Korean phonotactics and American English

I’ve occasionally wondered to myself at the process by with the Korean letter shieot (ㅅ) can be pronounced like a breathier version of an English s (삽 – sap – shovel), like an English sh (실 – shil – thread), like the t at the end of an English word (것 – geot – a thing) or like an English n (씻는다 – sshinneunda. This is because of the various rounds of sound changes that happen between the assembly of a Korean word and it’s actual utterance. In the following examples, the capital letters represent the original or base pronunciation of the Korean letters (the phonemes); the lowercase letters represent the actual sounds produced.

  1. 삽 – SAB (shovel) >final consonant devoicing of B to p > sap
  2. 실 – SIL (thread) >S becomes sh before I and Y> shil
  3. 것 – GEOS (thing) > S becomes t at the end of a syllable > geot
  4. 씻는다 – SSIS-NEUN-DA (washing) >SS becomes ssh before I and Y > SSHISNEUNDA > S becomes t at the end of a syllable > SSHIT-NEUN-DA > T at the end of a syllable becomes N in front of a syllable beginning with N > sshinneunda

The first example shows the Korean letter shieot (ㅅ), which is basically pronounced like a breathy English s, coming out being pronounced like a breathy s (i.e. no overt sound change). The second to examples show shieot undergoing one sound change each, to sh and t, respectively. In the final example, the letter shieot first undergoes a sound change to t (as in example 3), and then undergoes a further change from t to n. Thus a letter which, in its most basic form is pronounced s comes to be pronounced n.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Yes, but what brings it to mind?
I recently heard two examples of spoken English that follow a similar sequence of sound changes, from s to d and from d to n.
The first one was uttered by Ginger from the reality real estate show “The Real Estate Pros“.

She pronounced the word ‘doesn’t’ as ‘dudn’t’.
The second example was a prisoner named Butch on an episode of This American Life entitled “Act V” who pronounces the words ‘businessman’ and ‘business’ as ‘bidnessman and ‘binness’, respectively.
I guess the next step would be for this sound change to become generalized to similar environments. That would mean ‘kiss me’, ‘Quiznos’, ‘his new business’ and ‘shiznit’ coming to be pronounced ‘kit me’, Quidnos’, ‘hid new bidness’ and of course ‘shidnit’. I’ll be on the lookout for this new pronunciations. If you hear any of them, be sure to let me know.

And, for those of you who don’t speak Korean and those of you who’ve learned it and have begun to forget just what an accomplishment it is, here are a few other examples from the twisted world of Korean phonotactics.

N becomes l

  • 관리 -GWANLI (control) > N becomes l before L > gwalli

L becomes r

  • 바람 – BALAM (wind) > L becomes r between two vowels > baram

D becomes n

  • 받는다 – BAD-NEUN-DA (getting) > D becomes n in front of N > banneunda

T becomes n

  • 맡는다 – MAT-NEUN-DA (taking over) > T becomes n in front of N > banneunda

T becomes ch

  • 같이 – GAT-I (together, alike) > T becomes ch in front of I > gachi

H becomes nothing

  • 넣어 – NEOH-EO (put in) > H disappears between vowels > neoeo

B becomes p

  • 겁 – GEOB (fear) > B becomes P at the end of a syllable > geob

B becomes M

  • 겁나 – GEOB-NA (afraid) > B at the end of the syllable becomes M in front of N > geomna

GL becomes ngn

  • 격려 – GYEOG-LYEO (encourage) > G at the end of the syllable becomes ng before L > GYEONG-LYEO > L becomes n after NG > gyeongnyeo
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~ by Joe on October 25, 2007.

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