[KS] Long vs short vowels in verb and adjective conjugations

Ross King jrpking at interchange.ubc.ca
Sat Sep 22 22:48:29 EDT 2007

Dear Stefan: 
The verb form tway does indeed seem to behaving analogously. 

> So this brings up another question...when I started learning Korean, I was oblivious to the distinction between long and short vowels, and do not recall seeing any mention of the distinction in any of the many beginners' texts I used. ...  Is it not considered essential for beginning Korean learners to know?   Or is non-coverage of long vowels an artifact of that pedagogical spectre, "Korean for foreigners"?

Though there is definitely something out there called 'foreigner Korean' that seems to be encouraged (at least inadvertently so) by the KFL establishment in Korea and its exports over here, I don't think the ignoring of vowel length is part of this phenomenon. 

As Ri Hwasu noted, the general take by 'descriptive' (as opposed to prescriptive) linguists of Korean is that vowel length is dead (or at least, has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel). A somewhat analogous case would be pitch-accent in Japanese, which really IS alive and well in Japanese, but is likewise ignored in most textbooks (except, notably, the Jorden books and its descendants). Such is the fate of prosodic distinctions with low functional load, it would seem.

I, too, am not aware of any textbooks that explicitly mention distinctive vowel length, save King & Yeon's _Elementary Korean_, section 4.10, where we point out that some speakers still make the contrasts (and give examples), and write: 

"Modern Korean spelling does not indicate the long vowels, and we do not show them in the body of this textbook. But you should at least be aware of this contrast." This is about as far as most textbooks seem to go with it.

The only people who seem to be insisting on actually _teaching_ long vs. short vowels in KFL nowadays are a handful of people back in Korea with PhDs in Phonetics (from University College, London, to be more precise -- a sort of 'Daniel Jones syndrome'). Nobody in North America that I am aware of takes this seriously; not sure about other KFL programs in other countries. One can imagine pedagogues in countries that take prescriptive grammatical traditions more seriously actually paying this a bit more mind (Russia? France?).

Is it essential? Absolutely not. But it is one of those little things that, when gotten wrong in the mouths of foreigners, Koreans point out with glee, even when they themselves get it wrong nine times out of ten. The only Koreans who have ever called me on vowel length have been KBS TV announcers (and of a senior generation, at that), and the occasional (again, senior) kwukehakca with roots in Kyengki province or Seoul itself. 

If Koreans aren't understanding your Korean sometimes, chances are it's something else besides vowel length!



Ross King
Professor of Korean, University of British Columbia
Dean, Korean Language Village, Concordia Language Villages

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