Korean romanization — again

It’s not just Taiwan that can’t seem to get its romanization situation resolved well. “Calls for a revision of the current Romanization system for the Korean alphabet, Hangul, are gaining more ground as confusion continues on the roads, signboards and government documents after the introduction of the current form in July 2000,” reports the Korea Times.

Some 75 percent of South Koreans think the government-enacted Romanization system does not reflect the original pronunciation of Hangul properly, a survey conducted by the Yoido Institute, a think tank of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) showed yesterday.

Of the 2,150 adults polled last week, 66.1 percent wanted the current system to be revised despite the expected financial cost, according to the survey conducted on the occasion of the 560th Hangul Day which falls on Oct. 9.

I make no claims of knowledge of which romanization system would be best for Korea, so be sure to read my comments with that in mind. But I do know to be wary of polls conducted by political parties.

Hangul was first Romanized using the McCune-Reischauer (M-R) system in the early 20th century, when a number of foreign missionaries came to the Choson Kingdom. But the country’s Romanization system underwent flip-flopping policies in the following decades.

“Confusions we experience today have been caused largely due to the arbitrary attitudes of armchair linguists and some misguided government officials,’’ said Kim Bok-moon, professor emeritus of Chungbuk National University.

Scraping the traditional M-R system, which had prevailed in the past decades, the government adopted a new system on July 7, 2000, shifting “Pusan,’’ “Kobukson (turtle ship) and “kimchi’’ into “Busan,’’ “Geobukseon’’ and “gimchi.’’

The English-language media, including the state-funded Yonhap News Agency, had resisted the change for a period of time. But, as time went by, all the news media gave in to the new system except The Korea Times, which has maintained the M-R system concluding that it is the most similar to actual pronunciation.

Let alone the tremendous cost of the revision, the main problem of the current system is that it does not ensure the exact pronunciation of the original sound of various Korean words.

No romanization system — or any other script, for that matter — ensures the exact pronunciation of the words of a language for people who do not know how that system works. It seems unlikely that the South Korean government would have promulgated an inherently unworkable system, such as the bastardized version of Wade-Giles is for Mandarin Chinese. (Proper Wade-Giles, of course, could work perfectly well for Mandarin, though I certainly don’t recommend it.)

And the author shouldn’t have written “the exact pronunciation of the original sound of various Korean words” but simply “the exact pronunciation of Korean words.”

Kim, who serves as president of the Research Institute for Korean Romanization (KOROMA), has made sole efforts to end the confusion, submitting a petition to then President Kim Dae-jung and presenting a Constitutional petition.

In a seminar at the National Assembly yesterday, he presented the disastrous result of an experiment that he conducted along with KBS TV about the new system in Itaewon, downtown Seoul, and at the Kimpo International Airport.

When he asked foreign people to read “Yeoksam-dong (???)’’ and “Geobukseon (???),’’ the majority of them pronounced them “ioksaemdong (????)’’ and “jiobuksion (?????),’’ far different from the actual sound.

Oh, no. Not another “let’s ask a random and probably clueless foreigner how to pronounce something” poll. These mean nothing. There are plenty of people in the United States who would mangle even the pronunciations of items on a menu in a Mexican restaurant; but that doesn’t mean Spanish orthography needs revision.

Because a committee under Taiwan’s Ministry of Education approved a romanization method for Taiwanese last week, some grandstanding member of the legislature is almost certainly going to force some executive-branch official who doesn’t know the system to read out loud something that was written in it, thus “proving” the system doesn’t work. It might already have happened.

According to Kim, 16 out of the newly Romanized 21 vowels of Hangul are out of sync with actual sounds when they are read by English-speaking people, who have no knowledge about the premise that “eo’’ would be pronounced as “?.’’ He has devised his own system, which he claims ensures the best pronunciations.

“Disasters that many critics expected have already begun. We can easily find serious confusion here and there,’’ Kim told The Korea Times. “We have to correct the mistake without delay before it is too late, and adopt a proper system.’’

Romanization systems seldom work well when forced into the mold of an anglicization. I wonder if romanized Korean is commonly but mistakenly referred to in Korea as “English.”

And, of course, there’s always an appeal to nationalism:

One example of what Kim cited as “losses of national interests’’ was “Koguryo’’ and “Dokdo,’’ which became objects of historical and even territorial rows with China and Japan during the past couple of years.

