[KS] Romanization

Gari Keith Ledyard gkl1 at columbia.edu
Tue Nov 30 19:40:58 EST 1999

	I notice that very few people who participated in the 1997
romanization discussion have chimed in this time.  So far I've kept silent
because on substantial points there is really nothing new in the current
discussion, either in the problem posed to us by NAKL or in the generally
hostile reaction outside Korea.  I have found that the arguments I believe
in have found plenty of articulate advocates, and I have been reading them
with interest and (usually) approval.  But the fact is that, now as then,
there is really nothing that we can do, as a community of foreigners or
foreign residents in Korean Studies to affect Korea's actions one way or
the other.  Korea does not have much regard for our opinion.  After 45
years in Korean Studies, and a near life-long fondness for the country and
its people (which, just the same, will continue), this hurts.  But, with
regret, I'm resigned to whatever happens.
	I believe the new proposals will inevitably fail, and in so doing
embarrass Korea and Koreans.  Foreigners will be thwarted in their desire
(and many have such a desire) to pronounce Korean names and words as
accurately as possible. The only way that the new spellings will result in
reasonably good approximations of Korean sounds is, as Ross King says, to
learn Korean itself, just as the only people who can read Pinyin Chinese
correctly are those who have formally studied Mandarin/Hanyu (not that
Wade-Giles permitted much more accurate readings, as has been erroneously
suggested). There is something to be said for as many people learning
Korean as possible, but for numerous well-meaning and sincere western
individuals, this is surely a most unreasonable requirement.
	While it is a truism that romanization in its very essence is for
foreigners, it is also a truism that in most cases in the practical world
it will be Koreans who have to do the romanizing for them.  And there is
much justice in what has been said, by Otfried Cheong and others, of the
honest confusion Koreans have in manipulating the McCune-Reischauer
system.  I understand their instinctive aversion to voiceless k, t, p,
etc., for the unaspirated voiceless Korean stops, their inability to find
the gate they all know in "Tongnimmun," and numerous other obstacles.  
But one wishes that they would make some effort to understand the
phonological complexities of their own language that are at the root of
these confusions.  Korean is not the same as Chinese or Japanese, which
have relatively simple and transparent phonologies that readily meet
(almost) the ideal of "one sound, one letter."  Yet the Chinese and
Japanese both teach romanization in their schools, while Korea does not.  
If there had been such education and orientation over the years, many of
the confusions that clearly trouble Koreans would not exist or would at
least be less of a problem.  (On the other hand, the more I contemplate
the NAKL scheme, the more affectionate I feel toward the maUmdaero anarchy
in spelling personal names that HAS come out of the schools, even if only
informally.  MaUmdaero romanization may not always be regular or pretty,
but its innocent and honest efforts have a kind of subversive, even
minjungian, legitimacy to them.)
	In the future in my publications and formal writings, I will go on
using the Mc-Cune Reischauer system, which in this year of troubles is
quietly celebrating its hwan'gap.  On the computer I began some years ago
to keep my notes in Martin's Yale romanization, which works perfectly for
avoiding diacritics and retranscribing into Han'gUl.  And when I use
Arae-A Han'gUl I will continue to use the "Han'gUl Romaja" keyboard code,
which really IS a one-to-one transcription system, unlike the false
claimants now calling to us from NAKL.  I can type Korean with this, I
find, at just about the same speed that average Koreans do using either
the tubOlsik or sebOlsik systems without having to learn a new keyboard
configuration.  (Incidentally, I may take some credit for this system,
which I suggested to the developer of the now defunct "PC Hangul"
software, who in the 1980s had based his company in New Jersey. He was
bought out by a Korean company years ago, and to my surprise and
astonishment my creatures ended up on my screen again when I installed
Arae-A.)  All of these are sound systems which serve reasonably well the
needs for which they were developed.  None of them needs replacing, all
have merit and have been fully proven after years of use.

	On the other hand, I am not rushing to join a sign-up list for any
grandiose proclamations pledging continuing loyalty to McCune-Reischauer
and Yale whatever Seoul does or insists.  I will of course continue to use
these systems for the reasons I just stated, but as an individual, not as
a collective public declaration of war against Seoul's bureaucrats.  
There already is too much animosity, mistrust, and suspicion between
Koreans and Americans on this matter.  Koreans who might support our
arguments in behalf of our own long-established habits could well take
offense at such posturing, and I certainly don't want to lose any Korean
friends over such a thing.  Koreans opposed to our habits will only be
steeled to further resistance to them, and give up even the small
reservoir of good will that remains.  Nobody needs this.  Korea does what
Korea does for Korea's reasons.  We in the international Korean Studies
community do what we have to do.  We all should do what we do as
individuals and for principled reasons, which may differ from one of us to
the other.  If between Korea and not-Korea our ways must differ, let it be
without rancor, and with as many kindnesses and smiles as we can muster.

Gari Ledyard
King Sejong Professor of Korean Studies
Columbia University in the City of New York


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