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I've noticed that some articles on Wikipedia and Wiktionary on Korean claim that the Korean word 뭐 is transcribed as [mwɘ(ː)] in IPA, with [ɘ] being the IPA symbol for the close-mid central unrounded vowel.

I'm confused by this claim. I'm not a linguist or a fluent Korean speaker — just a beginner student — but I've listened to multiple samples of Korean speech online and none sound anywhere close to [ɘ].

Some other sources, like this IPA handbook, on the other hand, list another pronunciation: /mwʌ/. You can also see this pronunciation used in some other Wikipedia entries.

I understand that the broad and the narrow transcriptions are different, but it really does sound much closer to [mwʌ] than [mwɘ].

So why do multiple Wikipedia/Wiktionary pages transcribe 뭐 as [mwɘ(ː)] in IPA?

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  • The more I think about it, the more I feel it may have to do with some incorrect assumptions of mine about how IPA and vowel charts work. Additionally, I noticed that some of the articles I linked designate the sound as a schwa ə, which feels more plausible than [ɘ]. Maybe this would be a better question for Linguistics SE, not sure.
    – undercat
    Jul 8, 2022 at 9:24

1 Answer 1

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We can see that in relatively conservative standard Korean, e.g. from the 1996 국어 음성학 by 이호영, as found on Wikimedia, the values of the short 어 and the long 어 are very different: the long 어 is much more central and a bit more closed than the short 어.

Looking at the vowel trapezoid, you can see that short 어 is between cardinal [ʌ] and cardinal [ɑ], and long 어 is much closer to cardinal [ɘ]. Hence the use of the notation /ʌ/ and /ɘː/.

The 1999 entry for Korean in the IPA has the short 어 much closer to cardinal [ʌ] than [ɑ], but the long 어 is still near cardinal [ɘ]. However, for the long 어 that notation used /ʌː/ instead.

There is also a practical reason for phonologists who work with synchronic and diachronic varieties of Korean, as explained here in a footnote from a 2016 introduction to Korean phonology from Young-mee Yu Cho:

However, I follow the general practice of using the symbol /ə/, even though the phonetic studies find this vowel to be quite back and lower-mid, on the basis of a common practice in Korean historical phonology, where the symbol /ʌ/ is reserved for the Arae-A vowel of Middle Korean that was lost in Modern Korean (except in Cheju Island).

The phonology of the Seoul accent of the modern 2020s is different though; with the total loss of phonemic vowel length across the vast majority of speakers, the 어 vowel has ended up closer to cardinal [ʌ] - thus your perception is correct. Figure 1.3 of Jiyoung Shin's chapter from the 2015 tome The Handbook of Korean Linguistics compares these modern Korean vowels specifically to the recordings of cardinal vowels of Daniel Jones from the 1910s.

It is mentioned that the lips are slightly more rounded for modern 어, hence the notation /ʌ̹/ with the rounding diacritic that can sometimes be seen in the literature. I've yet to see anyone quite dare to suggest that 어 has become [ɔ] in modern Seoul Korean, although this is already the case in 평안도 사투리 the Pyeong'an dialect, where there has been an 어 - 오 merger.

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  • This is a fantastic answer, thank you so much! One question - I can't find the "long 어" on the chart that you linked in the first paragraph. It should be the [ʌː] sound, right? I did find the short and the long vowel charts on the Korean wiki page on phonetics though, and your explanation makes sense given those 2 charts.
    – undercat
    Jul 10, 2022 at 22:04
  • @undercat On the Wikimedia link, it's represented as /əː/. It's really far from /ʌ/ isn't it?
    – Michaelyus
    Jul 11, 2022 at 8:27
  • Hmm, okay. In the link from my previous comment (한국어 음운론), [ʌː] is located exactly where [əː] is in the Wikimedia chart that you linked. So I guess "my" chart uses [ʌː] for the "long 어" while "your" chart uses [əː] for the same vowel.
    – undercat
    Jul 11, 2022 at 8:50

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