Is Korean a Tonal Language? (History)

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There are many aspects to the native tongues around the area of Asia. 

Many of these are tonal, meaning some tones or vowels come through in the pronunciation, which can change the whole meaning of a word. 

Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese are languages notorious for this kind of tonality.

But is Korean a tonal language? It was at one time, but there is very little evidence of this in the modern dialect. Whatever could be tonal in Korean is regional. Therefore, it’s more common in rural areas and other remote places of the country.

While agricultural centers may have a certain tonality to them, it is not an official part of the language anymore. 

Even still, some aspects of modern Korean do retain some of its prior incarnations as a tonal language.

Let’s dive deeper.

About Tonal Languages

In tonal languages, a word can have the same morpheme or syllable but take on a completely different meaning when the tone or pitch changes. 

Thai and Vietnamese are notorious languages for having a variety of tones that include falling, rising, falling-then-rising and etc.

English speakers can connect this idea with the words “no” and “know.” 

Both words pronounce exactly alike but take on an entirely different meaning depending on the context. 

In Chinese, the word “ma” can mean several different things depending on how long, short, high or low you say the “a.”

When using a neutral tone, as you would in English, mā translates to “mother.” 

But, when you apply a tone that rises in pitch, or má, it changes to mean “hemp.” In referencing a “horse,” you will annunciate a fall-then-rise tone: mǎ. 

And yet, if you mean to say “scold,” then only a falling tone conveys that with mà.

Korean Used to Be Tonal

There are 77 million Korean-speaking people throughout the globe. It is the language shared by both the North and South parts of the peninsula. 

While many scholars argue it shares characteristics with Turkish, it is not like any other language and is very unique or isolated. 

However, it does take heavy influences from neighboring languages such as Japanese and Chinese.

Korean used to characterize itself with changes in pitch and tone, but such usage is fading with each new generation. 

This is especially true in larger cities like Seoul and Busan, where life gets too busy, chaotic, and hectic to concern yourself with proper tonal use. 

So, officially, it’s no longer a tonal language, although there are regions that do employ a sort of tonality.

A Bit of Korean Language History

Which Languages Can BTS Speak

Prior to the earlier parts of the 17th century, there were tone marks noticeable in Hangul, or the alphabet. 

Called Middle Korean, there were three tones used: low flat, rising, and high flat tones. 

When the development of Hangul was in progress, the creators kept this tonality in mind.

Therefore, they employed a system of dots, known as “bangjeoms,” written next to any syllable block. It indicates to the reader which tone to use and when to use it. 

When there is no dot visible, it implies a flat tone. 

However, two dots instruct rising, and one directs for a high tone.

Modern Ways of Speaking Korean

While using these tones is no longer part of the modern Korean dialect, there are some remnants of this in practice. 

To illustrate, you can still find two side-dot diacritics in dictionaries. 

But these are for syllable pronunciation and the length of time to pronounce it, not for tone.

Also, it stands to note that many Korean dialects do incorporate some kind of tone and pitch accents in certain words. 

The difference between tones and pitches, though, is that pitch simply indicates syllable pronunciation. It doesn’t change the word’s definition like a tone does.

Tones & Pitches in Certain Regions

However, these pitch variations in certain Korean dialects can fall into the category of a tone. 

For instance, Gyongsang in South Korea’s south or Hamgyong in North Korea both employ distinct pitches that convey various meaning to a word.

In Gyongsang, the word for “guest” is sóni and spoken with a high tone. But, when it’s sōni, the diacritical mark changes over the “o.” 

This says it should pronounce with a middle tone, and the meaning of the word changes from “guest” to “hand.” When spoken with a falling tone, or sòni, it translates to “grandchild.”

The Future of Korean as a Tonal Language

While it does appear that Korean is no longer a tonal language, the way it’s currently evolving is forcing some of the pitches and tones to reappear. 

In fact, since the 1960s, Koreans are adding and applied certain tonal pitches and changes in accent to some phrases and words. These are taking hold and morphing in their way.

Since there are still vestiges of the tones within the language, it’s entirely possible it will come back in a big way. 

This may be especially true since Korea has really made an international name for itself in recent years. 

They realize how unparalleled they are when compared to any other society in the world and this sense of pride may inspire going back to old ways of speaking.

Conclusion

Technically, Korean is not a tonal language. However, it very much used to be during, and probably before, the 17th century. 

But interactions with countries like Japan and China have had Koreans adopt aspects of those languages. 

Regardless though, many remote areas around the North and South parts of the country do hold onto using it.

So, it’s entirely possible that one day, Koreans will resurrect this. 

But, considering the busy and demanding lifestyle of many urban Koreans, it doesn’t seem like it will change in a major way soon.

About The Author

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Jason Park

Jason has been living in Seoul over 4 years and during that time, he has experienced a lot of the city's quirks and charms. He loves to write about his experiences and share them with others who are interested in learning more about South Korea.

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