[KS] Re: Romanization Update-3

John H. T. Harvey jharvey at nuri.net
Sat Dec 11 01:36:37 EST 1999

Dear Sang-oak:

    Thanks for announcing the next romanization hearing.  I'll try to be

    I must say I find it strange how the last meeting you reported on and
this one focus on bits and pieces of possible problems and possible
solutions to them, much the way the questionnaire did.  How in the world,
for example, can "eo" be discussed without "eu", or the question of the
legitimacy and practicality of diacritics in general. (Those protesting
against diacritics must be influenced by English. Every other Latin-alphabet
language uses them!)  How can "jj" be discussed without considering the
whole question of using the voiced Roman consonants for the lax
consonants -- except when they're final, when the same unvoiced Roman
consonants are used as for the aspirated initial consonants! "Sh" (either as
in M-R, before "wi" only, or as in the current system) is not all that bad
as a guide for foreigners, but "Sin" might not be so much worse than "Shin."
(Pinyin "Xin" would be better!)

    The real question is not so much whether the current systems has
drawbacks, or even whether some other system might be better, but whether
adopting any other system would be worth 1) the huge amount of money
required for making the changes on road signs, in guidebooks, and so forth,
2) the long period of confusion between two systems while those changes are
being made (which would undoubtedly last through the 2002 World Cup), and 3)
the probable division that would be created between the system coming into
use in Korea and the system (M-R) being used by foreign scholars,
governments, reference works, etc.  Notice that when the old MOE system was
adopted, it had almost no influence on the rest of the world.  I cannot
think of a single serious foreign work employing it between 1959 and 1984.

    For your information and amusement, I copy below a letter to the editor
or guest column I sent to the Korea Herald at the beginning of the week
which they have not published -- yet, at any rate.



To the Editor:

         I would not want Sean Witty's December 4th In My View column to be
taken as representing the views of foreigners in general or, in particular,
of foreign scholars concerned with Korea and its language.

         His liberal use of linguistic technical terms is doubtless intended
to give the impression of a sophisticated and well-grounded argument.
Actually, however, statements such as "the diacritic ['] is intended to
indicate that the sound is a lenis, naturally voiceless by definition, and
subject to aspiration at the beginnings of words" contain so many
terminological, conceptual, and factual errors that it would be tedious to
list them here.

         But let's cut to his main theme, which is "If the goal is to
eliminate the use of diacritics, then why not simply refrain from using
them?" The answer to that is plain to any reader of the Korea Herald, which
does exactly that. It is a "system" of romanization that makes it seem that
Korean, uniquely among the world's languages, has the same word for "foot"
and "arm" (both are written pal, although the initial consonant of the
latter is actually distinctively breathy, as is indicated by an apostrophe
in the current government system) and that Seoul's Subway Line No. 2 has two
stations with the same name (both written Shinchon, although the second
vowel of the one south of the river is actually distinctively less "o-like,"
as is indicated by a "half-moon" accent mark in the current government
system). Notice that I am avoiding both diacritics in this letter to the
Korea Herald.

         I hasten to add that the McCune-Reischauer system, on which the
current government system is based, undoubtedly chose the apostrophe for
aspirated consonants and the breve for unrounded, non-front, non-low vowels
partly because they would be ignored by many foreigners first encountering
the system as having no intuitive phonetic meaning, in which case the
"stripped" letters would still be at least suggestive of the sound values.
(For many English-speakers, of course, the breve on the vowels would be
helpful, having been encountered in English dictionaries for roughly similar
vowels.) But when editors do the stripping, they make it difficult for
foreigners to ever get beyond that first crude stage of pronunciation, and
on those who do they inflict constant frustration, annoyance, and
displeasure. All in all, the impression this "system" gives me, and, I
believe, many others, is of a lack of respect both for the language itself
and for those not born to it.

         In the current debate on romanization, the need to eliminate
"non-Roman letters and symbols" is often taken as self-evident. Strangely
enough, this is a need not felt by other users of the Latin alphabet. As the
University of Chicago's Chicago Manual of Style notes, "English is one of
the very few languages that can be set without accents, diacritics, or
special alphabetic characters ¡¦" French, German, Italian ?all are properly
written both with apostrophes and with accent marks. Outside the native
country, of course, these may not always be faithfully observed.  But the
Korea Herald is published in Korea.

         The argument Witty presents (based on his "macro-analysis of
languages that use the Latin alphabet"!) to the effect that the phonetic
vagueness of letters in other orthographies would justify it in Korean
romanization is breathtaking.

         In the first place, if you set aside English, there really isn't
that much vagueness.  There are, perhaps, unfamiliar sound values for some
letters (j = zh in French, = y in German, = h in Spanish, etc.) and strange
two-letter and three-letter spellings for single sounds (not to mention shch
in romanized Russian), but most variations in the ways letters are
pronounced in most writing systems are determined by context, and therefore
fairly learnable.

         In the second place, when that is not the case, as it notably isn't
in English ("to," "too," and "two" pronounced alike, "tough," "cough,"
"though," "through," and "bough" not rhyming), all the exceptions have to be
learned ? a painstaking, never-ending enterprise, as even native speakers of
English can testify. Most would-be citizens of the world have already put in
the effort to learn to read English (note, by the way, that the current
government system builds on this) and at least to approximate the
pronunciation of words in several world languages, some in their own
versions of the Latin alphabet (French, German, and Italian, for example)
and others in various romanization systems (Russian, Japanese, and Chinese,
for example). Expecting them to add Korean romanization, if their
involvement with Korea is more than reading an occasional article or making
a short visit on business or for pleasure, is one thing. Expecting them to
add a Korean romanization that is a mess of illogicalities, ambiguities, and
exceptions is quite another.

         I grant that there is a practical difficulty in using the breve
over o and u. Although recent TrueType fonts do offer breved vowels, they
are not all that easy to use, and many word processors, browsers, and
operating systems (I must admit I'm not sure which is the bottleneck) still
cannot handle them. My proposal, therefore, is to use the circumflex over
these vowels instead. Since it is required for French, any reasonably
competent system has to include it. MS Word and doubtless other programs
even offer keyboard shortcuts to all the common European accented letters.
Although the circumflex does not suggest the pronunciation, at least it does
not mislead the reader ? as the umlaut (o, u) used in AFKN's "Talk Tips"
can, for example.  And in emergencies you can use the caret (^), which is
right there on the keyboard, following the vowel.

         Keeping the present system unfortunately means keeping its
difficulty for native speakers of Korean. However, although it is true that
they do not normally notice the difference between k, t, p, and ch, on the
one hand, and their voiced allophones g, d, b, and j on the other, or
similarly between s and sh or r and l, the rules that they apply
subconsciously to make these differences are fairly simple and can be
learned in school, at home, or on the job. Even easier for native speakers
is learning to notice when one phoneme changes into another, as in the
famous tok + rip + mun = tongnimmun. As a matter of fact, this is how
Koreans used to write their language a few generations back. All this would,
of course, involve a greater exertion of effort than has been evident since
the system was officially adopted in 1984, but in a worthy cause, I
believe ? the cause of making Korean, and therefore Korea, as accessible as
possible to the world.

         By the way, if you are reading this, it means that, commendably
enough, the Korea Herald feeds the hand that bites it!


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