At a time when China spelled the ancient Korean kingdom as “Koguryo,’’ South Korea’s English-language dailies, except for The Korea Times, wrote it as “Goguryeo.’’ It was later unified into Koguryo as even the UNESCO’s World Heritage called it Koguryo.

A set of South Korean tiny islets in the East Sea, Dokdo had also been divided into “Tokto’’ and “Dokdo.’’ The Korea Times agreed to unify it into Dokdo at the recommendation of the government as an exceptional case. But the foreign news media and Web sites are still left confused between them.

The article closes:

Critics say the Romanization system should be revised in a way that best reflects the characteristics of the Korean language and the reunification of the two Koreas should also be taken into consideration.

North Korea has a system similar to the M-R system, which writes its cities and places in English as “Pyongyang,’’ “Kaesong’’ and “Mt. Kumgang’’ _ not “Pyeongyang,’’ “Gaeseong’’ and “Mt. Gumgang.’’

North Korea once proposed the unification of the different Romanization systems used by South and North Korea in a meeting of linguists from the two Koreas in Berlin, Germany, in 2002.

++++++

source: Hangul Romanization Revision Proposed, Korea Times, September 26, 2006

some comments here: More romanization debate, The Marmot’s Hole, September 29, 2006

read about hangul here: Hangul Day, Language Log, October 9, 2005

Festschrift for John DeFrancis now available for free

Most readers of Pinyin News will already know of John DeFrancis, editor of the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary and author of The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy and many other important works. (If you haven’t read The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy yet, order it now.)

In recognition of the 95th(!) birthday today of Professor DeFrancis, Sino-Platonic Papers is rereleasing Schriftfestschrift: Essays in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday. Previously, this important compilation, which runs more than 250 pages, was available only in a printed edition priced at US$35. The fifteenth-anniversary edition, however, is being released for free as a PDF (15 MB — so have a fast Internet connection, or a lot of patience).

I’d like to draw special attention to an article written in Pinyin: “Hanzi Bu Tebie Biaoyi,” by Zhang Liqing. (Zhang’s work also appears here on Pinyin Info, in her translations of The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts and of the amazing Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script — an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters.)

Feel free to print out a copy of the Schriftfestschrift for your own use or for inclusion in a library. Just don’t sell it.

The original publication contained several color photos. I’ll add those later. Also, the English tex is searchable to some degree, as I used OCR after scanning these pages; but the results weren’t perfect.

Here are the contents:

  • Tabula Gratulatoria
  • Introduction, by Victor H. Mair
  • Publications of John DeFrancis
  • Hanzi Bu Tebie Biaoyi, by Zhang Liqing
  • Typology of Writing Systems, by Zhou Youguang
  • Dui Hanzi de Jizhong Wujie, by Yin Binyong
  • The Information Society and Terminology, by Liu Yongquan
  • A Bilingual Mosaic, by Einar Haugen
  • The Polysemy of the Term Kokugo, by S. Robert Ramsey
  • Memorizing Kanji: Lessons from a Pro, by J. Marshall Unger
  • Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, by David Moser
  • Ethnolinguistic Notes on the Dungan, by Lisa E. Husmann and William S-Y. Wang
  • Korean Views on Writing Reform, by Wm. C. Hannas
  • Language Policies and Linguistic Divergence in the Two Koreas, by Ho-min Sohn
  • Okinawan Writing Systems, Past, Present, and Future, by Leon A. Serafim
  • Proposal of a Comparative Study of Language Policies and Their Implementation in Singapore, Taiwan, and China (PRC), by Robert L. Cheng
  • The Topical Function of Preverbal Locatives and Temporals in Chinese, by Feng-fu Tsao
  • Yes-No Questions in Taipei and Peking Mandarin, by Robert M. Sanders
  • Patronizing Uses of the Particle ma: Bureaucratic Chinese Bids for Dominance in Personal Interactions, by Beverly Hong Fincher
  • Gender and Sexism in Chinese Language and Literature, by Angela Jung-Palandri
  • A zhezi Anagram Poem of the Song Dynasty, by John Marney
  • Some Remarks on Differing Correspondences in Old Chinese Assumed to Represent Different Chinese Dialects, by Nicholas C. Bodman
  • Can Taiwanese Recognize Simplified Characters?, by John S. Rohsenow
  • Simplified Characters and Their (Un)relatedness, by Chauncey C. Chu
  • The Teaching of Culture and the Culture of Teaching: Problems, Challenges, and Opportunities in Language Instruction, by Eugene Eoyang
  • The Culture Component of Language Teaching, by Kyoko Hijirida
  • Thinking About Prof. John DeFrancis, by Apollo Wu
  • Wo suo Renshi de De Xiansheng, by Chih-yu Ho
  • Two Poems for Professor John DeFrancis, by Richard F. S. Yang
  • Announcement, by Stephen Fleming

