Korea may make some spellings mandatory

I’ve been doing so much on signage lately that I’ve been neglecting the issue of romanization. (Remember romanization?) Here’s something just in from South Korea, a country that rivals Taiwan in making a national pastime of screwing around with its romanization system.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Presidential Council on National Competitiveness on Wednesday discussed plans to make the Korean language more accessible worldwide, including working out a Romanization standard for family names, compiling a new Hangul dictionary with about 1 million entries, and building a Hangul cultural center.

The government will come up with standard Romanization for family names this year that will become mandatory for people when they apply for new passports and for government offices that use both Hangul and English on official documents such as birth records and residence registration cards.

In Taiwan, people can choose among romanization systems for the name on their passport. Employing romanization for Hoklo, Hakka, or a language of one of Taiwan’s official tribes is also permitted.

An earlier Romanization project for family names was suspended in 2000 due to controversy over exceptions. The new standard will cost a huge amount of money as the Romanized names of businesses, schools and individuals as well as road signs will have to be changed.

A new Hangul dictionary is to be compiled by 2012, adding a large number of words to the last official dictionary published in 1999, which has about 500,000 entries, and adding easy sample sentences.

Experts have said that the younger generation have trouble understanding the conventional dictionary, as there are too many difficult Chinese characters in explanations and definitions.

The government also plans to compile a multilingual web dictionary comprising about 20 different foreign language sections — such as Vietnamese-Hangul and Thai-Hangul — to help foreigners and Korean nationals overseas.

A Hangul cultural center, to be built at a cost of W35.2 billion [US$27.5 million] by 2012, is to give visitors hands-on experience of the Korean language.

source: Standard Romanization for Korean Names Planned, Chosun Ilbo, June 25, 2009

Photo of street signs in Namyangju, Gyeonggi-do (Namyangju, Ky?nggi-do) courtesy of Robert Badger.
korean_streetsigns

10 thoughts on “Korea may make some spellings mandatory

  1. You do occasionally see McCune-Reischauer on street signs, though there aren’t many left in the country. When the country adopted the Revised Romanization, all of the street signs were redone. Thus, the beginning of the Myeong-dong fashion district is no longer ?ljiro 1-ga, but Euljiro 1(il)-ga. Likewise, Y??ido is now rendered Yeouido.

    There are good and bad things about the Revised Romanization. Most people haven’t been troubled by it. I prefer the older McCune-Reischauer system for a couple of things. Unlike the Revised Romanization, which is meant to convey how people actually spell in the language, M-R is meant more to reflect the pronunciation. For such major things in Korean history such as Shilla (??), one of the Three Kingdoms and the first of Korea’s dynasties to unify the whole peninsula under one kingdom, the Revised Romanization would render it Silla. But in some ways, the Revised Romanization is a bit of a step forwards in addressing the differences between an initial ? (rendered g in RR and k in M-R), ? (an asiprated ? rendered k in RR and k’ in M-R), and a final ? (rendered as k in both systems).

    Korean, much like Chinese, is not easily Romanized. In Taiwan, where you live, the situation seems utterly ridiculous. As for getting everyone to use the same Romanization for their names, the reaction of a Korean friend of mine was quite telling. “Well, they can try!” I (?, ?) is currently rendered I, Lee, Lie, Li, Rhee, or Ri. Kim is almost always spelled the same way, though the new scheme would make only Gim legal. I’ve never seen anyone use that. Im (?) has been rendered Im, Lim, and Ihm. Bak (?) is often rendered Bak, Bahk, Pahk, Pak, or Park. I just don’t see the great conductor Myung-hwun Chung (???) giving up his French-inspired Romanized name for Myeong-hun Jeong. Even if passports bear the new Romanization, I think that people are just going to spell their names however they want to spell them.

    Fortunately, though, the Korean alphabet is simple and easily learned. The grammar, on the other hand, has made me look almost longingly at Chinese!

  2. “Unlike the Revised Romanization, which is meant to convey how people actually spell in the language, M-R is meant more to reflect the pronunciation.”

    Can you elaborate on that? Do you mean MR is using the same spelling for sounds that are pronounced the same, whereas RR uses the same spelling for similar Hangul representations (sorry, don’t know how THAT reflects sounds)? Or do you just mean it’s closer to English?

    “For such major things in Korean history such as Shilla (??), one of the Three Kingdoms and the first of Korea’s dynasties to unify the whole peninsula under one kingdom, the Revised Romanization would render it Silla.”

    -> Why is that bad?

  3. Excuse me for butting in. My stint with Korean was a while back, but I always thought M-R was mostly logical (as logical as you can get anyway) in regards to the vowels – o and ? are highly similar phonemes, and RR’s rendering of ‘eo’ doesn’t reflect the pronunciation all that well. The same goes for other vowels, especially combined ones. RR *does* feel more natural and closer to actual pronunciation for consonants, however… all in all I’d appreciate a combined system, but pigs will learn to fly before that.

