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I'm sure everyone will agree that they sound similar enough to their own counterparts to be interchangeable. If there are no tangible rules that separate their usage, what are some tips to spot their proper usage situations? Also, why does such distinction exist in the first place?

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    Oh man this is a good question. I've always hated these and always hate explaining them. There is an official difference but depending on who you ask (especially where they're from) the difference can be more or less strongly pronounced - some native Koreans say they can't really tell a difference, while others assure you there is a super clear difference. As for me, I have to admit I only really hear the difference when people are illustrating the contrast by emphasizing it. – user12 Jun 22 '16 at 22:38
  • @dotVezz Ha, that's funny. People only differentiating the difference when explaining it. – Phonics The Hedgehog Jun 23 '16 at 0:42
  • That's exactly what they do! – user12 Jun 23 '16 at 0:42
  • When to use “ㅒ?” Just remember these four: “그 아이” → “걔”, “이 아이” → “얘”, “-냐고 해” → “-냬.” – Константин Ван Mar 21 '19 at 5:02
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In the modern Seoul dialect, these are audibly "indistinguishable." I put that in quotations, since there is controversy over this. But, I believe that some dialects still distinguish them in an actually meaningful way. Not being an expert on southern 사투리, I cannot authoritatively comment on this, however it is my understanding that certain dialects certainly have distinct sounds for these pairs. This is evidence of there actually being a difference at one point, hence the distinction existing in the "first place." (Languages evolve of course).

Consider English for a moment. Do we really need the letter C? Every sound C makes can be replaced with a K or an S. Or take Q as another example. The mesh 'kw' provides a very nice replacement for Q. But we retain its use in English.

It could be argued that it is the same sort of thing for ㅐ, ㅒ as opposed to ㅔ,ㅖ. These letters are retained because they are still used. It is sort of circular logic to say that, but keep in mind that most languages are not changed for the sake of simplicity of spelling rules.

Furthermore, I met many Koreans that could not hear the difference between the words "play" and "pray." Words like "clown" and "crown" also sometimes gave them issues. But native speakers of English do not usually have these issues of auditory distinction. Even if non-natives cannot distinguish the sounds, native English speakers can tell the difference. Hence the reason we actually retain the use of R and L in English.

Based on everything I know about hanja and Korean linguistics, no Sino-Korean (Chinese character based) word uses the letter ㅒ.

I have seen 얘 used as a shortened form of 아이 (child), as in "얘들아" (hey kids!)

I believe that technically, 애 is pronounce with the mouth and throat more open (or "spread out" ["입을 벌리는 정도가 더 큽니다"], as dotVezz's link in the comments suggests). I have seen some people transcribe 애 as /ɛ/ as in "Larry" or "fairy" and 에 as /e/ as in "pest" or "men."

Not being a pure linguist, I am not going to try to delve into every little detail of the IPA transcription of the "true" pronunciation of these letters. Whether they want to admit it officially or not, Koreans under age 60 (especially those in Seoul) say 애 and 에 (and sometimes 예) pretty much identically. It is the whole "marry-merry-Mary" issue. English linguistics professors may say these differently, but we normal folk all say them pretty much identically.

Just be careful if you go to a restaurant and ask for "gey-gogi:" You might get 개고기 (Dog meat, which is quite good!), 게고기 (crab meat), or 계고기 (meat of the....lineage (?)...).

