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About a month ago I began studying Korean and I am now at a stage where I have some familiarity with the writing system and the phonology. A native speaker is available to me, and while she tells me my pronunciation is reasonably good for a beginning student, I still feel unable to reproduce the affricates ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅉ and their voiced allophones. Neither my language helper nor I have any formal linguistic training, and our attempts to figure out how she makes these sounds have been fairly unfruitful. I consulted several instruction manuals but they have have not exactly been able to sort out my confusion. See for yourself:

  • Speaking Korean by Francis Y. T. Park: "This sound is an unaspirated lamino-alveolar affricate"
  • An Introductory Course in Korean by Fred Lukoff says they are dental
  • A Historical, Literary and Cultural Approach to the Korean Language by Alexander Arguelles says they are palatal
  • Lehrbuch der modernen koreanischen Sprache by Wilfried Herrmann says they are alveolar

As you probably noticed every author suggests a different place articulation. I am especially stunned by the coverage. If I look hard enough, will I find a work that claims they are velar?

Can anyone make sense of this and especially reveal the true place of articulation to us? Are there dialectal or diachronic differences at play?

  • I don't have a source, but the series has always sounded palatal to me. – jogloran Sep 11 '14 at 14:01
  • Thanks, but I had really been hoping someone could explain the proliferation of different claims rather than merely adding emphasis to the one or the other. – user1428640 Sep 11 '14 at 18:45
  • the descriptions you list are all quite close together; one can easily imagine they change with the speaker and the dialect. in my experience ㅈ is quite close to English <germ> and ㅊ to <check>. – flow Sep 12 '14 at 11:55
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I don't think you'll find claims that Korean coronal consonants are velar! This is unlike for example Mandarin Chinese's j- q- x- range [as transcribed in Hanyu Pinyin], which diachronically was a merger of a velar and an alveolar series in front of high front vowels. In standard Chinese though, this would never be realised as anything resembling the velar series k-, g-, h-. This points to one possible reason for the apparent confusion: should ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅉ range be phonologically labelled "palatal", "palato-alveolar", or even "alveolar". The "fundamental" nature of these phonemes has been under great debate, and so even the IPA symbols used to transcribe the phoneme vary widely.

Some of the basis is to do with palatalisation, introduced to students of beignner's Korean with ㅅ and ㅆ in front of Korean's high front vowel ㅣ (and of course in the iotated vowels / before the yod glide). However, palatalisation after ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅉ is way weaker than for ㅅ, ㅆ e.g. 저 and 져 are much more similar to each other than 서 and 셔 (indeed, for some speakers the former pair are pronounced the same). For some, this indicates a palatal nature to the phoneme.

Diachronically, it's actually the ㅅ, ㅆ range that changed though. In Late Middle Korean of the 17th century, palatalisation stopped being contrastive after sibilants, including ㅅ, ㅆ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅉ. Hence you see both 사람 and 샤람. This 2012 paper states that Korean dictionaries for French speakers published at the end of the 19th century explicitly state this fact. As English loanwords were adopted into the Korean language, both /s/ and /ʃ/ were transcribed unsystematically.

Apparently though, before back vowels /ʃ/ ended up getting a lot more iotation than before front vowels. This would seem to imply that a contrast between 셔 corresponding to English /ʃʌ/ and 서 from English /sʌ/ started to emerge (and the same for ㅜ /u/). Interestingly though, before front vowels, the vowel ㅜ is often added, e.g. 쉘 for Shell and 가쉽 for gossip - an effect of the phonological restriction in Korean.

For ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅉ this wasn't replicated, and as standard rules were laid down for Korean transcription, iotation was more or less officially disallowed. As palatalisation was not all that contrastive (and not phonological, according to this 2011 paper), it has also therefore not been consistent, and the extent and notability of the palatalisation has been debated quite a lot. Hence we see the inconsistency across different descriptions. All-in-all, I think it's just down to the field of Korean linguistics having developed and matured later than for English or French.

For a phonetic account, a 2004 study using stroboscopic-cine MRI from Phonetica says it's an alveolar place of articulation with a laminal tongue shape. A relatively detailed "user's" account of the articulation is found in the 2012 book The Sounds of Korean on p.77.

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