[KS] Romanization

Paul Shepherd paulmshepherd at hotmail.com
Tue Jun 30 08:18:51 EDT 2009

It may the case that neither MR nor 'current system which we shall not name' fits the job. I guess they are both hated.


What is clear though is that there needs to be a bit more flexibility built into the system. The current options are too rigid. It might make it marginally harder for Korean schoolchildren to learn a more flexible system. However, the current system is unworkable for the 'uninitiated' foreigner who has limited time (or interest) in learning Korean. I guess the point is that it is hardly 'business-friendly' or even 'name-card' friendly. There needs to be a 'close enough is good enough' approach. The uninitiated foreigner is never going to get the pronunciation of the common surname 서, which is written as either 'So', 'Seo' or 'Suh'. Likewise for 허선생님, who becomes Mr. 'Ho', 'Heo' or 'Huh"!


The problem is with the English language and alphabet, not the Korean language or Hangeul. (I remember reading in a Stephen Pinker book that 'fish' could be written 'ghoti' and still be phonetically correct!). I hope this issue is approached pragmatically and not simply with a 'Foreigners like MR, so let's use that one' approach. Perhaps they could put some/more of their experts in English phonetics on the next committee to help propose a new system.









Paul Shepherd
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> Date: Mon, 29 Jun 2009 23:12:24 -0400
> From: gkl1 at columbia.edu
> To: koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws
> Subject: Re: [KS] Romanization
> 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/
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >

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