these vowels too are occasionally substituted for each other.

ㅔ is just the normal "e" we use in the word "bed", "said", and "went", but ㅐ is like the sound you make during the transition of saying the word "sway", or "day", or "make".

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    The vowel in "bed", "said" and "went" has different qualities in different accents of English. It seems like it would be a huge coincidence if all of the English sounds are exactly the same as the Korean sound. Also, if the distinction between ㅔandㅐis being lost, as several other answers mention, then I don't understand how this answer could be correct as a general rule. It seems like it would only apply to the special circumstances of a non-merging accent. – sumelic Nov 24 '17 at 17:51
  • @sumelic: Exactly. In my idiolect, "bed" has the same vowel as "haired" or is at least a double quantify with the same quality as in "said". Most English-speaking linguists would say the "e" sound in those is the same as the first part of "day" etc. Most non-linguistically trained English speakers would only think they are totally different and that the latter don't even have a transition. – hippietrail Nov 25 '17 at 3:26

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