Korean vowels in Hangul can be both positively and negatively charged. Positive vowels are those that point up or to the right side([ㅏ], [ㅗ]). Negative vowels ([ㅓ], [ㅜ]) are those that point down or to the left side. Positive vowels express ‘light, bright, and small’ feelings, whereas negative vowels express ‘heavy, dark, and big’ feelings. When positive vowels are replaced with negative vowels, this replacement results in different nuances of meaning. For example, the mimetic word 반짝반짝 [banjjak banjjak], which uses the positive vowel sound, expresses an image of small stars shining. On the other hand, 번쩍번쩍 [beonjjeok beonjjeok], which uses the negative vowel sound, conjures up images of rather strong light strikes.

눈앞이 반짝반짝 하는 증상 안과정밀검사 받아보자!!광시증, 눈을 감아도 '빛이 번쩍'
반짝반짝 [banjjak banjjak]번쩍번쩍 [beonjjeok beonjjeok]

Another example is the sound of falling into the water. 퐁당 [pongdang] is used to express small things like a stone falling into the water. 풍덩 [pungdeong] is used to depict large objects plunging into the water, such as people diving.

퐁당퐁당 돌을 던져라 | 平和統一聯合풍덩 | 연합뉴스
퐁당 [pongdang] 풍덩 [pungdeong]

Vowel harmony also appears in many Korean onomatopoeic words. 똑똑 [ttok ttok] represents the sound of a gentle tap or knock.  On the other hand, 쿵쿵 [kung kung] represents a large thumping sound.

문을 두드리는. 인간의 손에와 나무 문 로열티 무료 사진, 그림, 이미지 그리고 스톡포토그래피. Image 38899171.When the Police are At Your Door - Legal Powers - Nashville TN Attorneys
똑똑 [ttok ttok]쿵쿵 [kung kung] 

Knowing this fundamental phonological rule helps Korean learners understand why similar-sounding words can have such contrasting connotations. 

Edited by Hayoung (Wendy) Lee

Gahyun (Ellen) Ki

Member of GaNaDa Society


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