I'm a native Korean speaker and have lived almost all my life in Seoul. I have thought that distinguishing meanings of words by the lengths of vowels have almost disappeared. But I recently heard that not distinguishing long and short vowels is a kind of 'dialect' of Seoul. Is that true?

Can non-Seoulites distinguish 밤(night) and 밤(chestnut) only by the length of sounds?

  • 2
    조사 없이 확신하기는 어렵겠으나 저라면 고령자나 발음에 신경 써야 하는 사람(성우, 아나운서, 국어 교사 등)을 제외하고 장단음을 구별하는 사람은 거의 없다고 하겠습니다. 잠시 시간을 내어 자료를 찾아보니 경상도 대학생도 장단음을 구별하지 못할 듯합니다. 다른 지역 자료도 찾아보면 나오지 않을까 싶습니다. – Klmo Mar 29 at 2:01
  • I live in Busan. I and my friends can distinguish those two 밤, but not with 100% certainty. Also I am not sure whether this is because of length or tone/pitch (which, I heard, are also nonexistent or very weak in Seoul idalect). I personally feel like those two differ in both length and tone in Busan dialect, but others might not agree. – Absol Mar 29 at 15:02
  • 밑에 질문 답변에서 서울 사람들은 장단음 구별 못하게 됐다고 한 거 보고 자존심 대결마냥 발동 걸린 느낌인데 그런가요? ㅋㅋ 저는 서울 사람인데 두 밤을 소리로 구별하라고 하면 솔직히 자신 없을 거 같아요. 경상도 방언 이용자들 역시도 세기로 단어를 구분하는 경향이 있을 뿐이지 장단음을 온전히 인지하는 사람은 드물 거라고 생각합니다. – Coconut Mar 29 at 17:30
  • 장단음 얘기가 나오면 제가 늘 하는 얘긴데, 한국 사람끼리 "거울과 겨울은 소리가 비슷하지만 주의깊게 발음하면 구분할 수 있어요" 같은 말 안 하잖아요? 누가 "겨울에 먼지 묻었어" 하면 "뭥미??' 하겠죠. 정말로 장단음의 구분이 존재한다면 마찬가지로 누가 "눈:에 먼지 들어갔어" 했을 때 "엥? 지금 눈: 와?" 같은 반응이 나올 겁니다. "주의깊게 들으면 구분이 가요"란 말은 그냥 자기암시죠. – jick Mar 29 at 19:57

Is the Modern Seoul dialect losing its length distinction?

Yes, length contrast is being neutralised in Seoul Korean. This is something that has been happening for a while:

  • According to Han (1964), Seoul Korean speakers who were back then in their 20s and 30s, thus born in the 1930s/40s, had a robust distinction between long and short vowels. However, the set that was pronounced with long vowels in initial position was a bit smaller than the (newly-formed!) standard - long vowels were already becoming short vowels.
  • The proportion of native Seoul speakers that retain the contrast reduces. Kang (2015) gives a good overview of many studies from the 1980s to 2010s; fewer younger speakers retain the length contrast, fewer female speakers than male speakers retain the contrast, and of those that do, the length contrast is operative for fewer words.
  • There is also some hypercorrection going on with older speakers, according to Kim, S. (2003) in the 표준 발음 실태 조사 2, as reported by Kang (2015).
  • Kang (2015) finds that:

the change is almost complete, such that the long/short ratio falls below 1:1 and plateaus out in the youngest speakers’ speech, suggesting that we are observing the end stage of an S-curve in this change.

  • The study also reports that distinctions even between high-frequency words are being lost as fast or even faster than low frequency words.

Will the Seoul Korean of 2021 join Jeju-eo and the Hwanghae region in North Korea as having neither contrastive tone nor length distinctions? It is certainly a speech variety in great flux through the 2010s, with some studies suggesting that it may in the future develop lexical tone. Cho (2018) reports that there is already a contrast: the high-toned 일.

Distinguishing By Length: Jeolla-do / Jeonnam 전라도/전남 사투리

According to the map, more rural Central-region dialects, Pyeong'an dialects, and Jeolla dialects are the other ones that (traditionally) have phonemic vowel length. Gyeongsang and Hamgyeong dialects generally also distinguish 밤〮 (night) vs 밤〯 (chestnut) by tone rather than length, much like Middle Korean is recorded as doing; having said that, at least in some Gyeongsang varieties, a difference in vowel length accompanies certain tones (rising tone specifically means longer length both in Daegu and Busan).

As for Southern Jeolla (Jeonnam) dialects as reported by Ko (2001), the sample of three used born in the 1970s could all use "distinguish the short from the long vowel both in terms of perception and production". According to Ha (2020), it seems that Jeonnam teenagers born around 2000 have mostly lost the distinction too though.

There are studies that say that Southern Jeolla dialects (focusing on Gwangju) can be analysed as a system based on phonemic stress rather than vowel length. This position on various changes that happen to the length of words, as well as the interaction of "intensity" with length and pitch.

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