[KS] romanization absolutism

Robert Ramsey ramsey at umd.edu
Thu Jun 2 18:58:14 EDT 2005

Dear colleagues,

Well, I swore I wouldn't get involved in the conversation this time, but 
there are a few things I can't help but add to what's been said about Yale 
Romanization.  (Sam Martin himself has not responded because he's no longer 
a member of the discussion group.)

    The first is a word about what Yale is supposed to be used for.  I think 
everyone on this list knows by now that Yale was never intended to replace 
or displace McR.  Martin created Yale Romanization as a linguistic tool; it 
was meant to maximize the transparency of Korean phonological and 
morphological structure, and for that it has never been equaled, much less 
surpassed.  For example, word spacing is used liberally to show junctures; 
and the /q/ (as in _hanqca_ 'Chinese characters' or _anq pang_ 'inner 
room'), which some on this list seem to have found upsetting, is used to 
show instances of a phonemic distinction ("glottalization", or 
"reinforcement") not always indicated in South Korean Hangul orthography. 
(But notice that the distinction Martin writes with a /q/ used to be 
indicated in North Korean orthography with an apostrophe.)  If you're 
writing tourist brochures or even historical treatises, fine: leave them 
out.  But if you're a linguist, or interested in linguistic matters, you 
have to have a representation of these distinctions.

    Now, some confusion has been caused by the fact that there are 
essentially two versions of Yale Romanization.  One is the narrow version 
used to represent the contemporary Seoul standard, and the other is a 
broader version, which, as Ross King and Gari Ledyard have pointed out, is 
necessary to represent (among other things) orthographic distinctions used 
before the 1933 Unification of Hangul Orthography.  Gari Ledyard prefers the 
broader version because, as he says, Yale otherwise loses its advantage in 
always enabling the restoration of the Hangul orthography.  Perhaps I 
shouldn't speak for Sam Martin, but I'm pretty sure he'd agree by now.

    The reason there are two versions of Yale is because of Martin's own 
research history.  The narrow version of Yale was created in the early 
1950s; Martin did not use it in his1951 _Language_ article on Korean 
phonemics, but he did in his famous 1954 monograph on Korean 
morphophonemics.  During this early period in Martin's career, the President 
of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, invited Martin to Seoul for consultation on 
orthographic reform, turning to an outsider for help with complex problems 
in Hangul(!) orthography, because Martin was then considered the West's 
foremost authority on Korean--even though he was still only thirty years 
old!  Martin's findings and recommendations were subsequently published, in 
1954, in leading Korean dailies in both Korean and English.  ("An open 
letter to the Minister of Education of the Republic of Korea [regarding 
orthographic reform]".  English version: _The Korea Times_ 1954:7-8, 9; 
Korean version: _Cosen Ilpo_ 1954:7-12.)   It's there in that letter that we 
find the formation of this first, narrow version of Yale Romanization.  This 
first version is also the one that appeared later in most of Martin's 
reference works, including his famous 1968 Korean-English dictionary, and it 
is still the one most commonly used.  (An outline of Martin's research 
history and a list of his published works can be found in the _Special Issue 
In Honor of Samuel E. Martin, Japanese Language and Literature_ 38:2 
(October 2004)--for those of you who might not know, by the way, Martin is 
as important a figure in the field of Japanese linguistics as he is in 

    The second, broader version of Yale finds expression in Martin's later 
works centered on historical research, especially those on the texts of the 
Middle Korean period (15th and 16th centuries).  Once Martin had expanded 
his research significantly into the philological records, he altered his 
Romanization system to reflect Hangul orthographic distinctions more 
directly.  His 1992 _A Reference Grammar of Korean_ is probably the most 
easily available reference work where you can find that system explained. 
What's important to note here is, as Ross King has pointed out, there is as 
yet no other Romanization system in common use for linguistic writings on 
the history of Korean.  Yale Romanization is used, for example, in all of 
Sohn Ho-min's books and articles, as well as in Lee and Ramsey's _The Korean 

    What I find most surprising about the new, South Korean 
government-sponsored Romanization is that it breaks the ties of 
correspondence to Hangul orthography, ties which the broader version of Yale 
shows most clearly.  Sure, charts have been produced showing how modern 
Hangul consonants and vowels can be mapped into the consonants and vowels of 
the government Romanization;  /e/ is written <eo>; /ey/ is <e>; and so on. 
But these orthographic decisions have left no way to reflect in a clear and 
structured way the phonological changes that the language has undergone, and 
that are known principally through the pre-1933 orthography.  How did that 
happen?   Why did the SK government decide to ignore Sejong's writing 
system?  Many of the discussions leading up to the construction of the 
system certainly included Korean linguists who had spent much of their 
careers researching the linguistic history of the language and obviously 
knew the difficulties the new Romanization would cause.  And so, though I do 
not personally know much about it, I suspect many dissenting and unhappy 
voices were heard along the way in these proceedings.