Happy birthday, John! And many happy returns!

South Korea’s ‘English villages’

English continues to expand in South Korea, which is now home to “the world’s biggest English immersion camp,” according to an article from Agence France-Presse.

Speaking Korean is banned in this English-only village that has sprung up somewhat incongruously from the paddy fields of this rice-growing region north of Seoul as part of a linguistic experiment pioneered in South Korea.

“The rule is to speak English,” said Chicago-born Glensne to his shy and giggling pupils as they shuffled between their kitchen tables and his desk to ask in English for cooking materials to make Mexican nachos….

The Paju English village is more than a language theme park. It is a real village of bricks and mortar modeled on an English village where hundreds of people live, eat, sleep, shop and learn.

It sits on a 277,000 m2 plot of land, the world’s biggest English immersion camp, boasting its own brewery pub, bookstore, bakery, restaurant, bank and theater along a main street that leads to a big domed-city hall.

Electric trams run through the main boulevard, which branches off to classrooms and houses to accommodate 100 teachers and 70 staff from various English-speaking countries and 550 students. Korean is outlawed and even written signs are banned.

“We wanted to create an environment where students feel they left Korea behind,” said Jeffrey Jones, head of the Paju camp.

Jones, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, said Koreans really need a change to their English education which focuses too much on grammar, reading and vocabulary.

“They spend a lot of time learning English. They can read probably better than I can, but they have trouble speaking,” he said. “One of the things we do here is we break the wall of fear. They learn not to be afraid and they learn to speak.”

I found this part especially interesting:

English proficiency has become increasingly important for Korean job seekers. Interviews conducted in English are common at big-name companies like Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor and LG Philips.

source: English only in South Korea’s teaching towns, AFP, April 5, 2006

The state of translation in Korea

A new book with the provocative title of Are Translators Traitors? examines Korea’s translation situation and pronounces it “deplorable.” As a professor of Western history at Woosuk University, the author, Park Sang-ik, is perhaps especially sensitive to how few translations of Western classics Korean translators have produced compared with their Japanese counterparts. Many of those translations, he adds, are retranslations from Japanese texts.

The problem is not only the “shameful” quantity but also quality of translations. Park confessed that he was “disillusioned and shocked” to see how shoddy and cursory the translations were, even those done by “renowned” scholars, and how many translated works belong within the shameful category. Park took an example of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” translated by an Italian language professor, which is full of mistranslations and grammatically wrong expressions. And this is just the tip of a huge iceberg, according to Park. It is almost customary for professors to just let or make graduate students do translations with their own credits, which have spawned bad cross-cultural texts.

This reminds me of how some of China’s English textbooks have been produced:

  1. A professor in China who is not a native speaker of English is given a book contract.
  2. The professor then hands the work over to his students, none of whom are native speakers of English.
  3. The students, quite understandably not giving a damn about the professor’s project, proceed to plagiarize previously produced textbooks, reproducing old errors and introducing new ones.
  4. The book is published, further establishing the professor as an expert on English.

I’ve seen this process in action myself.

Back to the article now. Part of the problem is that in academic reviews professors are seldom given appropriate credit for any translations they might produce.

Another factor is the poor remuneration for the work:

For example, if a translator sells about 5,000 copies of a 10,000-won ($10) book — a big hit if it’s a social science or humanities studies book — he could have only around 5 million won [US$5,000] in hand at the end. With such minuscule reward for sweaty work, you will either churn out low quality translations or leave the job once and for all, the author writes.

I suspect that many translators, regardless of their target language, would recognize that situation — and even that’s without factoring in the woes of “work for hire.”

