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It appears to me that ㅎ isn’t always pronounced the same way, and that it sometimes – apparently only word-initially – is pronounced almost labially. (Note the quotation marks in the title.) I first noticed this in Blackpink’s hit ‘휘파람’; but note in this song the difference between 1′36″ and 2′48″ (YouTube links). At 1′36″ it sounds as though they are pronouncing it the same way we do in Western European languages (English, German, Norwegian, etc.), i.e. glottaly; whereas at 2′48″, it definitively sounds as though it is pronounced semi-labially, i.e. by blowing through slightly pursed lips.

I have noticed the same thing on Duolingo. In a word such as 환영합니다, it sounds as the first ㅎ is semi-labial (though not quite as pronounced as with Blackpink), whilst the latter is glottal. Is my observation correct? And if so, what are the pronunciation rules governing this? Might it just be that this is a dialectical thing? I have not seen this discussed in any of my learning material and cannot find anything when googling for it.

P. S.: Any edits providing better tags is much appreciated.

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You're right, the consonant ㅎ is pronounced differently depending on the following vowel. In linguistical terminology, ㅎ has several allophones:

  • When followed by ㅜ, ㅟ, ㅝ, ㅞ, possibly ㅗ, ㅘ, ㅚ, ㅙ: it is labialized, pronounced as [ʍ] or [ɸ]⟩1
  • When followed by ㅣ, ㅕ, ㅑ, ㅛ, ㅠ, etc.: it is palatalized, pronounced as [ç]
  • When followed by ㅡ: it is velarized, pronounced as [x]
  • Between two vowels: pronounced as glottal [ɦ]
  • Other cases: pronounced as glottal [h]

There may not be complete agreement among linguists about the labialized ㅎ though. Not all sources mention this pronunciation; it seems to be a mild labial fricative, and I hear it most strongly in the syllable 휘, as you heard in 휘파람 (since the word means "whistle", the labial pronunciation makes sense!), and hardly at all for 호.

1 양순임 (2012) 말소리, p. 225

  • This is a very well written answer, providing even more than I realised was there. The palatalisation of h in front of i or iotised vowels is no surprise; the same is common in English as far as I know, especially in front of /-ju/ (hue, hewn); it would seem then that English is not the only language where that happens. Your providing of links to important details is very much appreciated. – Canned Man Jan 29 '18 at 1:21
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    FYI: I checked another book on Korean phonology, and it says these allophones are non-mandatory (수의적: not quite sure what's the correct term in English). That is, you can either use the original [h], or use one of these allophones in the list above. – jick Jan 31 '18 at 0:34

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