Korean intonation: word accent and stress

When you first start learning Korean, it might be unclear which syllables in a word need to be stressed, or if the idea of word stress even exists in Korean. For context, in many languages, particularly Indo-European languages like English or Spanish, every word has a prominent syllable called the “stressed” syllable. For example, in the word “language”, the first syllable is stressed, while in the word “particularly”, the second syllable is stressed. This is also what allows us to distinguish the noun “record” from the verb “record”.


When you first start learning Korean, it might be unclear which syllables in a word need to be stressed, or if the idea of word stress even exists in Korean. For context, in many languages, particularly Indo-European languages like English or Spanish, every word has a prominent syllable called the “stressed” syllable. For example, in the word “language”, the first syllable is stressed, while in the word “particularly”, the second syllable is stressed. This is also what allows us to distinguish the noun “record” from the verb “record”.

Korean, on the other hand, does not have word stress in the way that English does. Instead, every syllable in the language can either be pronounced with low pitch or high pitch. None of the syllables in the word are necessarily pronounced louder or longer1The last syllable of a word or phrase is actually often louder and/or longer as described in [this post], but the principles are there are very different than just basic word stress – always simply either high or low.

Fortunately, there are just a few simple rules with no exceptions2One (possible) exception is the word 일 (see Jun 2011) that determine the pitch of each syllable in a Korean word. These rules are worth learning because you will sound more natural and like a native speaker if you pronounce syllables with the right pitch. On top of that, the rules are very simple, so for just a bit of effort, you get a huge pay-off.

This post will cover everything you need to know to pronounce Korean words and short phrases with the correct pitch pattern, and future posts will cover more about how Korean intonation works for longer phrases and sentences.

Overview of the accenting system

There are two categories a Korean word falls into; either it is “low-initial” or “high-initial”3In academic literature, the pattern is actually usually expressed with a high (H) at the end, rather than low (L), where the H is overriden by boundary tones. However, I think it’s more intuitive to learn it with a default L boundary tone, then apply other boundary tones as necessary as I detail in my upcoming boundary tone article.. The “low” or “high” refers just to the pitch of the first syllable of the word (the syllables after the first syllable behave the same in both groups).

If you remember nothing else from this article, try to at least remember these 2 diagrams:



In the diagrams above, each circle represents a single syllable, with the lower ones corresponding to “low pitch” and the higher ones corresponding to “high pitch”. The lengths of the lines between the points don’t matter. As you can see, the only real difference between the patterns is whether the first syllable is low pitch or high pitch, as all the syllables after the first one follow the same pattern.

Here’s some examples of these patterns with real words:


고마워요 [kʰo.ma.wʌ.jo]


생각했어 [sʰeŋ.ga.kʰe.s͈ʌ]

Keep in mind that these aren’t absolute terms – if you have a deep voice, your high pitch might be someone else’s low pitch (if they have a high voice). The important thing is just to pronounce the H (“high tone”) higher than L (“low tone”).

Another important thing to note is that Korean does not use volume or duration to make certain syllables louder or longer. In other words, even if the pitch is high, that does not mean that that syllable is pronounced extra long or extra loud. This is different from many other languages (including English). Just focus purely on the pitch of your voice being either low or high.

The above pattern holds for longer words (or phrases), too. In words or phrases longer than 4 syllables, the entire rest of the word after the 2nd syllable stays as low pitch4Technically, there is actually a gently falling contour between the H of the 2nd syllable and the L of the second-to-last syllable, so it would be more accurate to display this with a sloped line. I’ve kept it as L for simplicity’s sake, though, to keep the binary H-L distinction.. For example, with some longer phrases, the patterns look like this:


고등학생입니다 [kʰo.dɯŋ.ɦak.s͈eŋ.im.ni.da]


한국사람입니다 [han.guk.s͈a.ɾam.im.ni.da]

To summarize:

  1. the first syllable is either low or high (the rule is explained in a moment)
  2. the second syllable is always high
  3. the 3rd syllable through the last syllable are all low

Now that the basic patterns are out of the way, there’s a few more things that need to be explained to be able to start applying this pattern to real words and sentences.

First syllable: Low or High?

The first syllable is always either L or H, and the one thing it depends on is which of 2 groups the first consonant belongs to.

If the first consonant is aspirated (this includes ㅅ) or tense, it’s high. Otherwise, the first syllable is low.

Here’s a full chart for reference, with related consonants grouped together:

ㅋ, ㄲ
ㄷ, ㄴ, ㄹㅌ, ㄸ
ㅂ, ㅁㅍ, ㅃ
ㅊ, ㅉ
ㅅ, ㅆ
ㅇ (vowel-initial)

By consulting this chart, you can see why words like 사랑해요 are high:

사랑해요 [sa.ɾaŋ.ɦe.jo]

While 감사해요 starts low:

감사해요 [kʰam.sa.ɦe.jo]

Initial lax vs. aspirated stops

In Korean linguistics, lax refers to the consonants ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅈ, and ㅂ; in other words, the “base” forms without any extra additions to make them aspirated (like ㅋ) or tense (like ㄲ).