Pointing to the fragile base for the nation’s translation, Park went on further to stress that Korea does not even have a proper English-Korean dictionary. Quoting an English professor, Park said the majority of Korean-English dictionaries are translated versions of Japanese-English ones.

“These dictionaries have omitted many Korean words with purely Korean linguistic origins (as they had translated Japanese definitions word for word),” Park quoted the English scholar.

The article closes with Park pronouncing another of those warnings of “doom” for the Korean language if nothing is done to correct the situation.

Is [the] Korean Language Doomed?, Korea Times, January 20, 2006

Firefox extensions for Mandarin Chinese texts

Although my favorite Web browser remains Opera (which is now free), I recognize that Firefox (which has always been free) has some nice things going for it, especially its wide range of extensions.

At least two of these extensions might be of special interest to readers of this site: Translate, which will translate a Web page from Mandarin Chinese (as well as lots of other languages) into English (more or less), and the Adso GreaseMonkey Script, which provides Pinyin and English annotation for Chinese characters.

First, Translate, which is the cat’s pajamas. I don’t know how I survived without it.

  • Using Firefox, Install Translate. (If that link has expired, find the installation through the home page of Gravelog.)

    • Firefox will likely block your installation at first, which is a good thing. (Safety first.)
    • Look for this message in a bar near the top of your browser window: “To protect your computer, Firefox prevented this site (ctomer.com) from installing software on your computer.”
    • Click on the “Edit Options” button in the same bar (near the top right of your screen).
    • A pop-up box will appear. Click on “Allow” and then “Close”.
  • Restart Firefox.
  • Try out the extension by going to a Web page with text in Chinese characters.

    From the Firefox menu, choose Tools --> Translate --> Translate from Chinese-simp[lified] (or Tools --> Translate --> Translate from Chinese-trad[itional], as appropriate). The translated Web page will appear in a few moments.

    If you want to translate just a portion of the text on a Web page, or if Babel Fish chokes on the text of the entire Web page and you need an alternate approach, simply use your mouse to select the text you’re interested in. Next, right click and select Translate --> From Chinese-simp (or Translate --> From Chinese-trad , as appropriate). Note: The translation will appear in a new tab, so don’t sit around waiting for the translation to appear in the same tab you’ve been working in.

    Translate also handles Japanese, Korean, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Greek, and Russian.

    A related but less effective extension is gtranslate, which handles limited amounts of text in simplified but not traditional characters.

    Now let’s examine the Adso GreaseMonkey Script.

    • Install Firefox or upgrade to version 1.5.
    • Using Firefox, install Greasemonkey (If that link has expired, find the installation through the main Greasemonkey page.)
      • Firefox will likely block your installation at first, which is a good thing. (Safety first.)
      • Look for this message in a bar near the top of your browser window: “To protect your computer, Firefox prevented this site (greasemonkey.mozdev.org) from installing software on your computer.”
      • Click on the “Edit Options” button in the same bar (near the top right of your screen).
      • A pop-up box will appear. Click on “Allow” and then “Close”.
    • Restart Firefox.
    • Install the Adso GreaseMonkey Script.
      • Look for this message in a bar near the top of your browser window: “This is a Greasemonkey user script. Click Install to start using it.”
      • Click the “Install” button in the same bar (near the top right of your screen).

    Try it out by going to a Web page with text in Chinese characters.

    To activate the script, press “a”.
    Click on or highlight the script you’re interested in seeing the Pinyin for.
    Move your mouse over the Chinese characters in the pop-up box; the Pinyin will appear.
    screenshot of how this popup looks

    To deactivate the script, press any other key.

    For more information, see the Firefox Plugin: Chinese text annotation thread on Chinese-forums.com.

    Of related interest is the Rikai Web page converter.

    Korean brands, images, and naming

    Choe Yong-shik, the author of What’s Wrong With Korea’s Global Marketing, has some interesting comments on company names and branding in South Korea.

    He notes that in 1992 the Korean company Samsung switched its logo, changing from using the Chinese characters ?? to the Roman alphabet (with a stylized A):
    Samsung logo

    This, he says, is representative of a trend:

    Since the 1990s, many companies have carried out similar corporate identity projects that have seen the gradual extinction of the practice of using Chinese character logos. Companies have increasingly leaned toward more appealing names in the Roman alphabet as a means to establish a global brand image.

