[KS] Romanization systems

gkl1 at columbia.edu gkl1 at columbia.edu
Wed Jun 1 16:08:48 EDT 2005

I guess it's necessary to remind folks that the reason we have
romanization at all is to help people who do not know Korean, such
as foreign visitors to Korea who need to know the names of towns
and other information on highway signs, in hotels, etc., and to
make it convenient for scholars, journalists, novelists, etc., to
write about Korea in English. No one seriously believes that Korean
should be taught using romanization beyond perhaps the first two or
three lessons. That was absolutely not the intention of
McCune-Reischauer or Samuel Martin (who created Yale). Much less
helpful is the suggestion that people simply learn Hangul and be
weaned from romanization. We also see it opined in a posting that
the International Phonetic Alphabet, with all its diacritics and
special symbols, should be a single, universal romanization for all
languages. I'm afraid not. In recent days we've even seen
suggestions that the term "romanization" itself, as applied in any
non-Romance language, is a usurpatious affront. Those Romans were
terribly undiscriminating to let all those northerners use their
   Admittedly, Americans of English speech have pioneered the older
systems, and in most respects McC-R favors English phonetics. But
there's no law saying that McC-R must be international, and nations
or individuals who would be comfortable with systems that favor,
say, French, German, or Spanish, are certainly free to invent
methods comfortable for them. On the other hand, some scholars from
each of those countries have of their own volition used McC-R, even
when writing in their own langauges, and that's also their right.
   I'll turn now to the more sober and practical questions raised by
Stefan Ewing. He asks, 'Is it possible that the [McC-R] system has
"officially" changed since 1939, or is this [si/shwi] practice due
to a misconception?' McC-R, in use now for 66 years, has by its
sheer history earned something like the status of
"standard," but of course it has its problems and I'm sure people
will never stop trying to create something better. Fine. But it is
not an "official" system in the sense that some governing body
makes rules or revisions in them. The only rules are the ones that
McCune and Reischauer published in 1939. They made them in order to
be of help to us all. They were duly humble before the difficult
problems involved. They made no demands. Various people have
suggested more or less minor revisions and useful
refinements(notably and most competently, a group led by Sam Martin
and the late Robert Austerlitz, who conducted a romanization
workshop in 1980, the report of which was published in <Korean
Studies> (Hawaii), vol 4, pp 111-125). Although the senior status
of the scholars at that conclave gave them a certain authority,
they only made suggestions and recommendations. Nobody owns McC-R.
Its basic principles have been maintained and should be maintained,
but within that limitation flexibility in practice has been the rule
from the beginning. Thank heavens it is not an "official" system. On
the one hand, people are trusted to be free; on the other a sensible
and tolerant consensus prevails. Bureaucrats now control (or attempt
to) the system that committees appointed by Korean government
agencies have created. There's no one in the world that can say
they have no right to do this, but all the rest of us have the
right to accept or reject it on our own choice. As for the Yale
System, I suppose its creator Sam Martin could change its details
if he wanted to, but after many years it hasn't changed. I don't
think he would claim any "official" status for it.
   On the specific question of Mc-R <si> and <shwi> vs. <shi> and
<shwi>, there has also been much debate in the past. My own view is
that neither is ideal. Both si- and shi- are off the actual Korean
sound, at least in the mouths of most English speakers. But I don't
think the basic problem lies in s- or sh-. I think it lies with the
vowel -i-, which is highly fronted and palatalized. I would favor
<syi-> and <sywi->, adapting the vowel rather that the consonant.
I've championed this in earlier romanization debates without
attracting much if any support for the idea. Faced with that, my
practice, faute de mieux, is to stay with McC-R's awkward
<si->/shwi->. One might review the thread on this list in the
archive for April 1996. (There are also other extensive list
discussions on romanization during 1997 and 1999.)
   As for the Yale prescription that the vowel <wu> (the 7th vowel
in the Standard Korean order, <u> in Mc-R) following a labial
consonant (<m,p,pp,ph>) should drop the w-, that is indeed the
practice and it has not been changed. It would seem that this rule
erases the distinction between Yale's <wu> and <u> (the 7th and 9th
vowels in the Standard Korean order, <u> and <^u>) in Mc-R), but
Yale's point is that after these labial consonants there is in fact
no distinction in the spoken pronunciation, and Yale, on the
principle of simplicity, eliminates the w-. Phonemically that makes
perfect sense, but unfortunately the unification upsets Yale's
advantage in always enabling the restoration of the Hangul
orthography, one of its many virtues. My own view would be, in
cases where restorability of the original Hangul is a priority,
that one "violate" Yale's rule and stay with <wu> even after the
labial consonants. The original Middle Korean orthography wrote
words like <puk>, "north," using the 9th vowel symbol (McC-R <^u>,
and correctly so in terms of the historical Sino-Korean phonology.
This practice lasted pretty much down to the beginning of the 20th
century. During that period, as the "arae-a" gradually disappeared
as a discrete vowel, the <^u> vowel moved higher and came to be
confused with the 7th vowel symbol (<u>) after labials. The 1933
orthographic reform mandated spelling words analagous to <puk> with
the latter, and it has been so ever since.
   On the problem of <wi> and <yu> vs. <wuy> and <ywu>, I wasn't
aware of it. One can understand the rationalization, but for
general purposes I see no reason to change from the former.
   In addition to the useful discussion of romanization history and
issues in Austerlitz et al., 1980, cited above, one might refer to
an interesting little publication of the Royal Asiatic Society,
Korea Branch (Seoul), <Guide to Romanizing Korean>, compiled by
John Holstein and John Harvey, 1999. Those in Korea should find it
easily obtainable.

