Shwa for Korean

Korean has the best writing system in the world, Hangeul, and it has been an inspiration for Shwa. However, it suffers from two major flaws:

Hangeul was originally phonemic - each letter represented a phoneme (what we think we're saying). It has subsequently become morphophonemic, representing the underlying root forms of words. But Shwa is phonetic - spelled as it is pronounced - so that people, especially children and foreigners, can read and write even if they don't know the phonological rules by which phonemes become phones. And Korean has many such rules!

For example, the plosive letters can be pronounced three different ways, depending on whether they occur initially (at the beginning of a word or accentual phrase), medially (after a vowel or a sonorant like n or l), or finally (at the end of a word or before an obstruent like t or k). But in Shwa, we show those changes in pronunciation, just as we do when English life becomes lives. People who are used to writing Hangeul will have to learn to write Shwa as Korean is pronounced ... but after all, that's how they speak it!

Tense Consonants

Korean is famous among phoneticists for featuring tense consonants with hollow (or faucalized) voice. Hollow voice and its opposite, harsh voice, are rare among the world's languages, and occur mostly with vowels, not consonants. However, the actual situation may not be so exotic : a recent study (CB Chang, 2006) showed that Koreans cannot distinguish the tense consonants of Korean from normal unaspirated voiceless consonants of Chinese, English or Spanish.

The explanation is found in another study (Kim & Duanmu, 2004) : Korean used to have three series of plosives: voiced, unvoiced and aspirated, as do many other languages (Thai, Ancient Greek). However, over time the first series lost its voicing in initial position, making them devoiced. In order to distinguish them from the second series, Koreans now pronounce both series with exaggerated phonations : the first series, now called plain or lax, is pronounced with light aspiration, a relaxed vocal tract and a depressor effect, lowering the tone of subsequent vowels, while the second series, now called tense, is pronounced with opposing parameters.

To represent this, Shwa writes the plain consonants with voiced letters, and the tense consonants with unvoiced letters. The aspirated series is written with aspirated letters, and all three series with unvoiced letters in final position, where they're unreleased. When the plain consonants are devoiced in initial position, they are written with unvoiced letters, but the following vowel is low; I've shown this depressor effect as a diamond in the chart below. Initial nasals m n or Catch (ng) also trigger a low vowel. All other vowels are written high.

The s is an exception, since there is no aspirated s, and the plain s behaves like an aspirated letter: it doesn't lower the tone of the following vowel when initial, and it's not regularly voiced between vowels. For these reasons, Shwa writes it with an aspirated s, although it can be written with a voiced z when it is voiced between vowels.

The ieung, or null initial, is written with the yh semivowel. It also lowers the tone of following vowels.


Here are the consonants, shown in all three positions :

Romanization m b pp p n d tt t s ss j jj ch -/ng g kk k h r/l
Medial ×

-/ng never occurs medially: it's always pronounced ng when it's the final of a syllable, and pronounced yh at the beginning of a syllable.

r/l does not occur initially in native Korean words. When it occurs at the beginning of a subsequent syllable or in a foreign word, it's usually pronounced n (but I'll still refer to it as initial r).


A very complete inventory of Korean vowels would list ten of them, each of which occurs in both long and short forms. However, two of the vowels (yellow below) have been replaced by diphthongs, and the distinction between lengths has also disappeared. If you want to show length, add a Long mark to any of the following vowels :

Romanization i e ae wi oe eu (ŭ) eo (ŏ) a u o
IPA i e ɛ y ø ɯ ʌ ɐ u o


Korean has four semivowels which correspond to the four high vowels above :

High vowel

These semivowels are used between the initial consonant and the vowel to form numerous rising diphthongs :

Romanization ye yae yeo ya yu yo wi we wae wo wa ui
IPA je ju jo ɥi we ɰi

Note that wi appears as both a vowel and a diphthong - write it as you pronounce it.


However, that's not the end of it. Consonants also assimilate to adjacent letters, both vowels and consonants. Here are a few rules for adjacent consonants:

And here are some common assimilations to following vowels, which may apply after the assimilations above. The original consonants in the first column assimilate to the consonants in the other columns, before the vowels at the head of the column :

final become

Some morphemes end in two consonants, but one of them disappears unless another morpheme follows it, and there are rules for which disappears and what happens to the initial of the following morpheme, but we won't cover them here.

The sections above covering positional allophones and assimilation seems complicated, but remember that Korean children now have to learn it in order to be able to write! For example, a word with -ll- in the middle might be spelled three different ways: as -nr-, as -ln-, or as -lr-. But in Shwa, they're all spelled as they're pronounced. Koreans may still want to know how to split it into two syllables, but at least they won't need to know that in order to write it : Shwa is easier to learn.


Korean is written in Block gait, where each block has only two columns. The first one is the initial consonant at normal (2-cell) height, or a ligature of initial and medial at 3-cell height. The second column has the vowel in high or low position. If there is a final consonant, it's written above a low vowel or below a high vowel, making the second column 3 cells tall.

If a syllable with a medial follows a syllable with no final, you have to insert a Break between the two syllables; otherwise, it will seem as if the syllable starts just before the suffix. The Break becomes, in essence, the missing final consonant of the first syllable.


Now that you've learned the letters, why don't you try reading a sentence?

원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진실

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