External constraints on sound change: The raising of/o/ in Seoul Korean

Seo-young Chae, University of Pennsylvania


This study investigates the linguistic and social constraints affecting the variable realization of underlying non-initial /o/ in Seoul Korean. The variation is limited to bound morphemes, adverbs with certain endings and a few nouns. An examination of historical data suggested that it might be part of a change from /o/ to /u/ that occurred in most of the mono-morphemic native Korean words during the 19th century. Natural speech data from sociolinguistic fieldwork in Seoul was analyzed to uncover linguistic and non-linguistic constraints. The analysis revealed few meaningful phonological or grammatical constraints; only a following pause and emphasis have significant effects, which together indicate that (o) raising is affected by attention paid to speech and by external factors. Furthermore, the analysis of linguistic factors showed that among bound morphemes, -ko has a significantly low degree of raising. Since the linguistic conditioning is found to be the same for all bound morphemes, -ko alone was used to shed light on the social correlates of (o) raising. The results of this analysis confirm that the current variation is part of an ongoing sound change from /o/ to /u/. A strong correlation with age, gender, and occupational level is demonstrated: young people, females, and lower occupational levels raise more. The analysis of speech styles shows that the change has almost reached completion in spontaneous speech while standard /o/ remains as a phonetic target for reading styles. Based on the relationship established between the historical change and the current variation, the general picture of (o) raising is reconsidered. The main question is how a low-level phonetic change can be irregular, not only between morpheme classes but across them. I provide evidence based on the history of Korean: the frequent use of -ko as a connector between Chinese and Korean explains the low degree of raising in this morpheme. This study emphasizes the importance of understanding the social context of past stages of a language when analyzing synchronic variation and motivates further investigation of theoretical issues in the mechanism of sound change.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Chae, Seo-young, "External constraints on sound change: The raising of/o/ in Seoul Korean" (1995). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9543060.