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I know that vowel length isn't important to learn, and that most people don't need it. I'm just curious about the rules that dictate when they can appear. Take 사람 for instance, the 사 is long when it's on its own, but in 눈사람 and 윗사람, 사 is now short.

What are the rules for this, or is there a book or site in English that can guide me in the right direction?

Again, I know it's not necessary, I'm just curious as a linguistics student.

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Phonemic vowel length in prescriptive Standard Korean is only seen in the first syllable of a lexical word, or when a syllable is in isolation.

That means that whenever it is not in the first syllable, the vowel will be short. Any lexical items that employ a generally long vowel will thus be shortened in the non-initial position. For example:

말ː 'word, speech', a monosyllabic word, with a long vowel

참말 'truth, true remark', the lexeme 말 is present, but it is not in the initial position, so the vowel is shortened, and both syllables have short vowels.

거짓말 'lie, falsehood', the lexeme 말 is present and in a non-initial position, so it is still shortened; however 거짓 has a long first syllable, so the pronunciation still has one long vowel, and with consonant assimilation, it is (prescriptively) pronounced: 거ː진말.

Knowing which lexical items have a long vowel is basically the job of dictionaries and broadcasting standards, as it is very much a moribund distinction, and to my (admittedly rather media-influenced) ears not even much of a shibboleth in popular culture anymore.

Those with an active tone distinction from their regional Korean dialect may find learning which vowels are long in the prescriptive standard somewhat easier. For example in Busan, the R-class tone (rising-falling tone) generally (though I would not say always!) correlates with long vowels in the initial position or in isolation in the prescribed standard.

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  • Thanks for the answer, this is exactly what I was looking for. Also thank's for the link, found two interesting books to check out because of it.
    – Tosaku
    Commented May 16 at 18:11

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