GENGO KENKYU (Journal of the Linguistic Society of Japan)
Online ISSN : 2185-6710
Print ISSN : 0024-3914
Presidents' Inaugural Lectures
Korean Vowels
Hiroyuki Umeda
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2022 Volume Supplement.2 Pages 25-41


In the Seoul dialect of Korean, the pronunciation of vowels differs depending on the age of speakers. In general, the vowel system of speakers over sixty years of age consists of the nine vowels /i, e, ɛ, a, ɔ, o, u, ɨ, ə/, all of which demonstrate a quantitative opposition in the word-initial syllable. In contrast, younger people have a simpler vowel system which consists of seven vowels, /i, e, a, o, u, ɨ, ʌ/, with no word-initial quantitative opposition. In order to clarify the processes of vowel change responsible for the variation observed in the Seoul dialect, I investigated the vowels of eighteen informants native to the mid-town area of Seoul. Dividing the informants into seven groups, the following vowel changes can be argued to have occurred. In basic vocabulary items the vowel [əː] in groups [1] and [2] changed phonemically into [ɨː] in groups [3] and [4], but in literary words, [əː] was borrowed from older people’s pronunciation. The vowel [ɔː] appeared in the vowel system of group [5] due to the influence of the written language, as well as due to analogical changes in conjugating forms. In group [6], [ɨː] and [əː] merged into [ɔː] due to increasing influence of the written language as well as analogical changes in conjugating forms. In group [7], long vowels shortened, and accordingly, [ɔː] changed into [ʌ], with loss of lip- rounding. With respect to the front vowels [e] and [ɛ], group [1] and [2] show a clear distinction in initial syllables and in non-initial syllables after a morpheme boundary, while most informants of the other groups show an unstable distinc- tion even in initial syllables. In summary, the vowel changes occurred very gradually in each age group due to the linguistic influence of elderly groups as well as interference from the written language and analogical change. This is why the different vowel systems can exist synchronically within the same speech community.

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