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

14 thoughts on “Korean romanization — again

  1. First, a digression. The McCune-Reischauer system is fatally flawed: it requires diacritics to distinguish ‘? ?’ from ‘o u’, and diacritics (it is well known) will be mercilessly stripped from any and all texts edited by anglophones. Revised romanisation avoids this by using the astonishingly clumsy – I mean, clever – digraphs ‘eo’ and ‘eu’.

    More to the point, I think you’re being unfair to the critics of the revised system. Much of what is blatantly wrong here is on the surface – neither journalists nor politicians have much time to think before they speak – and I think the reformists have a point.

    The case for a romanisation that transliterates hangul well is tenuous – outside the walls of the ISO at least. Hangul is easily copied, with a pencil or by copy-paste. It is also fairly obvious that Koreans communicating with other Koreans have no need for a romanised form of their own language. Whatever the official romanisation is, the overwhelming majority of its uses will be targeted at short-term visitors, because anyone else will learn hangul.

    Assuming then that it will be read by people who haven’t studied a line of korean, it is reasonable to select a romanisation system based as much as possible on the traditional sound values of the latin letters, because that’s what users of the latin alphabet fall back on when no other information is available. For example, we expect ‘t p k’ and ‘d b g’ to mean unvoiced and voiced consonants, respectively, and ‘a e i o u’ to mean vowels that fall roughly within the scopes of IPA [a e i o u]. And we expect each letter to indicate a sound – again, until taught otherwise.

    In short, the more it deviates from ‘default’ latin, and the less phonemic it is, the less useful a romanisation aimed at non-pronouncers of Korean will be. These are valid considerations in the case at hand.

    (Of course, I don’t expect the politicians in charge to find a reasonable solution to their problem, just as I don’t expect them to believe in the existence of westerners who aren’t native english speakers. As for emerging countries’ attempts to nationalise english, I suppose they can only be lamented.)

  2. Romanizing Korean is made particularly difficult by the sound changes that occur in jamo depending on whether they are initials, finals, or medials, not to mention silent jamo and a superabundance of vowel sounds. I lived near Seoul for two-and-a-half years. By the time I left, I could read and pronounce Korean Hangul writing and be understood perfectly well. This is not bragging as Hangul is perhaps the easiest alphabet of all to learn. The point is, I never felt comfortable sticking to any one Romanization system because standardizing the rules for just about any conversion leads to exceptions down the line. Simply maddening.

  3. Ben L. nails it, due to the nature of Korean phonology, _any_ system is going to run into major problems for those who don’t understand the basics of how the Korean sound system works, while _any_ consistent system will be workable for those who understand Korean phonology.

    Actually the consonants of the current Korean system (warning: I know very little Korean) don’t bother me as much as the vowels, especially the ‘eu’ which is incredibly awkward for several reasons, not the least being that eu (unrounded back vowel) is far more common than plain ‘u’ [u].

    Among the main systems, I like the look of the MR system diacritics notwithstanding, while the Yale(?) system is the most faithful representation of the original spelling, though it is non-intuitive in places, especially in using e for [O].

    If the goal of the official romanization is to be easy for English speakers who have no intention of learning Korean, then o and ? (similarly e and ? and u and ?) don’t need to be distinguished and it would be possible to use the old English consonant with Italian vowel approach.

    Pyongyang, Gesong, Gumgang, Busan, Gobukson, Soul and gimchi

  4. English speakers who have no intention of learning Korean, then o and ? (similarly e and ? and u and ?) don’t need to be distinguished and…

    But if you do that, then the system is crippled and can’t reliably be converted into Korean (either sounds or writing). If you think it’s worth it to make a crippled and only marginally useful system just for the benefit of English speaking foreigners who don’t even want to learn the sounds in Korean, then why not just put up English translations instead of romanized Korean?

  5. “If you think it’s worth it to make a crippled and only marginally useful system just for the benefit of English speaking foreigners who don’t even want to learn the sounds in Korean”

    I don’t, but that’s what the Korean government seems interested in doing in making ‘accesible for English speakers’ the be all and end all of romanization.

    My personal ideal system would be similar to the current consonants, b,p and pp instead of p, p’ and pp and MR vowels and be more of a transliteration than a transcription, with spellings like (not using toponyms anymore but some sample inflected words)

    m?g?ss?pnida instead of meogeosseumnida
    issda instead of itta
    ilkda instead of iktta (or however they do it)

    Foreigners would have to learn something of Korean sounds and the sound system to make sense of it, but if they’re not willing to do that, then screw ’em (ymmv). And it would make adapting to hangul spelling (which is not purely phonemic but very morphophonemic) easier.

