Congratulations to Young Shin Kim, who has just successfully defended her doctoral thesis (dissertation) at UCL. It is entitled “An acoustic, aerodynamic and perceptual investigation of word-initial denasalization in Korean”. Here she is with her supervisor, Michael Ashby.
Young Shin had noticed that when she played a recording of a Korean word beginning with m, English listeners often perceived it as beginning with b. She has gone on to demonstrate, in great detail, that in many cases Korean initial “nasals” are indeed pronounced as plosives.
Here’s an example. Listen to the sound clip of 그런데메밀, which “ought” to be kɯɾʌnde memil, taken from the phrase 그런데메밀꽃 kɯɾʌnde memilkkot meaning ‘then buckwheat flowers’. In the second word, compare the two consonants written m. The first, in me-, is, as you can hear, denasalized. It is a fully voiced b. The second, word-medial, in -mil-, is an ordinary nasal. Compare the two consonants on this spectrogram: nasal formant bars for the second, but not for the first.
For her dissertation, Young Shin recorded word-initial nasals from a relatively large number of Korean informants, and carried out listening tests with English and Korean listeners. She also ran auditory and spectrographic tests demonstrating that they are indeed denasalized, often even having plosive-like release bursts. Nevertheless, they “remain somewhat different from [Korean] voiced plosives in the low and high frequency regions”.
On the face of it, this is an improbable phonetic development in Korean, given that the language already has three sets of contrastive plosives. At the bilabial place, for example, there are an aspirated fortis pʰ, an unaspirated fortis p=, and a (relatively) unaspirated lenis p, the latter having a voiced allophone in intervocalic position. Not many languages have three contrasting sets of plosives, fewer still four or five.
Young Shin deserves particular praise for having noticed this development when generations of phoneticians working on Korean had failed to do so. An exception, intriguingly enough, was Daniel Jones, who as long ago as 1924 noticed that there was something funny about Korean initial nasals. In the ‘spesimɛn’ of ‘korɪən’ he published in the m.f. that year (p. 14), jointly written with K. Minn, he analysed the initial nasals as mb, nd, commenting as follows. (The restriction to pre-u position, noted by Jones, has not been maintained.) But in the specimen of Korean he published in the Principles of the IPA there is no mention of this, and no one seems to have followed it up — until now.