While doing research for another project, I stumbled upon a term that I thought I knew well, but which I recently realized I’ve been mispronouncing for decades. The word 도복, which is usually Romanized as “dobok” is usually pronounced like it should rhyme with “sock” or “lock.” It actually rhymes with “snow.”
This error illustrates the limitations of trying to render Korean characters with the Latin alphabet. Because there’s no clear and generally accepted standard, people write whatever “looks right” (meaning: whatever looks most like an English word) to them. Because of this subjectivity, people may spell the same sound different ways with different words, and the result is chaos and confusion.
When you look at the characters 도복 that represent our training uniform, you’ll see that the vowel sound is the same for both syllables: ㅗ. This means the “o” sounds should be pronounced the same way, in this case, rhyming with “slow” or “no.”
Although I’ve trained in the presence of a number of Korean or Korean American Taekwondo instructors, I don’t think I’ve ever heard them refer to our training uniform aloud. All the American Taekwondo practitioners I’ve been around (i.e. who are not native Korean speakers) pronounced this word the same way, so it never occurred to me to question it. Live and learn!
While we’re on the subject of training clothes, it’s worth mentioning that the belt we wear is called a 띠, which is usually Romanized “tti.” The double-t in this word looks odd in English and is an attempt to represent the doubled or “tensed” syllable ㄸ. In Korean, this is pronounced the same way as ㄷ but with a slight emphasis, what we might call “stress.” The difference is hard for English speakers to hear, because it’s the same sound, just with a little extra weight. It’s not even as much as an accented syllable, so it’s really subtle.
If you’re paying close attention, you may notice that one of these characters uses the English letter d and the other tt, even though they’re supposedly the same sound. This is because the Korean sound is actually in between T and D. It’s a little closer to D, but with some of the sharpness of T. If you hold the palm of your hand in front of your mouth and say “T’ and “D” you’ll notice that you feel a puff of air when you say the former, and no air when you say the latter. If you try to say the T sound but without the puff of air, you’ll be in the right ballpark for both ㄸ and ㄷ.
Yep, this is pretty confusing, no doubt about it. The best way to understand the difference between these sounds is to hear someone saying them aloud. You can look for YouTube videos, or you can ask after any class.