  6. Michael’s right to say “easier”. Beyond all the other sound changes, the one thing that makes Korean spelling (i.e. transcribing what you hear) almost as inscrutible as English is the final consonantal jamo. Briefly: possible final jamo are many but the sounds they make are few. The romanization system will either be unreadable or unwritable. Take your pick.

  7. And the assimilations, don’t forget those and the nasalization that’s not triggered by anything I can perceive, so that (what I’d write as) dokrip* (independence) gets pronounced something like dongnip, yikes!

    I like the idea of something that would make sense in written form to someone familiar with Korean spelling since a pure phonemic transcription will be awkard phonetically and vice versa.

    *yes, I’d tend to write some consonants differently depending on whether they’re initial or final in the syllable.

  8. … I started learning Korean, kind of by accident. I was researching HapKiDo and came across catcode.com (by J. David Eisenberg). There I learned the alphabet and its sounds in under two hours. I later learned the history of the Korean script and the creator’s intention of Hangeul was to be a simplistic language script anyone could learn, quickly.

    I then attempted to learn Romanji or Romanization. Argh. It was worse, much worse than learning Hangeul.

    I propose that a traveler from the U.S. learn Hangeul during the 14 hour flight to Seoul. It’s that simple.

    I agree with everything mentioned in the other posts. And so, my point is this; learn Hangeul and ignore the Romanization.

  9. The combination “eo” would not be recognized by English speakers as ?. I think they would have had a better chance with “oe”, or maybe native combinations like “aw.”

    Then what happens when you want to say “o-e” and not “oe”? (Same with “e-o” vs “eo”).

    I don’t think you can get rid of that problem, whatever combination you may choose.

  10. I think you may all find this interesting. This system would allow for a basically one to one correspondance between phonemes and graphemes, and does not use any non-european keyboard symbols.

    *First collumn represents IPA
    *Second collumn represents Hangul
    *Third collumn represents romanized Korean.
    *Fourth collumn represents how I think they should be romanized.

    /i/ ? (i) => y
    /?/ ? (ae) => i
    /e/ ? (e) => e
    /a/ ? (a) => @
    /o/ ? (o) => o
    /u/ ? (u) => w
    /?/ ? (eu) => u
    /?/ ? (eo) => a
    /ø/ ? (oe) => we (due to the younger speakers diphthongizing it to /we/)

    /m/ ? (m) => m
    /p/ ? (b,p) => b
    /p?/ ? (pp) => p
    /p?/ ? (p) => p’
    /n/ ? (n) => n
    /t/ ? (d,t) => d
    /t?/ ? (tt) => t
    /t?/ ? (t) => t’
    /s/ ? (s) => z
    /s?/ ? (ss) => s
    /l/ ? (l) => l
    /t?/ ? (j) => dj
    /t??/ ? (jj) => tc
    /t??/ ? (ch) => tc’
    /?/ ? (ng) => N
    /k/ ? (g,k) => g
    /k?/ ? (kk) => k
    /k?/ ? (k) => k’
    /h/ ? (h) => h

  11. Pingback: ?????? » ??? » ???????New Taipei City?

  12. After living in Korea for the past 2 years, I’ve found the romanization to be wonderful for multiple reasons. We now have an easy way to teach Korean children how to write their names and names of places in roman characters. Not only that, but as with any person from an English speaking country going to any country, they are going to butcher the pronunciation. I am fluent in German, a language roughly similar to English (compared) to Korean. It still amazes me how people just destroy German words, yet, they manage to travel around Germany with little problem. After being corrected a few times people adapt to spelling vs pronunciation. This is a simple way to do it without having to learn what accent marks go where. My father visited me for a month here in Korea. He speaks only English, and I mean ONLY English. He’s not at all a linguist. He managed to pronounce Korean place names within his first week here nearly perfectly looking at ONLY the romanization. Based on real world experience, I commend the Korean government on a job well done!

  13. “I wonder if romanized Korean is commonly but mistakenly referred to in Korea as “English.””

    This is true. Among Koreans, it is extremely common to say “How do you write your name in English?” when actually asking of the Latin-alphabet spelling of one’s name.
    In fact, Koreans generally don’t know (or never heard of) the terms “romanization” and “Latin alphabet”; they usually call the Latin alphabet “English.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *