Korean vowels in Hangeul (Hangul) have either positive or negative values. The vowels that point up or to the right are seen as positive and bright (ㅏ [a], ㅗ [o]). The ones that point down or to the left are seen as negative and dark (ㅓ [eo], ㅜ [u]).
The positive vowels ‘ㅏ’, and ‘ㅗ’ and the negative vowels ‘ㅓ’ and ‘ㅜ’ are generally used in pairs. We call this “vowel harmony,” and it appears mainly in the stem or endings of verbs, as well as in mimetic words and onomatopoeia.
The basic rule is that positive vowels indicate ‘light, bright, and small feelings’ while negative vowels express ‘heavy, dark, and big feelings.’ Exchanging positive vowels with negative vowels usually creates different nuances of meaning.
Let me give you some examples.
▶ Mimetic Words (의태어)
반짝반짝 [banjjak banjjak], which uses the positive vowel sound ‘ㅏ’, expresses an image of small stars shining. On the other hand, 번쩍번쩍 [beonjjeok beonjjeok], which uses the negative vowel sound ‘ㅓ’, creates an image of big stars twinkling.
Another example would be the sound of falling into water. To express small things such a stone falling into the water, 퐁당 [pongdang] is used. When big things fall, such as people jumping, into the water, 풍덩 [pungdeong] is used.
▶ Onomatopoeia (의성어)
Vowel harmony also appears in many Korean onomatopoetic words.
‘똑똑 [ttok ttok]’ is the sound of knocking on the door. On the other hand, ‘쿵쿵 [kung kung]’ is the sound of hitting something with the fist.
▶ Colors (색깔)
‘파랗다 [pa-lata], 노랗다 [no-lata]’ is used to express light blue and light yellow. ‘퍼렇다 [peo-leota], 누렇다 [nu-leota]’ is used to indicate dark blue and dark yellow.
This concept can also be found in the words ‘밝다 [bakda]’(bright) and ‘어둡다 [eodupda]’(dark).
Knowing this basic phonological rule will make it easier for Korean learners to understand why similar sounding words could have such different connotations.
- Sara Finley. Vowel Harmony in Korean and Morpheme Correspondence. Johns Hopkins University. 2006. Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.163.3779&rep=rep1&type=pdf. Accessed September 2, 2015.
- The National Institute of the Korean Language. The Korean Language. Seoul; 2010.
- Mail Online. Sound of the letter ‘i’ triggers positive emotions in the brain. 2014. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2672016/Happiness-using-words-contain-letter-Sound-vowel-triggers-positive-emotions-brain.html. Accessed September 2, 2015.