The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 29 Oct 2019

Vowels in Korean and Mandarin

Something I've been wondering about for a while: there's this vowel in Mandarin which is usually written as ‘e’, for example in Deng (Xiaoping, 邓小平) or in feng shui (風水). But it's not pronounced like the ‘e’ in English “bed” or “pen”. It seems to my untrained ear to be more like the Korean vowel ‘ㅓ’, which is sort of between English “bought” and “but”. So I had wanted for a while to look up how Deng's name was spelled in Korean to see if they used ‘ㅓ’ or some other vowel. Partial success. Sure enough, Deng is spelled with ‘ㅓ’ in Korean: 덩(샤오핑).

“Feng shui” is spelled differently in Korean, with a different vowel: 풍수. But that's not too surprising, since the term “feng shui” presumably entered the Korean language centuries ago, and not only was the Chinese pronunciation probably different then, the Korean pronunciation would have changed over time after the adoption. In contrast, Deng's name presumably wasn't translated into Korean until sometime in the 20th century.

I was surprised that “Xiaoping” turns into three syllables in Korean. But Korean doesn't have that /aʊ/ dipthong, so that's the best it can do. This reminds me now of how amused I was by Corn Flakes boxes in Korea: in Korean, “Flake” is a four-syllable word. (플레이크).

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