Korean is the official language of both North and South Korea. But before Korea developed its language and writing system, native speakers of Korean used Hanja. With the influence of the Chinese language and how spoken Korean sounds like in K-dramas, many wonder if Korea is also a tonal language.
Today, we will discover if Korean is a tonal language. It is important for a Korean language learner to know this and not just the basic Korean vocabulary. Tones are one of the reasons why a certain language is hard to learn. So, if you want to discover more about this topic, keep on reading.
What Are Tonal Languages?
Before we learn more about the Korean language, let us first define what tones and tonal languages are.
The tone is defined as a variation in the pitch of the voice while speaking. It is also the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning — to discriminate or inflect words. If that’s too difficult to comprehend, consider pitch-accent languages a subset of tonal languages. The major distinction is that tonal languages have multiple tones, whereas pitch-accent languages have only a few.
Tone can be used in languages that aren’t tonal. To signal that a statement is an inquiry, English speakers can increase their tone at the end. But what’s the difference between a tonal and non-tonal language.
Tonal languages are those in which the same syllable or morpheme can have completely different meanings depending on pitch or tone. A word’s meaning must be influenced by tone for a language to be deemed tonal. Mandarin Chinese is the most commonly used example. Mandarin has five tones (or four tones and one neutral tone). But, you have to know that tone is handled differently in each language. Some languages, such as Thai and Vietnamese, can go up to 7 or 8 tones, though this appears to be the upper limit.
There isn’t an actual reason why tonal languages exist, but some studies have shown that humidity is a factor. Languages in counties with humidity are more like tonal because vocal folds can move more freely in moist air. This is significant in tonal languages since you need to hit the proper tone consistently for what you’re saying to make sense.
The tone is one of the reasons why a language is hard to learn. If you miss out on learning, the meaning of the words can change. If you’re not used to tonal variances, simply hearing them might be challenging, let alone producing them on your own. That’s why when someone learns Chinese successfully, it’s pretty amazing.
Speaking a tonal language at a very young age aids in the development of perfect pitch, which is difficult to achieve later in life. So, if you are planning to learn a tonal language, make sure to start now and be serious about it because it can be too challenging.
Is Korean A Tonal Language?
Many people question if Korean is a tonal language, as it is in other surrounding nations when they first learn it. Korean used to be tonal like the Chinese language, and it still is in some modern dialects. Although a few modern dialects of Korean do employ tones, the official language is not tonal.
Korean is not a tonal language like Chinese or Vietnamese, where tonal inflection can alter word meaning. The form and meaning of root words in Korean remain unchanged regardless of tone, like in the Japanese language.
It is not new to us that the whole Korean peninsula, both North and South Korea, used Chinese characters called Hanja during ancient times. It was when Hangeul was invented that Koreans dropped the usage of Hanja. But, even today, some of Korea’s historical files are still written in Hanja. Also, Koreans still use sino-Korean words, which are Korean words that originated from the Chinese language.
Remember the scene in My Roommate is a Gumiho when Jae-jin asked Woo-yeo to stop using Hanja because it makes learning history even harder? Woo-yeo then replied, “I believe that Chinese characters are the basics to accurately understanding historical data.” That’s why it’s no surprise that the Korean language used to be a tonal language.
Korean language, particularly Middle Korean, had three tones until roughly the 17th century – a rising tone, a high flat tone, and a low flat tone. In the blog History of Hangul, three tones are in mind, and it used to include bangjeoms/side dots or a system of dots that were put next to every syllable block to indicate which tone was to be used. Tone markers or tonal marks in the shape of dots to the side of the syllable can be found in the Hunmin Jeong-eum Eonhae, one of the first texts in Hangeul (the Korean alphabet).
Hangeul’s tone marks started to fade in the late 16th century and disappeared in the early 17th century, indicating that tone in Korean likewise faded at that time. The Korean language’s tonal vestiges, on the other hand, lasted for millennia and served their original purpose: to discriminate between the several meanings that shared the same sound unit. Koreans used to identify specific terms by speaking them for a little longer until relatively recently, about the early twentieth century.
Tones In Modern Korean Dialects
Today, tones are not part of the modern standard Korean language we hear from K-dramas, movies, and K-pop music. Tones have been absent from Korean languages since the 17th century. However, there are still traces. For one reason, side-dot diacritics are still employed in Korean dictionaries to indicate when a syllable should be uttered for a longer period of time rather than to signify tones. The two dots diacritics are used to indicate this.
Even if tones are not used in modern Korean, several variants or dialects of Korean still include pitch accents that could be considered tones. The South Gyeongsang dialect they are found in the Gyeongsang region of South Korea and the Hamgyong region of North Korea. Pitch accents sound similar to tones, but the distinction is that tones can entirely change the meaning of a word, whereas pitch accents primarily signal the pitch with which a syllable should be uttered.
The Korean language is the most straightforward East Asian language to learn, and one of the reasons behind this is the language not being tonal. Many tonal vestiges are still taught in Korean schools, like the long syllable rule, but most Koreans quickly forget it after the exam nowadays.
Intonation In The Korean Language
The Korean language uses intonation. This is what makes the Korean language so interesting to learn. It also makes every expression catchy and heartfelt, like in K-dramas.
Native speakers use almost similar intonations when using certain expressions or sentence structures. Learning to use the correct intonation will make you sound more natural as a native speaker. You can also deliver your message better because it can affect the whole communication process if you don’t use the right intonation. It will cause confusion and misunderstanding, or worse, it can change the meaning of your sentence.
Intonation can also compliment your pronunciation when it comes to fluency. Practicing intonation can help you improve your fluency. You don’t just listen to native speakers but also need to practice, which is true when learning languages. Here are more tips on how you can improve your Korean intonation:
- Pay close attention to the rhythm, stress, and pitch of the native speaker’s speech.
- Replace all the syllables with one random syllable. Use the syllable to practice intonation while disregarding the words first. When you have mastered the intonation, bring back all the words, then practice it again. This time, with the actual words already.
- Practice saying sentences and comparing them to the Korean spoken by a native speaker.
Speak Korean Like A Native Today!
We hear the Korean language when we watch K-dramas, listen to K-pop music, or just watch Korean vlogs. It’s easy to pick up Korean vocabulary when you are doing these things, but the real challenge in learning a foreign language is speaking like native speakers. Luckily, many technological innovations will help you speak like a native speaker. One perfect example is Ling app.
With well-developed features made by language experts, Ling App will help you develop all your language skills and achieve fluency in record time. This app has a lot of engaging activities like mini-games, quizzes, lessons, and even dialogues. It’s far from the traditional language learning process that we knew. Learning languages in Ling App is on the go because you can learn even through your mobile phone or computer.
Imagine how great it is to be able to talk like your bias or favorite actor? Learning vocabulary isn’t enough, so learn Korean with Ling App now!