How do you pronounce Gangnam?

So if you’ve been completely oblivious lately, you might not be aware that Korean musician Psy has recently become a international sensation due to the song below. If you haven’t already seen it, you should. I’ll wait.

Ok, good. Now, I wrote a post recently where I suggested that a trained phonetician can help you learn to pronounce things and I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is and run you though how to pronounce “Gangnam”; phonetics style. (Note: I’m assuming you’re a native English speaker here.)

First, let’s see how a non-phonetician does it. Here’s a brief guide to the correct pronunciation offered on Reddit by ThatWonAsianGuy, who I can only assume is a native Korean speaker.

The first G apparently sounds like a K consonant to non-Korean speakers, but it’s somewhere between a G and a K, but more towards the G. (There are three letters similar, ,, and . The first is a normal “k,” the second the one used in Gangnam, and the third being a clicky, harsh g/k noise.)

The “ang”part is a very wide “ahh” (like when a doctor tells you to open your mouth) followed by an “ng” (like the end of “ending”). The “ahh” part, however, is not a long vowel, so it’s pronounced quickly.

“Nam” also has the “ahh” for the a. The other letters are normal.

So it sounds like (G/K)ahng-nahm.

Let’s see how he did. Judges?

Full marks for accuracy, Rachael. Nothing he said is incorrect. On the other hand, I give it a usability score of just 2 out of 10.  While the descriptions of the vowels and nasal sounds are intelligible and usable to most English speakers, even I was stumped by  his description of a sound between a  “g” and a “k”. A strong effort, though; with some training this kid could make it to the big leagues of phonetics.

Thank you Rachael, and good luck to ThatWonAsianGuy in his future phonetics career. Ok, so what is going on here in terms of the k/g/apparently clicky harsh sound? Funny you should ask, because I’m about to tell you in gruesome detail.

First things first: you need to know what voicing is. Put your hand over your throat and  say “k”. Now say “g”. Can you feel how, when you say “g”, there’s sort of a buzzing feeling? That’s what linguists call voicing. What’s actually happening is that you’re pulling your vocal folds together and then forcing air through them. This makes them vibrate, which in turn makes a sound. Like so:

(If you’re wondering that little cat-tongue looking thing is, that’s the epiglottis. It keeps you from choking to death by trying to breath food and is way up there on my list of favorite body parts.)

But wait! That’s not all! What we think of as “regular voicing” (ok, maybe you don’t think of it all that often, but I’m just going to assume that you do) is just one of the things you can do with your voicing. What other types of voicing are there? It’s the type of thing that’s really best described vocally, so here goes:

Ok, so, that’s what’s going on in your larynx. Why is this important? Well it turns out that only one of the three sounds is actually voiced, and it’s voiced using a different type of voicing. Any guesses as to which one?

Yep, it’s the harsh, clicky one and it’s got glottal voicing (that really low, creaky sort of voice)*. The difference between the “regular k” and the “k/g sound” has nothing to do with voicing type. Which is crazy talk, because almost every “learn Korean” textbook or online course I’ve come across has described them as “k” and “g” respectively and, as we already established, the difference between “k” and “g” is that the “k” is voiced and the “g” isn’t.

Ok, I simplified things a bit. When you say “k” and “g” at the beginning of a word in English (and only at the beginning of a word), there’s actually one additional difference between them. Try this. Put your hand in front of your mouth and say “cab”. Then say “gab”. Do you notice a difference?

You should have felt a puff of air when you said the “k” but not when you said the “g”. Want proof that it only happens at the beginning of words? Try saying “back” and “bag” in the same way, with your hand in front of you mouth. At the end of words they feel about the same.  What’s going on?

Well, in English we always say an unvoiced “k” with a little puff of air at the beginning of the word. In fact, we tend to listen for that puff more than we listen for voicing. So if you say “kat” without voicing the sound, but also without the little puff of air, it sounds more like “gat”. (Which is why language teachers tell you to say it “g” instead of “k”. It’s not, strictly speaking, right, but it is a little easier to hear. The same thing happens in Mandarin, BTW.) And that’s the sound that’s at the beginning of Gangnam.

You’ll probably need to practice a bit before you get it right, but if you can make a sound at the beginning of a word where your vocal chords aren’t vibrating and without that little puff of air, you’re doing it right. You can already make the sound, it’s just the moving it to the beginning of the word that’s throwing a monkey wrench in the works.

So it’s the unvoiced “k” without the little puff of air. Then an “aahhh” sound, just as described above. Then the “ng” sound, which you tend to see at the end of words in English. It can happen in the middle of words as well, though, like in “finger”. And then “nam”, pronounced in the same way as the last syllable as “Vietnam”.

In the special super-secret International Phonetic (Cabal’s) Alphabet, that’s [kaŋnam]. Now go out there and impress a Korean speaker by not butchering the phonetics of their language!

*Ok, ok, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. You can find the whole story here.


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