[KS] Romanization

gkl1 at columbia.edu gkl1 at columbia.edu
Mon Jun 29 23:12:24 EDT 2009

     Many thanks to Brother Anthony for keeping us posted on the  
eternal Korean romanization problem. It seems that the appointment of  
a high-ranking politician, Kang Man-soo, to the chairmanship of the  
Presidential Committee on National Competiveness moves these issues  
from academic and cultural circles to political ones on a higher  
governmental level. Whether or not that is a good idea remains to be  
seen, but any attention to the Korean romanization problem is welcome  
given the ongoing confusion caused by two competing systems.

     Brother Anthony included a link to a Korea Times interview with  
Mr. Kang dated June 24, but if that article is any guide it would not  
appear that Kang is very well versed on the general romanization  
situation. Among various curious statements, it is said that the  
McCune-Reischauer system (hereafter MR) is used in English and many  
non-English-speaking countries (one might more accurately say by  
scholars in those countries), and that "North Korea uses it, also."  
That will be news to the world! In fairness, this statement is not  
directly attributed to Mr. Kang, and may be simply bad reporting by  
the KT reporter, Na Jeong-ju.

     Kang did say that South Korea is the only country that has a  
unique romanization system. Apparently he hasn’t heard about Pinyin in  
China, and that’s a shame, because he could learn much from the  
Chinese model insofar as promoting and educating its population in the  
use of a romanization system (even though that system was invented by  
a Russian linguist, Aleksandr Dragunov, back in the 1940s or 50s).

     The article states that the current Korean system, adopted in  
2000, "replaced the… MR system, which had been the romanization  
standard in Korea since its invention in 1937 by Americans George  
McCune and Edwin Reischauer." That should be 1939, but Korea didn’t  
officially favor MR until the run-up to the 1988 Olympics. The present  
Korean system was anticipated in many ways by the spellings encouraged  
by various ministries (Education, Culture, etc.) before 1988. One saw  
Korean use of MR very seldom before 1988.

     Kang says that "Hangul (KT spelling) scholars have claimed that  
that the MR system is inadequate for the 'globalization' of the Korean  
language, while most foreigners prefer the old system (presumably MR)  
over the current (Korean) one. (Parens added by GL) Well, yes. But the  
globalization of Korean may be overreaching a bit, and in any case  
what does North Korea have to say? Maybe someday such a goal will be  
achieved, but in the meantime we simply want some order in our  
scholarly work, library catalogues, internet uses, and reasonable  
understanding of public signs in Roman letters in Korea.

     In the KT article A spokesman for the Ministry of Culture,  
Sports, and Tourism is quoted saying, "Foreigners expect Korea's  
romanization system to serve their needs first. They claim that Korean  
linguists 'Koreanized' the romanization. Korean scholars, however, say  
the current one helps non-Koreans speak Korean words more like Koreans  
than did the MR system." Yes again. But apart from foreigners who have  
studied the language, most will neither know Korean nor ever study it.  
Koreans obviously speak their language with native perfection and do  
so without the benefit of romanization. And obviously, when Korean  
spokespeople in that ministry read their own romanization, they will  
pronounce the words perfectly! But the problem is, will foreigners?
      It was not the Korean linguists who "Koreanized" the  
romanization. They did the best they could given a set of linguistic  
circumstances that make perfection impossible, and apparently the  
agenda ruled out any use of diacritics. It was the Korean government  
that "Koreanized" the process whereby the "correct" romanization would  
be determined. It was clear from the beginning that the result would  
come from an exclusively Korean committee (in spite of one or two  
members who worked hard to present foreign input to their colleagues).  
Surely the implicit order was "replace MR."

     One thing that I found especially interesting is that Kang  
indicated that the present administration prefers MR, which he  
referred to as "the old method," i.e. MR from 1987 to 2000. Signalling  
a favored outcome, even in this kind of vague language, makes one  
wonder if this might be one more example of the present government’s  
desire to undo as much as possible of the two previous presidents'  
policies. I hope that's not the case. If MR is restored, I would hope  
it would be because of its merits.

