[KS] Re: Perfect Hangul?

Ross King jrpking at unixg.ubc.ca
Tue Nov 30 12:11:49 EST 1999

C. E. Williamson wrote:

>Just a bit of criticism on the subject.  For those who laud Hangul's
>efficiency and perfectness, I submit that ...

I'm sorry if my remark about Koreans having a 'perfectly good alphabet like
hangul' was misinterpreted as meaning that I actually believe, as most
Koreans seem to, that hangul is a perfect, 'phonetic' script, etc. But it's
still about as close a fit as one can get with writing systems and the
languages they represent...

But that was not my point. In any case, I am delighted that my overly
caustic two cents' worth generated so much interesting discussion. I
especially appreciated Otfried Cheong's thoughtful comments, and would like
to take this chance to put some more spin on my original posting.

>Yes, M-R works well for publications in Korean studies, but it has been an
>abysmal failure in Korea.

Agreed. But where we differ, perhaps, is in our assessment of the chances
of NAKL, or anybody, coming up with something which will be significantly

> Koreans are in dire need of a transliteration scheme that
>works for their purposes

Agreed. Where I have trouble with what they are doing is the notion,
whether implicit or explicit, that the rest of the world should just roll
over and go along with it (especially since they haven't bothered to
consult widely), or that one system will somehow satisfy all clienteles and
needs. Korean phonology just won't allow it.

> If the government of Korea designs a
>transliteration scheme, it does so for the benefit of the Korean
>people. Whether or not the same scheme can be used by scholars in
>Korean studies is rather irrelevant.

Not if the next step (as it surely inevitable will be), is for Korean
government foundations to require that all foreigners benefitting from
their funding or publishing in journals funded by them use the new
romanization. (!)

>Linguists, for instance, still stick to the
>Yale system.

No kidding -- and it does everything that NAKL wants its new system to do,
only better. Talk about reinventing the wheel.

>If scholars can't even agree on a system among
>themselves, why do they expect Koreans to look to them for the answer?

But I think the point is that there *is* a broad concensus about
romanization, and the need for two different types thereof (depending on
constituency), in the non-Korean scholarly community. I certainly *don't*
think anybody is expecting the Koreans to come to the foreign scholarly
community for answers.

>Foreigners dealing with Koreans certainly deserve to be heard, but in
>the end they'll fare better with a system that Koreans use properly
>than with a more "foreigner-friendly" system that Koreans don't
>understand and therefore don't use.

I'm afraid this doesn't compute for me.

>The proposed system has been called foreigner-unfriendly.  The only
>argument in favor of this claim seems to be the use of EO and EU.

This misses the point (already made very well by John Harvey, I think,
among others): the system under debate requires the user to know Korean --
that's not foreigner-unfriendly?

>Contrarily, I think it must have taken a brilliant and courageous mind
>to come up with the proposed solution.

There is little that is brilliant, courageous, or original in the NAKL
proposal. It is ground that has been gone over and over again a thousand
times. I've already mentioned that Yale does everything it wants, and Yale
has been around for nearly 50 years.

But the deja vu gets worse. When a number of Soviet Korean intellectuals in
the early 1930s proposed to "Latinize" Korean in the Russian Far East at
the same time that virtually all languages in the USSR were adopting
Latinized scripts, numerous plans were proposed and fascinating debate
informed the project. Some of the ideas proposed then (unknown, of course,
to our colleagues at NAKL), bear revisiting now, and surpass the thinking
of NAKL in many respects. For starters, the Soviet Korean Latinizers took
'internationalization', not 'Koreanization', as their guiding motto.
Whatever happened to 'globalization'? And the stakes were much higher for
the Soviet Koreans, for their plan was to *replace* hangul with Latinized
writing altogether (the Pinyin analogy now starts to look better).

(That this movement failed in the Russian Far East owes much to the
perception then that Korean orthography could not divorce itself from
Chinese characters, meaning, in effect, that hantcha saved the day for
han'gul, but that is another story relevant to a different
orthographico-political dispute in Korea today.)

>I have little sympathy with the way in which the new proposal has been
>made public, the non-involvement of foreigners or Korean scholars, the
>amateurish questionnaire, or the completely unnecessary attempt to
>push it through on the nationalist ticket.

These are the primary motivation for using the words "fiasco" and "farce".

>Yet the proposed system
>itself if far from being a "fiasco perpetrated by zealous, nationalist
>language bureaucrats".

Fair enough -- but it really is 'been there, done that; deja vu'; at the
end of the day we'll still have more than one system in use. If the Koreans
want to use their new system for their purposes, let them -- clearly it is
their business. But to suggest that the rest of us should go along with it
seems as naive as it is impractical.

Ross King
Associate Professor of Korean
University of British Columbia


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