I am new to Korean, but I have read that each hangul spells exactly one syllable. When I looked up the spelling of 한국어 I saw a syllable break between the and the second , so that the last syllable is pronounced as /ɡʌ̹/.

Is this because of a morpheme boundary? Are all morpheme boundaries treated this way in the spelling?


3 Answers 3


random Korean passing by :D

The Korean language can be divided into three large stems : 외래어, 순우리말, and 한자어.

외래어 is basically foreign language written in Korean, but is slightly different that 외국어(foreign language). The 외래어 title is only given to foreign words that cannot be translated into Korean, and 외래어 is recognized as a part of native Korean language, and can be found in Korean dictionaries.

순우리말 is the part of Korean language that cannot be written in 한자(Chinese/Old Korean characters). Most verbs or adjectives are 순우리말.

한자어 is Korean words that can be written in 한자, and makes up a lot of the nouns in the Korean language.

Now, back to the question. Why is 한국어 written as 한국어, even though it sounds like [한구거]? That is because 한국어 is a 한자어, and every letter that makes it up must be written according to its corresponding 한자(Chinese/Old Korean character). This probably makes absolutely no sense, so here's your example:

  • 한국어 = 韓國語
  • 한 = 韓 / 국 = 國 / 어 = 語

The reason why it sounds like [한구거] is simple. In the Korean language, when a 'ㅇ' comes to the first part of a letter, such as 안, 여, or 읭, it becomes silent, and the consonant just before the 'ㅇ' takes its place. Here's an example:

  • 눈이 -> [누니]
  • 윗잇몸 -> [윋읻몸] -> [위딛몸] -- Um, if you don't understand why the 'ㅅ' changed to [ㄷ], then leave a comment.
  • 가위 -> [가위] -- stays the same, since there is no consonant before the 'ㅇ'

There is almost no exception to this rule, so it would be a good fact to remember. XD

I hope reading this helped you understand a little bit more about the Korean language.....

As a native Korean, I can assure you that the Korean grammar system is probably one of the most complicated ones in the world. Good luck...

  • So is any 語 always pronounced as 어? Jan 2, 2018 at 9:56
  • no. Not pronounced, but written as 어. I added some more explanations to clarify....
    – Lemon
    Jan 2, 2018 at 10:00

I think you mean 한국어. And yes, it is indeed because there's a morpheme boundary between 국 and 어.

Almost all morpheme boundaries that are recognizable by native speakers are treated this way, except the ones that are too complicated to reflect in writing, such as irregular verb conjugations and obscure/irregular suffixes.

There are rules that decide which morpheme boundaries are to be reflected in the spelling or not, which you can find here, but it's probably too complicated and verbose for new learners. The best way is to learn by examples until you get the hang of it.

Examples that DO reflect morpheme boundaries:

  • 먹- (verb stem of "to eat") + -어라 (imperative verb ending) -> 먹어라 "Eat."

  • 오뚝- "upright" + -이 (a suffix that makes nouns) -> 오뚝이 "a roly poly toy".

  • 깜짝 (onomatopoeia of blinking) + -이다 (a suffix that makes verbs) -> 깜짝이다 "to blink"

Examples that DO NOT reflect morpheme boundaries:

  • 빠르- (verbs stem of "to be fast") + -아 (verb ending) -> 빨라

    Contrary to 먹어라 in the earlier example, 빨라 is not written in a way that reveals the morpheme boundary, since the verb stem 빠르- changes irregularly into 빨ㄹ-. Hypothetically you can do it, if there is a double-ㄹ batchim, but the institute has decided that would make the orthography too complicated, so they didn't.

  • 뻐꾹 (onomatopoeia of an owl sound) + -이 (a suffix that makes animal names) -> 뻐꾸기

  • 산(山, a chinese character meaning "mountain") + 행(行, a chinese character meaning "to go") -> 사냥 "hunt"

    In this case, the word 사냥 originates from 山行 etymologically, but the sounds has diverged enough from the original that it doesn't make sense to reveal the morphemes anymore, since few natives recognize the separate morphemes anymore.

  • I've always found it interesting how in older textbooks the formal ending is spelled ~(았/었)읍니다 but in modern spellings it is now ~(았/었)습니다. I wonder if this is related to how modern Korean, native speakers have blurred the division and understanding of where the sound exists. Dec 28, 2017 at 16:09
  • @Wilson it's 한국어, not 한국아.
    – MujjinGun
    Dec 28, 2017 at 18:02

I do believe MujjinGun has the right and complete answer. For a simple explanation that the comments brought me to, please note that

어 = language

So if we were to spell 한국어 as 한구거, the word "language" would be missing, which would then make no sense.

Obviously then we can determine that

한국 = Korea / Korean

So, likewise, spelling 한국어 as 한구거 would remove the word Korean from the compound word; which would then make no sense.

For a quick listing of some other language names for further example, note

  • 러시아어 (Russian language)
  • 영어 (English language)
  • 독일어 (German language)
  • 스페인어 (Spanish language)
  • 국어 ("Our Nation's" language..."Korean" for Korean learners in school)

Changing the spelling of "language" each time a pronunciation warranted it would prevent the function of representing that which the spelling of words was created to represent. Imagine spelling "hog wash" instead as "haw gwash". It would actually make it harder to read, since our brain doesn't know what "haw" and "gwash" are.

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