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When reading Korean writings, both formal and casual, I often meet expressions like 쉐도우 and 쉐이크, which are transliterations of shadow and shake. (Refer to the Korean words 쉐도우 복싱 and 밀크쉐이크.) The transliterations listed above literally has to be pronounced as swedou and sweiku. This is quite awkward in the sense that other better methods 섀도 (shaedo) and 셰이크 (sheiku) exist.

The phenomenon is not limited only to these two words; actually they seem to have a common rule. For example, the American automobile brand Chevrolet is written 쉐보레 (swebore) rather than 셰보레 (shebore), and Shake Shack is written 쉐이크 쉑 (Sweiku sweck) rather than 셰이크 섁 (sheiku shaek). So apparently [ʃe] and [ʃӕ] are both in Korean. Why are Koreans transliterating this way?

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It actually makes some sense when you look at the English sound system. From Wikipedia:

American English has three degrees of labialization: tight rounded (/w/, initial /r/), slight rounded (/ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/, coloring /r/), and unrounded, which in vowels is sometimes called 'spread'.

That is, some English sounds such as /ʃ/ are pronounced with rounded lips ("labialized"). On the other hand, as far as I can tell, Korean consonants are labialized only if the following vowel itself is rounded (i.e., ㅗ/ㅘ/ㅙ/ㅚ/ㅜ/ㅝ/ㅞ/ㅟ; I'm not sure about ㅛ/ㅠ).

So, when a Korean speaker hears English words "sake" vs. "shake", they hear two differences:

  • The place of articulation is different (/s/ vs. /ʃ/), which is roughly analogous to the difference between /세/ and /셰/. (See also this question about "시".)

  • "shake" is pronounced with rounded lips, which is similar to the difference between /세/ and /쉐/.

In fact, even though modern Hangul does not support the combination, many modern Korean speakers do combine both changes: when they say "셰이크/쉐이크" they actually change both the place of articulation and lip rounding, so that it sounds more similar to the original English word "shake".

(As an aside, if we wanted to faithfully represent it in Hangul, we will probably have to invent a crazy combination like 슈ㅔ이크, but let's not go there...)

In fact, a reverse phenomenon happens with words like "swing" or "Sweden". Because /s/ isn't labialized in English, Korean speakers do not hear these words like "슁" or "쉐덴", because then the ㅅ will have to start with rounded lips! So, instead, we add a "dummy vowel" ㅡ, so that ㅅ is pronounced with flat lips: 스윙 and 스웨덴.

  • I have known that 시 is actually similar to shi, not si, but didn’t know about the rounded lips. Now it makes a lot of sense — just that 쇄 (used in 파쇄, 쇄국 etc.), literally having almost identical pronuncation to 쉐, is being pronounced as “swae”! – Suhjin Park May 20 '18 at 1:01

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