Gari Ledyard

Quoting Stefan Ewing <sa_ewing at hotmail.com>:

> Hi, everyone:
> In the absence of responses, I'll ask some specific questions
> that are still
> up in the air.  I would appreciate any and all replies that this
> esteemed
> crowd can provide.
> 1.  As I recall reading in McCune and Reischauer's 1939 RASKB
> paper, "s" is
> only to be written as "sh" before "wi."  Thus, "si," for example,
> should
> *not* be written as "shi."  The 1984 South Korean
> romanization--which is
> based on McCune-Reischauer--does however advise that not only "s"
> but also
> "ks," "ls," "ps," and "ss" should take an "h" before *both* "wi"
> *and* "i."
> (This rule apparently does not extend to "ya," "yae," "yo-breve,"
> "ye,"
> "yo," or "yu"; thus, "syop'ing" (shopping) should evidently be
> written as
> such and not as "shop'ing.")
> As a result of the 1984 system's influence, it appears that some
> believe M-R
> also advises writing "si" as "shi."  Is it possible that the
> system has
> "officially" changed since 1939, or is this practice due to a
> misconception?
> 2.  Samuel E. Martin's _Reference Grammar of Korean_ states that
> "wu" should
> be written as "u" after "m," "p," "pp," or "ph."  I can see the
> rule in
> front of me in the book with my own eyes, but can anyone confirm
> that this
> practice is adhered to?  (I suspect--without anything to back me
> up--that
> this practice is somehow related to something M & R wrote in
> their 1939
> paper, which mentions that around the time of the formation of
> the _Hangul
> Match'umbop_, there was a shift in Hangul orthography from, for
> example "p
> u-breve" to "p u.")
> Also, the same book states quite clearly what "wi" and "yu"
> should be
> written as such.  In a recent paper by the UNGEGN Working Group
> on
> Romanization Systems (a UN committee), however, these are written
> as "wuy"
> and "ywu" respectively.  Has the Yale system in fact changed, or
> would this
> have been a case of someone's not reading the rules very
> carefully, and
> assuming that these two vowels or vowel combinations should
> follow the same
> pattern as analogous vowels or vowel combinations (e.g., "ay,"
> "ya")?
> 3.  Improbably, the 2000 Revised Romanization of Korean makes
> absolutely no
> provision for the treatment of kyoppatch'im: the non-twinned
> double
> consonants ("ks," "nj," "nh," "lg," ..., "lh," "ps") that appear
> at the ends
> of some syllables.  Thus, I have only been able to make educated
> guesses on
> what the spelling of these should be in the medial and final
> positions in
> Revised Romanization, using the Revised Romanization
> transcription rules for
> other letters and McCune-Reischauer's rules for kyoppatch'im (and
> also
> following the Korean "final consonant rule" (patch'im kyuch'ik)).
>  I have
> put in a question to the National Academy of the Korean Language
> (they
> usually reply within a couple of days).  In the meantime, can
> anyone provide
> any insight on this matter?  (I have downloaded a program I found
> for
> converting Hangul to Revised Romanization, so I'll see if that
> answers my
> question.)
> Eagerly awaiting your replies,
> Stefan Ewing

More information about the Koreanstudies mailing list