Immediately after I learned Hangeul, I stumbled across a long, complicated list of Korean pronunciation rules. It set off mental alarm bells. Unlike Japanese kana, which I was learning at the time, Korean apparently wasn’t as simple as learning the alphabet and pronouncing what I see. My reaction to these “advanced” rules was decidedly not to whip out a deck of flashcards and write out every consonant combination and pronunciation and spend hours memorizing them. Rather, my reaction was to quickly close the webpage, forget about it, and get back to the Korean drama or podcast or whatever it was that I was listening to.
Because, unsurprisingly, the key to really learning how Korean words are pronounced is to constantly listen to them. Watch enough dramas, films, and variety shows and you will inevitably begin to pick up commonly-repeated words and phrases. Throw in some light reading or textbook studying, and you’ll figure out how to spell some of those words and phrases (or vice versa). Soon it will become apparent that some words have funky spellings. The first time I noticed this was with the word 연락. 연락해/연락 줘 was a phrase I’d heard many times before discovering its unusual spelling. That’s how I figured out that the ㄴㄹ combination was pronounced ㄹㄹ. Then when I came across ‘원래’ – no problem because I knew it was pronounced [월래]. Of course the dictionary helps too!
Over the three years I’ve learned Korean, I picked up most of these advanced pronunciation rules through this kinda-sorta-but-not-really studying technique.
A few weeks ago, though, the word for ‘pomegranate’ stopped me. For the first time, it dawned on me that even though I couldn’t recall very many words containing aㄱㄹ combination, I had correctly pronounced it anyway. The Korean word for pomegranate, 석류, is pronounced [성뉴].
It’s a small matter, but it felt like a breakthrough: No longer was I relying on known associations to learn these rules, I felt I knew why these pronunciation rules were in place. As redundant is it might sound, it goes back to Hangeul.
I think most people realize how awesome Hangeul is early on in their respective Korean-learning endeavors. Sejong the Great invented it almost entirely for the benefit of commoners, and therefore it was designed to be simple to learn and no-nonsense. In fact, a famous line from 훈민정음 해례본 illustrates just that:
슬기로운 사람은 아침을 마치기도 전에 깨칠 것이요, 어리석은 이라도 열흘이면 배울 수 있다.
An intelligent person can acquaint himself with it before the morning is over, a stupid person can learn it in ten days.
Also to help the commoners, the shape of each consonant reflects the way it is pronounced. Supposedly. I’ve spent enough time puzzling over how certain strokes in certain characters are supposed to indicate where my tongue is supposed to go and I used to concentrate so hard on how to move my mouth, you could practically see the gears turning in my head. Again, it was listening (also watching peoples’ mouths) that helped me realize that ㄱ was further back in the throat than ‘g/k,’ that you put your tongue between your teeth to pronounce ㄴ and that’s why sometimes it doesn’t sound exactly like ‘n,’ that you only bring your lips lightly together when pronouncing ㅁ compared to ‘m’ and that’s why it can sometimes sound more like a ‘b’.
Coming to know where those consonants fit in my mouth helped me deal with those pesky rules of 발음. How? Because I knew the number one feature of Hangeul is elegant simplicity. Simple to memorize, simple to read/write, and simple to pronounce, even when certain odd combinations of letters dictate otherwise.
Take the simple word 학년. I knew this was pronounced [항년] because early on I’d learned that 막내 was in fact [망내]. Therefore ㄱㄴ=ㅇㄴ. But why isn’t it [학-년]? Now I think about where ㄱ falls in my mouth. It is near the back of my mouth, like I’m getting ready to gurgle it. But ㄴ forces me to push the sound to the front of my mouth and press my tongue to the roof of my mouth. When you’re speaking quickly, the ㄱ gets pushed further back into the throat where it morphs into ㅇ and this makes it much easier to move your tongue to the upcoming ㄴ position. The example of 연락[열락] also suddenly made sense. Physically it’s possible to say [연-락] but if I tried to say the word five times fast, my tongue naturally twists to make the double ㄹ s0und.
Does marveling at all this make my Korean pronunciation flawless? I wish. But it helps me understand why (seemingly) complicated pronunciation rules exist. I’d rather reason things out for myself than memorize charts any day!