Looking at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_phonology and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_phonology, English has "tense" sounds: "p", "t", "ch", and "k" and corresponding "lax" sounds "b", "d", "j", and "g". However in the Korean phonology Wikipedia table it lists the double consonants as being "tense", but when I listen to the differences here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8niPOX8Dp4&ab_channel=KoreanUnnie%ED%95%9C%EA%B5%AD%EC%96%B8%EB%8B%88 I find the double consonants to sound more like the English "lax" consonants, and the "plain" Korean consonants to sound more like the English "tense" consonants. In other words, to my ears, the notion of "tense"/"lax" is completely flipped between English and Korean!

I assume this means that "tense" in English phonology is a different notion than "tense" in Korean phonology, but can someone explain the difference, and how my mouth can "tense" differently to produce the two sets of sounds?

1 Answer 1


One way to describe consonants is in terms of their physical production, another is in terms of their abstract algebraic function. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to impute physical meanings to abstract terms like "tense" and "lax". The terms "tense" and "lax" are generally only used to describe vowels, specifically [i e o u] (tense) versus [ɪ ɛ ɔ ʊ] (lax). However, tense and lax is exceptionally used to refer to Korean consonants; furthermore, the terms "fortis" and "lenis" are used to talk about consonants, such that [p t k] would be fortis (strong) and [b d g] would be lenis (weak). Korean [pp tt kk] are also called "fortis" and [p t k] are called "lenis".

The Korean "fortis" consonants are somewhat special from a phonetic perspective. This article studies the aerodynamics of Korean stops and fricatives so you can get a good perspective on how Korean is physically produced. The most useful acoustic distinction is that there is a three-way distinction in voice onset time (aspiration) between short, medium and long lag corresponding to fortis, plain and aspirated. Some classical studies by Kim in the mid 60's showed that the fortis consonants have glottal constriction but not laryngeal raising, which makes those consonants different from ejectives (although often pp, tt, kk are written as p', t', k'). So it's not your mouth that makes the difference, it's the larynx.

  • I guess my complaint is that the Korean fortis “kk” sounds to me like the English lenis “g”, and conversely the Korean lenis “k” sounds more like the English fortis “k”. I can not hear any indication that “kk” sounds stronger than “k”.
    – D.R
    Dec 29, 2021 at 23:40
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    That is because "strong" is not a physical property, it's about the abstract phonological system. English /g/ is like Korean /kk/ physically in having a short voice onset time.
    – user6726
    Dec 29, 2021 at 23:44
  • Ok, so what abstractly about the two phonological systems makes the descriptor “strong” more apt for the Korean /kk/ and “weak” more apt for the English /g/? Or is it sort of “an arbitrary choice”
    – D.R
    Dec 29, 2021 at 23:55
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    The terminology comes from the fact that "strong" consonants resist being changed. I don't personally accept "strong" and "weak" as a legitimate phonological property – it's controversial. I'm just reporting a general belief in the field. However, in Korean, /k/ may lenite to a quasi-fricative but /kk/ does not.
    – user6726
    Dec 30, 2021 at 1:38

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