    In any event--and in conclusion--I'd like to ask the advocates of 
government Romanization on this discussion list to try and understand why 
many of us not only prefer to use Yale in our work; for us, there really is 
no choice.

    Robert Ramsey
    University of Maryland

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "jrpking" <jrpking at interchange.ubc.ca>
To: "Cedar Bough Blomberg" <umyang at gmail.com>; "Korean Studies Discussion 
List" <Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws>
Sent: Thursday, June 02, 2005 12:55 PM
Subject: [KS] romanization absolutism

> There are numerous problems with the points C. B. Blomberg raises, too 
> many to unpack. But here are a few reactions:
>> 1.  The majority of people who Romanize Korean words are native
>> speakers of Korean, not of English.  Therefore, a Romanization system
>> which works for them would seem to be most reasonable.
> Lots of different people romanize Korean for lots of different purposes. 
> Each constituency has different needs and purposes, and in ideal 
> circumstances, one romanization system would meet all needs (Japanese 
> comes close to this ideal -- in other words, pretty much any way you 
> romanize it, not much controversy). But with Korean, it is the nature of 
> the beast that different constituencies will need different systems, and 
> that one system will never satisfy all constituencies.
> For Korean citizens who need to romanize their names for passports and 
> other such purposes, by all means -- it's their business. But that doesn't 
> mean all the rest of us should just abandon other systems and flock to 
> whatever the ROK is doing lately.
>> 2.  The new system of the Korean gov't is, provided it does not change
>> again, the system of the Korean people
> Whoa. Did the Koreans vote on it? Does it have some set of vaunted 
> democratic credentials that I wasn't aware of? Do the Koreans have, say, 
> the same emotional attachments to it they do to hankul? Do they learn it 
> and practice it in school? Do they adhere to it in practice in a wide 
> range of contexts? And what of the DPRK system - is that just chopped 
> liver now?
>>and isn't it reasonable for
>> them to figure out how to Romanize their own language?
> Sure. But equally reasonable for the rest of us to figure out useful ways 
> to do it, too [what -- is the ability of analyze Korean linguistically and 
> devise transcription systems for it somehow genetic?], and use them if we 
> see fit and in contexts that are not subject to Korean law.
>> Why do Western
>> academics think they have the right to criticize the Korean
>> governments language policy?
> Academics in general -- whether Western or whatever -- have a right and 
> obligation to criticize whatever they think needs criticizing (a seniment 
> that most Korean students and academics would readily agree to, one 
> assumes). The question for me is: just because the ROK says 'x' do I as a 
> student of things Korean have to do 'y'?
> So, if the ROK government-approved Korean language textbooks for Korean 
> school children  use a particular grammatical term or grammatical 
> analysis, should I be following that in my Korean language teaching?
>> 3.  The absolutely most essential thing for Korean Romanization is
>> that it be set, fixed and stop changing.  The most effective way for
>> this to happen is for the Western academic community and every other
>> user/consumer of Romanized material to ---support--- the gov't
>> efforts.
> Absolutely (and send anybody who suggests otherwise to the firing squad or 
> the gulag!). Come on, all you Western academics, step into line!
>> 4.  Korean is hard to Romanize... there are no "everyone wins"
>> solutions to how to Romanize some syllables.
> All the more reason for different systems to just co-exist peacefully. 
> Maybe someday, when, for the first time ever, there is a unified 
> standardized set of language norms established for a unified Korea, and 
> that new Korea devises a more or less sensible romanization system, I 
> might follow it for certain, less technical purposes.
> But otherwise, McCune-Reischauer and Yale work for me, depending on wha 
> I'm doing, and I resent anybody -- ROK government or romanization 
> absolutists -- telling me otherwise.
> Cheers,
> --
> Ross King
> Associate Professor of Korean, University of British Columbia
> and
> Dean, Korean Language Village, Concordia Language Villages

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