     There are really only two or three problems areas. The first  
concerns how to distinguish in a romanization system the Korean  
voiceless initials: Should it be MR's k and k', t and t', p and p', ch  
and ch'?  Or g and k, d and t, b and p, and j and ch in the current  
Korean system? If one follows MR, the average Western foreigner will  
probably aspirate the first sound in each of the four pairs too much  
and the second sound not enough, if indeed s/he distinguishes the two  
sounds at all. So it seems to many Koreans. If one follows the current  
Korean system, the average Western foreigner will pronounce g, d, b,  
and j as voiced consonants, when in fact as word-initial consonants   
they are voiceless. You would get Gim for Kim and Bak ("bock"), etc.  
One finds very few Kims or Kangs willing to spell their surname with a  
G-. Indeed, some foreigners could even interpret Gim as if it were  
"gym," and pronounce it as such, while Mr. Kang would be embarrassed  
to be associated with "Gang," which just about all Americans and  
British would see the gang og gangsters. So does one choose k and k’  
or g and k? Either choice involves inaccurate pronunciation. One has  
to choose one or the other, and neither really does the job right.

     The second big problem is the contrast between the two "o" vowels  
and the two "u" vowels. MR chooses a diacritic (which I write here  
with the diacritic ^ since the MR diacritic is not on the  
international ASCI list and would not come through in this message),  
writing môlta "to be far" in contrast to molta "to drive," or tûl,  
"plain" (as in where it rains) in contrast to tul, "two."  The current  
Korean system handles this distinction as eo contrasting with o, and  
eu contrasting with u. Using the same examples, we come up with  
meolda, contrasting with molda and teul contrasting with tul. Both do  
the job, but the first requires a diacritic, which is anathema to  
some, and the second involves issues with the combinations –eo- and  
–eu-, which really throw average Westerners into perplexity. Faced  
with beon, “an identifying number,” you might get something like  
"beyon"(d) of or "be un"-flinching). Hardly anyone would guess it’s  
and unrounded "bon." As with the voiceless initials above, either  
choice comes with problems and exacts a sacrifice.

     The third problem is the consonantal sandhi for which Korean is  
famous if not notorious. The Korean letters for MR k, t, p, and ch are  
pronounced voiceless in initial position but as voiced g, d, b, and j  
when occurring between two vowels or before or after a voiced sonorant  
such as m, n, or ng. MR recognizes this difference and spells  
accordingly. This problem is not as great as in the current Korean  
system as the two issues already explored, and indeed the system makes  
some accomodations here. But when the initial k (t, p, ch) and the g  
(d, b, j) occuring in the middle of the word are pronounced in the  
same way, one’s pronunciation will be flawed

     There are a few other issues, but if these three could be  
satisfactorily solved, we could honestly declare victory and have a  
banquet. But in fact there is no way to solve them to universal  
satisfaction without changing the phonology of English and various  
other European languages, or changing the phonology of Korean.

     There is one way, but most consider it impractical: to use the  
Yale system invented by Samuel Martin. It is the technical system used  
in linguistic research and in Martin, Lee, and Chang's fabulous  
dictionary (1967, 1973). The mandates of that system are really no  
worse than the mandates of the Pinyin system for Chinese, which  
involve readings for a number of letters that go against the common  
conventions of English and other European languages. While it would be  
an ideal solution in theory, it would cause much grumbling in  
practice. Still, if Kang Man-soo's (his romanization) committee were  
to accept the Yale system as the official Korean system, I would use  
it in my own work. But I’m afraid the general public would have big  
problems with it.

     This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the  
McCune-Reischauer system. One might even say that it marks the  
beginning of Korean Studies in America (though it was invented and  
published in Korea). What other artifact of Western Korean Studies has  
lasted that long without change? For the forseeable future I’ll stick  
with it.

Gari Ledyard

Quoting Brother Anthony <ansonjae at sogang.ac.kr>:

> For the latest news about the Romanization question list members   
> might find today's Korea Times report interesting
> http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2009/06/113_47389.html
> Brother Anthony
> Sogang University, Seoul
> http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/

More information about the Koreanstudies mailing list