Some languages have tones (i.e. intonation rules) by default, for example Mandarin (4), Thai (5), Lao (6), Vitenamese (6), Cantonese (6), etc.

Other languages do not have fixed rule on tones, but somehow will have some specific intonation combination to make our speech more natural or native.

Are there some underlying principles in Korean to help us determine what intonations we should use to be more natural when speaking Korean?

For example, when asking questions, the tone of the last syllable will be higher.
Ex: 어디 있어요? <-- The tone of 요 is higher.

Another example is the grammar ending 아/어야 하다/되다/겠다. Usually I hear Koreans utter the syllable 야 in a higher tone.

I know that some intonation is used to differentiate meaning. To illustrate:
눈 meaning both eye and snow, but the tone is longer usually when to mean snow.

  • Wouldn't this be affected by regional accents?
    – Chenmunka
    Feb 24, 2023 at 14:23

2 Answers 2


Be careful not to mix up tones and intonation. A language with tones will distinguish words with different pitches or pitch contours - this means that you can have two words with the same phonemes, but which are distinguished by pitch (or pitch contour -rising pitch, falling pitch, etc.) alone. Chinese has 4 tones, because, for example, the word "ma" can have 4 meanings based on the tone: (mā 'mother', má 'hemp', mǎ 'horse'and mà 'scold').

Intonation, on the other hand, means changes in pitch or pitch contour that doesn't change the meaning of words, but can change or enforce the meaning of the sentence as a whole - for example, the rising intonation used in English to indicate a question.

Standard Korean does not have tones, though they did exist in Middle Korean. The Gyeongsang dialects also have tones. In the case of 눈 that you mentioned, tone is not involved at all - only vowel length.

There is one way in which pitch is important in Korean. After the tense consonants (ㄲ,ㄸ,ㅃ,ㅆ,ㅉ), you will usually notice that the vowel that follows is higher-pitched than other vowels. This technically does not count as lexical tone1, and it isn't necessary to pronounce these vowels higher-pitched to indicate the meaning - but it is easier to distinguish the tense consonants from the non-tense ones when you consider the pitch of the following vowel.

Intonation is important in Korean as in all languages, but it differs widely according to dialect. In Seoul Korean, the pattern of rising intonation for questions and falling intonation for statements holds in general.

Finally, if you want a really in-depth look at intonation and tone in Korean (dialects included), here's a dissertation about it.

1 Technically, lexical tone means that it acts to distinguish minimal pairs - that is, two words can only be distinguished by the tone. With Korean words like 곳 and 꽃, the two words are distinguished by the first consonant - the higher-pitched vowel in 꽃 is incident, and isn't even necessary.

  • By the way, I'm pretty confident that vowel length distinction is also gone (or almost gone) in modern Korean in Seoul area (although textbooks still insist we have the distinction). I grew up in Seoul, and I never felt I could discern words like 눈(eye/snow), 굴(oyster/cave), or 발(foot/blinder): I had to memorize them for tests.
    – jick
    Nov 12, 2016 at 20:45

Q: "Are there some underlying principles in Korean to help us determine what intonations we should use to be more natural when speaking Korean?"

A: Not really. I guess you already know how to use higher tone when you ask a question. In English, on the other hand, you lower the done at the end for 5W1H questions. (I don't think it is a very strict rule, though)

Some dialects have some tones, but standard Korean language is a very monotone language.

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