Korean Pronunciation: Is <ㄹ> L or R?


Although L and R are two different alphabets in English, they are somewhat represented by one character in Korean called 리을 (). The difference is not highlighted much in most books so it is confusing whether it is an L or an R. At least Japanese is very clear about the absence of L. The difference is very subtle in Korean but getting the closest sound makes a difference. Let's unlock the mysterious case of the alphabet ㄹ.

When  is the initial character of a syllable, it sounds more like an R such as 라디오 (radio), 라면 (ramyeon), and 로마 (Rome). Korean R is not rolled and it is not uncommon to hear 라면 sound like lamyeon. Foreign words like lotion (로션) still sounds like lo-shon and not ro-shon. So ㄹ, as an initial sound, falls between R and L.

When  is at the bottom of a syllable, it sounds more like an L such as 신발 (shinbal), 이불 (ibul), and 네팔 (nepal). They mean shoes, blanket, and the country Nepal.

However, when a particle () is attached to the above words, is dragged to the next syllable (not in writing) becoming its initial sound. Hence, 신발은 (신발 + 은) sounds like 신바른 (shinba-reun) and 이불이 (이불 + 이) sounds like 이부리 (iburi).

Foreign words that have a definite L sound can be written in Hangeul by using ㄹ twice- one at the bottom of the first syllable and one at the beginning of the next syllable. Hence, Manila (the capital city of the Philippines) is written as 마닐라 and the name Ella is written as 엘라. Otherwise, the would sound like Manira and Era.

This is why Koreans find it hard to distinguish L and R when they start learning English. Can you imagine the burden of pronouncing the word ruler right?