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  • So I've actually been looking for a reliable source that backs up the statement that "they are indistinguishable in 표준어." I could swear that I've read the same thing, but every time I search for it with any 국립국어원 reference, I always come across things like this (very old) and a bajllion other references claiming there is an official difference. If possible, I'd like to be able to put that one to rest once and for all (At the very least within the context of 표준어) – user12 Jun 22 '16 at 22:50
  • Yes, and therein lies the controversy. Although even in that link, 김은영 claims she pronounces them the same. I am going to edit the answer to further explain what I have seen on this controversy. – Vladhagen Jun 22 '16 at 22:57
  • Overall, I think that most Koreans (especially those from Seoul) say 애 and 에 exactly the same. But, at least when I brought this up with Koreans in Korea, they were very proud of the fact that there was a "difference" and that they could hear it. – Vladhagen Jun 22 '16 at 23:28
  • Oh man I know exactly what you're talking about, it drives me nuts sometimes. – user12 Jun 22 '16 at 23:30
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    You got it the wrong way. They should be "distinguishable" in Standard Korean, when it's not in reality. The Standard states that ㅐ should be pronounced as /ɛ/, and ㅔ as /e/. – MujjinGun Jun 23 '16 at 1:25
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As a native Korean speaker, I use them based on my knowledge of grammar or rules or whatever you want to call it, rather than their sound.

It's because I totally agree that they are ALMOST completely indistinguishable by sound. For me, this can be compared to knowing the following difference:

You're RIGHT

I WRITE my journal everyday.

How would you know when to say RIGHT as opposed to WRITE while they sound so similar? They have different meaning, so you know when to use which.

Similarly, you would know when to use ㅔ/ㅖ or ㅐ/ㅒ because they have different places to be. It's more of a SPELLING or GRAMMAR issue rather than something that can be distinguished by their "supposed" sound differences.

For your question about why there is such a thing, I would say that languages are never perfect.

This would be like the question I used to have when I was learning English. I never understood why English would care so much about Singular or Plural nouns while the rules are so vague to be even called a rule, let alone vowel pronunciation. (If you disagree, I suggest you check out these words: fish, food, sheep, deer etc.)

I memorized them first and got used to them now. I got used to them so much that they just feel natural to me. And this is how I use ㅔ/ㅖ, ㅐ/ㅒ, too. I just got too used to them.

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  • Thank you, while I've accepted this for English long ago, I never looked at these Korean characters in this way. Makes sense now. – domen Mar 16 '19 at 19:21
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ㅐ and ㅔ are indistinguishable in normal conversation, and there is no need to distinguish it in a normal conversation. We understand using 'context' just like other languages.

Sometimes, you need to distinguish it when spelling names. In that situation, we say ㅏㅣ for ㅐ, and ㅓㅣ for ㅔ just to distinguish them.

However, there is a difference in theory.

We call the smallest unit of sound 음운(phoneme).

Then 음운 can be divided into 모음(vowel) and 자음(consonant).

(To be accurate, 본절 음운 can be divided into those two. Not going to go into details. The sentence above is still correct)

Then again 모음 can be divided into 단모음 and 이중 모음

단모음 is a vowel(모음) that doesn't change the position of your tongue or mouth while pronouncing it.

On the other hand, 이중 모음 is a vowel(모음) that changes the position of your tongue or mouth while pronouncing it.

Here is a table of 단모음

단모음의 체계

Now this is a map of 모음.

모음 사각도

the quadrilateral shows where (or how) the tongue is when saying those vowels.

For example, ㅜ is said with your highest position of your tongue in the back and your tongue will be high with your mouth only slightly open. (also using the table above, you can find out that the shape of your mouth is round because ㅜ is 원순 모음)

Therefore, in theory, ㅔ and ㅐ are both pronounced with your highest position of your tongue in the front, the shape of your mouth not round. The only difference is that ㅔ is said with your tongue in the middle height, while ㅐ is said with your tongue low with your mouth more open.

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  • For ㅒ and ㅖ, ㅒ=ㅣ+ㅐ ㅖ=ㅣ+ㅔ Try to say it out loud. – Pizzaroot Mar 3 '19 at 12:03
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    To be more precise, "in theory" is rather an improper choice of words. Practically all theories of modern Seoul dialect agree that /ɛ/ and /e/ has merged (commonly written as /E/), and thus the graphemes ㅐ and ㅔ map to the same phoneme. What you mean by theory seems to be Standard Korean. Both standards of the North and the South distinguish the two phonemes. Standard Koreans are not theory, but they are just some prescribed, artificial dialects, recognized as standard by each government. – Ignatius Mar 3 '19 at 15:19

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