In modern-day Korean, the distinction between the lax / aspirated pairs ㄱ/ㅋ, ㄷ/ㅌ, ㅈ/ㅊ, and ㅂ/ㅍ is only expressed in the pitch (and not the consonants’ pronunciations), but only when they’re in the first syllable of the word.

In other words, pairs such as ㅂ and ㅍ are actually pronounced exactly the same way at the beginning of a word ([pʰ] with the same amount of aspiration), except that the pitch for ㅍ is higher. For instance, if we compare the words 발 (“leg”) and 팔 (“arm”) when at the beginning of a phrase, they’re pronounced the same, except the pitch patterns differ as follows:

발: Low-initial

발이에요 [pʰa.ɾi.e.jo]

팔: High-initial

팔이에요 [pʰa.ɾi.e.jo]

The only difference is in the pitch. 발 is aspirated just as much as 팔 is, so in order to keep the words distinct, pitch is used instead of consonant aspiration5Technically, according to how tonogenesis typically proceeds, the distinction gradually shifts away from things like voicing and towards pitch as the main carrier of the distinction.. The approximate phonetic transcription (ignoring pitch) for both sentences would be the same [pʰaɾiejo], but speakers can still reliably tell the difference thanks to the difference in pitch.

However, this is only the case for the very first syllable in a phrase. If we add another syllable before 발 or 팔, they are pronounced differently but with the same high pitch (since the second syllable is always high pitch):


내 발이에요 [ne.ba.ɾi.e.jo]


내 팔이에요 [ne.pʰa.ɾi.e.jo]

In this situation, the amount of aspiration is now what differentiates them, so the phonetic transcription for both would be:

  1. 내발이예요: [ne.ba.ɾi.e.jo]6ㅂ here is voiced intervocalically into a [b]
  2. 내팔이예요: [ne.pʰa.ɾi.e.jo]7ㅍ stays as [pʰ] in all positions (including between vowels like here)

The two words are now distinct thanks to the [b] / [pʰ] contrast, while the pitch pattern for both sentences is the same.

The key take-aways:

  1. Only in the first syllablelax (ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅈ) consonants sound 100% the same as aspirated (ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅊ) consonants. However, it is still possible to tell which is actually being pronounced due to the pitch being low for lax and high for aspirated.
  2. In any syllable after the first syllable, lax consonants sound different than aspirated consonants (aspirated consonants have the puff of air, while lax consonants are voiced instead), and there are no special pitch rules that treat them differently.

Thus, these two are always distinct, but in some cases, the distinction is clear thanks to the pitch difference (first syllable), and in other cases, it’s a voicing / aspiration distinction.

Words with less than 4 syllables

Words shorter than 4 syllables also have some simple rules that decide which syllables are low and high, and this section will describe those in detail.

3 syllables

For 3-syllable words, the two possible patterns are as follows. They are the same as the 4-syllable patterns, but without the 4th syllable.





Here are some example words with these two pitch patterns:


아니야 [a.ni.ja]


했어요 [he.s͈ʌ.jo]

2 syllables

The patterns for 2-syllable words are as follows8Technically, a low initial like 가 carries with it a LH tone that spreads out over the first few syllables, so 가다 would simply be LH. However, in this post, I’m teaching the patterns with a low (L) boundary tone already affixed (replacing the H of LH) to make the examples easier to understand. See page 62 of Kim 2004 to see how this pattern is described as “LH+L%” (where L% is the boundary tone).:





Some examples of these patterns are:


가다 [kʰa.da]


사다 [sʰa.da]

This also allows for minimal pairs such as 불다 / 풀다 (distinguished just by pitch as described above):


불다 [pʰuɭ.da]


풀다 [pʰuɭ.da]

1 syllable

Lastly, you may also be wondering about 1-syllable words. They’re simply pronounced either low or high, depending on the initial consonant (as with every other word length, nothing new here).






Korean pronunciation rules, particularly word stress/accenting rules can be hard to find good resources on, but it’s crucial to master in order to sound like a natural Korean speaker.

Next time you’re listening to Korean, keep an ear open for these patterns, and as you hear them, you’ll start to internalize them. Thankfully, Korean pronunciation is actually very, very easy to master, because it is 100% rule-bound with virtually no exceptions.

This post is just one in a series I have on Korean pronunciation and intonation, so check out my other posts for more on this subject (coming soon).


  1. Jun, Sun-Ah. “Korean intonational phonology and prosodic transcription.” Prosodic typology: The phonology of intonation and phrasing 1 (2005): 201.
  2. Jun, Sun-Ah. “Intonational phonology of Seoul Korean revisited.” Japanese-Korean Linguistics 14 (2006): 15-26.
  3. Jun, Sun-Ah, and Jihyeon Cha. “High-toned [il] in Seoul Korean Intonation.” ICPhS. 2011.
  4. Kim, Mi-Ryoung, and San Duanmu. ““Tense” and “lax” stops in Korean.” Journal of East Asian Linguistics 13.1 (2004): 59-104.
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