The pronunciation of Ban Ki-moon in Korean

In this post, we will illustrate the IPA transcription system for Korean used in this site with the example of the name of the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban Ki-moon is written 반기문 in hangul, the Korean alphabet, and 潘基文 in hanja, the Chinese characters used in Korean with nativized Korean pronunciations. The vast majority of Korean given names are traditionally chosen so that they can be written in hanja, but there are exceptions such as 하늘 Haneul /ha.nɯl/ from the native Korean word for “sky”. In this case, the phonetic transcription is also [ha.nɯl], and we henceforth omit the phonetic transcription in square brackets ([ ]) if it is identical to the phonemic transcription in slashes (/ /).

On their own, the surname 반 潘 Ban is pronounced /ban/ [b̥an] and the given name 기문 基文 Ki-moon is pronounced /ɡi.mun/ [ɡ̊i.mun]. Both the surname and given name are pronounced as they are written in Korean, and ㅂ, ㅏ, and ㄴ correspond to /b/, /a/, and /n/ respectively while ㄱ, ㅣ, ㅁ, ㅜ, and ㄴ correspond to /ɡ/, /i/, /m/, /u/, and /n/ respectively. Not all Korean names or words are pronounced as written because of morphophonemic spelling and sandhi effects—for example, 꽃 kkot |koʦʲʰ| is pronounced as if written [꼳] /kod/ [kot] and 종로 Jongno |ʣʲoŋ.lo| is pronounced as if written [종노] /ʣʲoŋ.no/ [ʣ̥ʲoŋ.no]. Korean dictionaries generally include these pronunciations where they differ from spelling. Here I have included the more abstract morphophonemic transcriptions that are closer to the spelling in pipes (| |).

The phonemes /b, ɡ/ are devoiced to [b̥, ɡ̊] initially. The ring diacritic indicates voicelessness in the IPA. Since [b] and [ɡ] are the symbols for the voiced bilabial stop and the voiced velar stop respectively, one might think that [b̥, ɡ̊] mean the same thing as [p, k], the usual IPA symbols for the voiceless bilabial stop and the voiceless velar stop respectively. But this is actually a shorthand way of expressing that there are differences in pronunciation between the pairs, just not one of voice.

Initial ㅂ  /b/ [b̥] and ㄱ /ɡ/ [ɡ̊] are produced with much less force than ㅃ /p/ [p] and ㄲ /k/ [k]. The latter pair are more prominent because they generally make the following vowel louder and higher in pitch, at least in initial position. So /b, ɡ/ and /p, k/ are distinguished in initial position in Korean even though both pairs are voiceless, similarly to how in English /b, ɡ/ and /p, k/ can still (barely) be distinguished when whispering, even though whispering involves devoicing all sounds that are normally voiced. Writing the word-initial allophones of /b, ɡ/ as [b̥, ɡ̊] has the advantage of using the same basic symbols as the underlying phonemes.

Now, Koreans are generally not referred only by their surnames in Korean but by their full name, given the relative paucity of distinctive Korean surnames. 반기문 Ban Ki-moon /ban ɡi.mun/ then becomes [b̥an.ɡi.mun], pronounced as a single unit. The /ɡ/ of 기문 Ki-moon /ɡi.mun/ maintains its voicing as it is surrounded by voiced sounds /n/ and /i/. In less careful speech, we may in fact also hear [b̥aŋ.ɡi.mun], but this sort of place assimilation where /n/ becomes [ŋ] in front of velar stops is considered nonstandard.

If each of the syllables were being pronounced separately for emphasis, then we would have [b̥an|ɡ̊i|mun] with /ɡ/ devoiced to [ɡ̊]. The pipe (|) is used here to mark the prosodic breaks.

Other names may involve even more striking differences depending on whether the surname and given name are pronounced together or separately. Consider 박목월[방-] 朴木月 Park Mokwol /baɡ moɡ.wʌl/ [b̥aŋ.mo.ɡwʌl], where the coda /ɡ/ of the surname 박 (/baɡ/ [b̥ak] on its own) becomes the nasal [ŋ] due to the following /m/ when the full name is pronounced as a single unit, as if it were the surname 방 方/邦/房/龐 Bang /baŋ/ [b̥aŋ].

Furthermore, in romanizing Korean names, each syllable tends to be transcribed based on its pronunciation on its own, hence Mokwol instead of Mogwol for 목월 /moɡ.wʌl/ [mo.ɡwʌl]. Since it is useful to show how each of the syllables of the surnames and given names are pronounced separately as well as together, we will transcribe them as follows when a difference arises:

  • 반기문 /ban ɡi.mun/ [b̥an|ɡ̊i|mun → b̥an.ɡi.mun]
  • 박목월[방-] /baɡ moɡ.wʌl/ [b̥ak|mok|wʌl → b̥aŋ.mo.ɡwʌl]

The name Ban Ki-moon is invariably given in the Korean order, where the surname (family name) Ban comes before the given name Ki-moon. Other Korean names may be conventionally known in the Western order with the given name first, e.g. Syngman Rhee 이승만 李承晩 /iː z̥ʰɯŋ.man/ where Rhee is the surname, which is more commonly written Lee for other bearers of the same surname. Yet other names can be seen in both orders, e.g. Ji-Sung Park or Park Ji-sung 박지성[-찌-] 朴智星 /baɡ ʣʲi.z̥ʰʌŋ/ [b̥ak|ʣ̥ʲi|z̥ʰʌŋ → b̥ak.ʦʲi.z̥ʰʌŋ] where Park is the surname.


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