Friday, June 27, 2014

Hangulish T-Shirt

Warning: weird hodgepodge of esoteric linguistic terminology and dumbed-down descriptions of said terminology, as well as smatterings of Korean, straight ahead!

But look left first, before you cross. See the t-shirt? I spotted it while walking around downtown Changwon the other day, and I found it so clever that I just had to take a photo. Why? Look at the writing closely. At first glance, it looks like a list of city names: Seoul, New York, Tokyo... but wait. That's not an "S" at the beginning of Seoul. And the "W" in New York is... pi? What is "Tofyo"? Hm... is this Konglish?

Well, it is, but it's not nonsense "Engrish"-type typography, exactly. What look like mistakes are actually a simple linguistic puzzle. The character that has been subbed in for the "S" in Seoul is a Hangul (1) letter, ㅅ (pronounced she-ut). It makes the "s" sound in Korean, an aspirated alveolar fricative [s]. So, that word still reads "Seoul", but more accurately, in a sense, than the romanized spelling does.

Next, you've got the "you" sound in "New York", represented by the Hangul ㅠ [ju], which has replaced "W". Tokyo's "K" has been replaced with ㅋ [k], the aspirated velar stop.

The next three are an interesting set, because they illustrate the versatility of the Korean liquid /l/ quite well. The letter ㄹ (pronounced ree-ul... or lee-ur... or, actually, let's forget trying to use English for this) is an alveolar liquid, but it changes its expression depending on where in a word it's located. Between vowels, as in the word "Paris", it turns into an alveolar flap [ɾ], like the sound Americans make in the middle of "butter". Same for Milano. Word-initially, however, ㄹ can sound like a flap or like a typical English [l]. So the first letter of "London" has been replaced with the ㄹ, too.

A word to the wise: ㄹ is never a purely rhotic sound; that is, it is never like the American "arrr"! But it is certainly the closest approximation that Korean has for the American [r/ɹ], the American [l], or even the French [χ/ʁ], which is the guttural sound in Paris, which is why one letter is used to transcribe all three foreign sounds (which is why some Koreans are confused about r and l in English).

Here are those city names again, in complete Hangul and in IPA according to the Korean pronunciation:
Seoul = 서울 = [sʰʌ.ul] = SUH-ool
New York = 뉴욕 = [njuː.jok̚] = nyoo-YOHK
Tokyo = 도쿄 = [to.kʰjo] = doe-KYO
London = 런던 = [lʌn.dʌn] = LUN-dun
Milano = 밀라노 = [miː] = MEEL-lah-no

Anyway... hope you found this bit of phonetics/phonology interesting. If I ever see that shirt for sale, I'm probably going to buy it.

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(1) Hangul is the name for the Korean writing system. It literally means "Korean writing": 한글.


  1. I saw two people (not together) wearing this shirt in Seoul this past weekend!

    1. Apparently it's a high-end designer tee that costs almost $50. I'm slightly appalled at the price... and am rethinking my rash declaration that I wanted it for myself!

  2. Do you know where I can purchase this shirt?

    1. Turns out it's a brand owned by a Korean celebrity: