Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-xtgtn Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-16T02:36:27.561Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Acoustic evidence for the emergence of tonal contrast in contemporary Korean

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 November 2006

David J. Silva
University of Texas at Arlington


Acoustic evidence suggests that contemporary Seoul Korean may be developing a tonal system, which is arising in the context of a nearly completed change in how speakers use voice onset time (VOT) to mark the language's distinction among tense, lax and aspirated stops. Data from 36 native speakers of varying ages indicate that while VOT for tense stops has not changed since the 1960s, VOT differences between lax and aspirated stops have decreased, in some cases to the point of complete overlap. Concurrently, the mean F0 for words beginning with lax stops is significantly lower than the mean F0 for comparable words beginning with tense or aspirated stops. Hence the underlying contrast between lax and aspirated stops is maintained by younger speakers, but is phonetically manifested in terms of differentiated tonal melodies: laryngeally unmarked (lax) stops trigger the introduction of a default L tone, while laryngeally marked stops (aspirated and tense) introduce H, triggered by a feature specification for [stiff].

Research Article
2006 Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


I would like to thank Younjeoung Choi and Ji Eun Kim for their valuable assistance in this project, not only as tireless fieldworkers, but as dedicated research assistants in every respect. I further offer my thanks to the guest editors and to two anonymous reviewers, all of whom provided useful suggestions on the first draft of the text. As noted in the text, preliminary descriptions of the VOT data were presented at the 2003 Harvard International Symposium on Korean Linguistics (ISOKL) and the 2004 Meeting of the International Circle of Korean Linguistics. A first pass at the phonological analysis was offered at the 2005 Harvard ISOKL. The research for this paper was conducted under the auspices of the University of Texas at Arlington's Institutional Research Board for the Protection of Human Subjects.