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I heard the consonant 'ㅂ' in '박물관 (museum)' pronounced /p/ instead of /b/.

In some words containing 'ㅂ', I sometimes hear it pronounced /p/ instead of /b/. When does that happen?

  • Some comments in chat from when we tried to pin this question down! I've rolled it back to the version that we now have an answer for. – topo Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '16 at 13:25
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The Korean sound ㅂ does not correspond exactly to the English sounds /p/ and /b/. In fact, while the Revised Romanization uses a 'b' to represent initial ㅂ, the McCune-Reischauer romanization uses a 'p' to represent the same sound.

There are 2 key differences between English /p/ and /b/. Knowing these can help understand Korean ㅂ better. First English /p/ is voiceless and /b/ is voiced. But voicing isn't so important in Korean; it is not used to distinguish phonemes, and the sound ㅂ can be voiced or voiceless. Between vowels, it's generally voiced like an English /b/, but at the beginning of a word it is normally voiceless.

Second, English /p/ is aspirated; that is, it is pronounced with a slight puff of air (you can feel it if you put your hand in front of your mouth). This aspiration will never be heard with a Korean ㅂ, however; the Korean sound ㅍ is heavily aspirated, so the aspiration distinguishes it from ㅂ.

So, if you heard 박물관 with a 'p' sound, you may have noticed the voicelessness of the initial ㅂ (which should be the case for any initial ㅂ). You would not have heard the aspiration that a normal English /p/ would have, though; that would be 팍물관, and would sound wrong.

There are some languages1 which distinguish /p/ and /b/ with voicing alone; in other words, their /p/ sound is not aspirated. If you are a native speaker of one of these languages, you may feel initial ㅂ is just like the /p/ of your native language.

Note that the voicelessness of initial ㅂ is true for all words beginning with ㅂ; however, the previous word may have an effect (a preceding vowel could prompt voicing).

1 E.g. French, Standard Dutch, Tamil, Italian, Russian, etc.

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    Very nice answer, but I would not agree with saying that "This aspiration will never be heard with a Korean ㅂ". I think 'ㅂ' as the first consonant as in 박물관 is not as strongly aspirated as 'p' in 'park'. You can test it with your hand covering the mouth. 'ㅂ' might sound a little like 'p', but I don't think it is that close. – user7 Oct 3 '16 at 13:30
  • excuse me but finally I don't understand, you say because ㅂ is first, become sound /p/ ? – mahdi Oct 3 '16 at 13:31
  • flagged comment (and unflagged replies) removed. – topo Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '16 at 13:52
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There is no one-to-one correspondence in pronunciation. ㅂ sounds between B and V, ㅍ is between P and F, ㄹ is between L and R, and so on.. As there are no exact matches, English diction of Korean words seem to be arbitrary. Over the years, I've been seeing changes: the city of 부산 used to be Pusan, but now it's written as Busan, 박물관 = bagmulgwan, Ph.D = bagsa etc. But, the common Korean family name 박 (근혜) is Park, not Bak or Bark (ha ha ha..)

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I simply read in a Klear textbook that when 'b' comes first it is pronounced as 'p' because it is close enough in sound and may help the word stand out more (IIRC). Translation from '박,' as a last name, to 'park' in English supports this I believe.

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