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This is an example question in Area 51.

What is the difference between 헛갈리다 and 헷갈리다?

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  • 헛갈리다 - This is a word used to describe a situation where things are severely jumbled up to the point of indiscrimination.

  • 헷갈리다 - This is a word used to describe the sensation of your mind in whirl, leaving you indecisive. It is also used to describe a situation all jumbled up in confusion.

When it comes down to it, they are identical verbs. But in old dictionaries you won't find the word "헷갈리다", as the word "헛갈리다" was considered to be part of the standard usage instead. Now, they are both equally accepted.

You could consider the word 헷갈리다 to have a broader scope than 헛갈리다 in terms of definition. But one should also consider the impact factor of different words to a listener, depending on their accent level.

In Korean language, there are two types of vowels: 양성모음 and 음성모음. This is a bit of a nuanced topic.

  • 양성모음(陽性母音 - Positive Vowels)1 refers to vowels with light/euphonic 어감(語感 - Connotation). These vowels are as follows: ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅘ, ㅚ, ㅐ, and etc.
  • 음성모음(陰性母音 - Negative Vowels)1 refers to vowels with heavy/cacophonic 어감. These vowels are as follows: ㅓ, ㅕ, ㅜ, ㅠ, ㅝ, ㅟ, ㅔ, and etc.

Consider this example of two onomatopoeiae used to describe the sound made when stomping across a pond: 퐁당퐁당 and 풍덩풍덩. 퐁당퐁당 sounds lighter and softer than 풍덩풍덩 to a native speaker's ear, due to the difference between the vowels used.

Although both 헛갈리다 and 헷갈리다 uses 음성모음, the vowel ㅓ is considered to have more impact than the vowel ㅔ. Therefore, one would use the word 헛갈리다 in order to deliver greater impact.

If one wished to find a definite difference between those two words in terms of definition, they could categorize:

  • 헛갈리다 as a word used to describe physical state or situation
  • 헷갈리다 as a word used to describe mental state or situation

1: This is my own translation. Take it with a grain of salt.

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(1) Grabbing a spirit = collecting mental power = concentration

Because I can not grab a spirit, so I can not study.

정신이 헷갈려 공부를 할수 없다.

@ When a brain meets some information for the first time, we use 헷갈려 only.

@@ By a sound, I confused memorized things

시끄러워서 외운 내용들을 헛갈렸다.

I confuse an order of performance.

공연 순서가 헛갈린다.

(2) In a rubbish heap, by confusing, I can not find my lost ball pen.

쓰레기 더미에서, 내 잃어 버린 볼펜을 헛갈려서 찾을 수 없다.

@ At a confusing state like a rubbish heap, we use 헛갈려 only.

@@ I frequently confuse dish and cup.

나는 종종 접시와 컵을 헷갈린다.

(3) Except two extreme cases, we use 헷갈려, 헛갈려 without distinguishing.

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