On the Merger of Korean Mid Front Vowels: Phonetic and Phonological Evidence

  • Received : 2015.04.29
  • Accepted : 2015.06.15
  • Published : 2015.06.30


This paper investigates the status of the merger between the mid front unrounded vowels ㅔ[e] and ㅐ[${\varepsilon}$] in contemporary Korean. Our analysis is based on a balanced corpus of production and perception data from young subjects from three dialectal areas (Seoul, Daegu and Gwangju). Except for expected gender differences, the production data display no difference in the realization of these vowels, in any of the dialects. The perception data, while mostly in line with the production results, show that Seoul females tend to better discriminate the two vowels in terms of perceived height: vowels with a lower F1 are more likely to be categorized as ㅔ by this group. We then investigate the possible causes of this merger: based on an empirical study of transcribed spoken Korean, we show that the pair of vowels ㅔ/ㅐ has a very low functional load. We argue that this factor, together with the phonetic similarity of the two vowels, may have been responsible for the observed merger.


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