    Using Chinese characters as an international brand image in today’s global market is not only ineffective, but it also borders on silliness.

    source: Samsung, LG’s Brand Globalization History, Korea Times, December 26, 2005

    names, ethnicity, and colonialism

    Joel at Far Outliers has an interesting post on how Koreans chose Japanese names during the Japanese colonial period. (Spotted on Language Hat.)

    Regarding name frequency in Taiwan, I once did some checking of an old version of Chih-Hao Tsai’s invaluable list of Chinese names (in Taiwan) and ended up with the top ten names covering 50 percent of the population. Now that he’s got an improved name-list online, I should check again.

    Also here in Taiwan, few aborigines have taken the trouble to change their official names, now that they finally have an alternative to the sinicized versions that had been forced upon them by Taiwan’s officialdom. It will be interesting to see how the situation changes, if at all, now that new national ID cards are finally being issued. For more on this, see Romanization to be allowed on some Taiwan ID cards, including the link in the note.

    Ban loan words, says North Korea

    When it’s not prompting nightmares, North Korea is often good for a laugh.

    The December 9 edition of Minju Chosun, the newspaper of North Korea’s Cabinet, editorialized on the “Culture of Language,” arguing for the importance of the “four don’ts.”

    1. Don’t use difficult Chinese phrases and other words of foreign origin. Loan words should be banned because they are “‘toxins that destroy the character and purity” of the Korean language. They also undermine the people’s sense of independence.
    2. Do not make excessive use of regional dialects. That sort of thing “creates confusion in language, hampers communication and degenerates personality.”
    3. Avoid slang and vulgar words. They cause misunderstanding and distrust and mar public unity.
    4. Don’t speak too fast. The proper speaking speed is 260-270 words per minute. If people speak too fast, it’s hard to understand what they are saying.

    Talk about the “purity” of a language is of course particularly absurd, especially considering what a large portion of Korean has been borrowed from Sinitic languages over the years. But there is a grain of truth in the assertion that borrowings from Chinese have resulted in some troubles for Korean. The problem, however, is rooted in Chinese characters rather than linguistic borrowing itself. William Hannas discusses this some in his excellent book Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma, including within a section on the so-called homonym problem.

    For nearly two millennia non-Chinese languages on China’s periphery have shared Sinitic vocabulary) freely, in a manner known to all of the world’s languages. Until recently, the direction of this “borrowing” had been largely from Chinese to Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, although the latter languages — most notably Japanese — have reversed the process and for the last century and a half have been coining new terms from Sinitic morphemes that are adopted by all four languages. As a result of this borrowing, more than 40 percent of Japanese, 50 percent of Korean, and at least one-third of the words in Vietnamese are based on Sinitic morphemes, according to Liu (1969:67). These figures apply to everyday vocabulary and are lower than other researchers’ counts that take in a wider corpus…. Ho Ung claims 60 percent (1974:44), and Oh claims 90 percent for some types of Korean materials (1971:26). Helmut Martin notes that in formal Vietnamese the ratio of Sinitic words can reach 50 percent; for newspapers it goes much higher (1982:32).

    In general, the share of Chinese-style words in these non-Chinese languages increases with formality and difficulty of content, which is to say, Sinitic terms dominate those environments where style and subject matter make them the least predictable. One would think that the emphasis would be on maintaining phonetic distinctions between these word forms, but the opposite is more nearly true. Since most of the terms refer to higher-level concepts, the expectation was they would be identified through writing, where phonetic characteristics matter less. Accordingly, there was less pressure to avoid homonyms and near homonyms. Another, more important reason for the homophony can be traced to the dynamics of borrowing. When a language “borrows” terms from another, it typically adapts the words’ sounds to its own phonology, which is never a perfect match. The borrowing language cannot add distinctions to the sounds of the terms it is borrowing, but it can and does ignore phonological distinctions that its own system is not equipped to handle. In the case of international Sinitic, this means dropping the tonal features that help distinguish one Chinese syllable from another.

    source: North Chides South for Dirtying Korean Tongue, Korea Times, December 18, 2005. This article also has an interesting anecdote about a North Korean general’s reaction to seeing “English” letters on a sign in the south.