Wednesday, June 27, 2007

팔과 발

In one of the level one Korean lesson at NUS Extension, our teacher, Ms Lee, was introducing us the Korean words for different parts of body. When it came to 팔(arm) and 발(foot), all students faced the same difficulty of differentiating between the two pronunciations. Putting her best effort forward, our teacher told the class, "잘 들으세요." (Please listen well.)

"Pal (팔) . . . Pal (발)", she pronounced each word slowly and carefully.

"Can you hear the difference?", our teacher asked.

"No, it's the same.", the class responded.

"They are different. Listen carefully again. Pal(팔) . . . Pal (발)", our teacher attempted another time to help us differentiate the two words.

"It's the same.", the class was unanimous in our reply.

Our teacher eventually gave up but she did not stop short of telling us that there is indeed a difference between the two pronunciations. Over the years, I have been trying to find out the difference. Finally, one day it struck me that they are indeed different and I think I have discovered an idiot-proof method of differentiating the two pronunciations. However, this method is only useful if you understand Chinese language.

My way of differentiating the pronunciation of 팔 and 발 is to apply the four tones of Chinese pronunciation. "팔" with the aspirated consonant "ㅍ" should be pronounced as Pal(4). The bracket number 4 means "Pal" is pronounced with the 4th Chinese tone. "발" with the non-aspirated consonant "ㅂ" should be pronounced as Pal(2). Similarly, The bracket number 2 means "Pal" is pronounced with the 2nd Chinese tone.

If you don't believe, try holding a piece of A4-size paper in front of your mouth when pronouncing Pal(4) and Pal(2). Pronouncing Pal(4) will cause the paper to move. This is consistent with words that carry aspirated consonant. However, pronouncing Pal(2) will not move the paper and is consistent with words that carry non-aspirated consonant.

Although the romanisation of 팔 and 발 are "Pal" and "Bal" respectively, I am quite sure they are both pronounced as "Pal" but with different tones. Using the same logic, I can also differentiate between 타[Ta(4)]/다[(Ta(2)], 차[Cha(4)]/자[Cha(2)] and 카[Ka(4)]/가[Ka(2)]. To support what I say, Busan (부산) is previously written as Pusan and the reason I guess is that "Pu" instead of "Bu" is closer to the actual pronunciation. If I am to read 부산 using the Chinese tone it will be Pu(2) San(2).

Korean pronunciation, as I was told, should be monotone. But I beg to differ. I think there are varying tones except that the tones are not strongly emphasised. For example, when ㅍ(P4)/ㅂ(P2), ㅌ(T4)/ㄷ(T2), ㅊ(Ch4)/ㅈ(Ch2) and ㅋ(K4)/ㄱ(K2) are involved, the 4th and 2nd Chinese tone will have be used. I observed that ㅂ(P2), ㄷ(T2), ㅈ(Ch2) and ㄱ(K2) are pronounced in aspirated 2nd Chinese tone only if they appear as the first letter in a word. If they are not the first letter, ㅂ(B2), ㄷ(D2), ㅈ(J2) and ㄱ(G2) will be pronounced in non-aspirated 2nd Chinese tone.

In addition, for double consonants like ㄲ(G1), ㄸ(D1), ㅃ(B1), ㅉ(J1) and ㅆ(S1), they are pronounced with the 1st Chinese tone whilst ㅁ(M2), ㄴ(N2), ㅇ, ㄹ(L2) and ㅎ(H2) are pronounced with the 2nd Chinese tone.

In retrospective, perhaps neither our teacher nor the class is wrong. There is indeed a difference between 팔 and 발 pronunciation and both words do sound like "Pal" except for the tone. The difference is actually quite minimal. But as minimal as it might be, it is distinct enough to make a difference.


  1. You are a genius! I think I've finally grasped the subtle differences after reading this. Thank you!

  2. How lucky are Chinese speakers! ㅠㅠ
    I'm "tone-deaf" in Chinese, thus I just rely on the aspirated (and tensed) sound. At the moment, I can only differentiate it if all sounds were said one after the other. Say someone says, "방 빵 팡" I can notice the difference. But if said on their own, in a sentence, most of the time I still rely on context.

  3. Many countires are using alphabet but the phonetics differs for each country a little bit. Meaning, Busan would be pronounced differently by a English man, Swede, French, if they were to use their own interpretation of their alphabet. Therefore one must use the phonetic alphabet from that country, meaning the Korean Alphabet (not hangul).

    As a Swede, I wouldnt pronounce Phone as "Foune" but as "Poone" if I read it as Swedish alphabet. So, reading Busan, dont have the English alphabet in mind, use the Korean alphabet and how they have defined it.