, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 59-104

“Tense” and “Lax” Stops in Korean

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Korean is thought to be unique in having three kinds of voiceless stops: aspirated /ph th kh/, tense /p* t* k*/, and lax /p t k/. The contrast between tense and lax stops raises two theoretical problems. First, to distinguish them either a new feature [tense] is needed, or the contrast in voicing (or aspiration) must be increased from two to three. Either way there is a large increase in the number of possible stops in the world's languages, but the expansion lacks support beyond Korean. Second, initial aspirated and tense consonants correlate with a high tone, and lax and voiced consonants correlate with a low tone. The correlation cannot be explained in the standard tonogenesis model (voiceless-high and voiced-low). We argue instead that (a) underlyingly "tense" stops are regular voiceless unaspirated stops, and "lax" stops are regular voiced stops, (b) there is no compelling evidence for a new distinctive feature, and (c) the consonant-tone correlation is another case of voiceless-high and voiced-low. We conclude that Korean does not have an unusual phonology, and there is no need to complicate feature theory.