    “Why is that bad?”

    Because it doesn’t reflect the pronunciation. “si” and “shi” are different phonemes, and while “si” would reflect the actual writing (?/s + ?/i), it doesn’t reflect pronunciation. It’s similar to the kunreishiki way of treating Japanese kana – in kunreishiki ?/? is “si”, but the pronunciation is “shi”.

    I can understand the desire to have a in itself logical system (like kunreishiki, which ignores irregularities like ?/? (shi in Hepburn), ?/? (tsu) and ?/? (chi) in favour of “si”, “tu” and “ti”, respectively), but if the phonemes don’t match up with that desire, I’d go for the more logical and understandable solution which reflects pronunciation.

  4. Korean is an interesting case in that it’s easy to come up with a romanization that:

    1. reflects the phonemic system and/or spelling of Korean.

    or

    2. will make sense to a monolingual English purely in terms of matching spelling and pronunciation.

    It is, however, absolutely impossible to come up with a system that does both at the same time.

    Also given the vowel system, you’re either forced to have a fair amount of diacritics or a lot of two letter combinations (which will become hard to keep straight).

  5. But s and sh (as pronounced in English) aren’t separate phonemes in Korean (or Japanese though English borrowings may be changing that).

    Phonemically “Shilla” is /silla/ in Korean.

    Phonemically “Watashitachi” is /watasitati/ in Japanese.

    Again, if the goal of the romanization system is to reflect the phonological structure of the language it will be structured in one way.

    If the goal is to give monolingual English speakers with no intention of learning the language how words are pronounced (or how English speakers will hear words in the language) it will be structured in a different way.

    Decide which is your priority and the rest will follow (and the choices are largely trivial). If you can’t decide (or have no idea that the decision has to be made) you’ll have chaos and systems that change every couple of years.

  6. It’s always puzzled me why Koreans can’t easily get a standard romanization system.

    I learned Hangul on my own in a matter of days. Now I can pretty much “read” Korean text in Hangul even if I don’t understand a word of it. I’m sure I have a heavy accent as well but that’s beside the point.

    The points are the following:

    1.) Hangul is already a phonetic system. To create a romanization system for Korean, it would be as simple as the following:

    ? = h
    ? = a
    ? = n

    Therefore

    ? = han

    Please do let me know if I’m missing something though.

    2.) We are talking about ROMANization, not ANGLICization. In other words, the goal of romanization is to represent a language with roman letters. Some people seem to think that romanization means it needs to be read accurately by English speakers, which is nearly impossible considering the fact that English is probably one of the poorest choice due mostly to the variations in pronunciation of different letters.

  7. Please do let me know if I’m missing something though.

    This is mostly how the current romanizations work. (For the record, ? is written as “han” in both McCune-Reischauer and Revised Romanization; the more academic Yale Romanization uses “h?n”.) The main points of contention are a) to what extent romanization should be “intuitive” to foreigners (a major concern of South Korean planners, despite the basic wrongheadedness of the idea), b) to what extent it should reflect sound changes that aren’t necessarily marked in Hangeul (assimilation, allophones, vowel length, etc.), and c) exactly which letters should be used for each jamo (RR’s use of “eo” for ? and “e” for ? is a sore spot for some). RR accounts for some sound changes and is therefore a mixed transliteration/transcription, although there’s also a variant for pure transliteration that’s rarely if ever used (I think the blue sign should be written as “Suleneo-ilo” in that variant).

  8. > I learned Hangul on my own in a matter of days. Now I can pretty much “read” Korean text in Hangul

    I tell every Taiwanese I run into that in two hours they can “crack the code” of hangul, “much (OK, somewhat) easier than bopomofo”, and with their knowledge of Minnan yu (Taiwanese) sounds, can proceed to guess the Chinese characters behind tons of (literary) Korean words, especially those in various titles, shop and street names etc.

    I remind them they’ve already paid 99% of the investment (knowing the Chinese hiding behind the hangul). All is left is two tiny hours to memorize the hangul “codes”, and *poof* all those Chinese characters hiding behind that hangul is revealed.

    As a special bonus (one free item from my extensive knowledge of everything :-) as a gift to readers): Korean “?” (pum), preserves the ancient trailing -m better than _any_ variety of today’s Chinese.

  9. “As a special bonus (one free item from my extensive knowledge of everything :-) as a gift to readers): Korean “?” (pum), preserves the ancient trailing -m better than _any_ variety of today’s Chinese.”

    Vietnamese preserves it even better and it even preserves the tone! :D [phâ?m]

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