[KS] The third comments on the Romanization of Korean surnames by Sang-Oak Lee

Charles Muller acmuller at l.u-tokyo.ac.jp
Wed Jul 10 21:49:38 EDT 2013

Sangoak Lee wrote:

> *7 Jul 2013, Koreanstudies Digest, Vol 121, Issue 15, Prof.
> Boudewijn Walraven*
> Recommendation rather than prescription would be my preference.
> *[/Korean government is in between these two but many people ask to
> prescribe it to avoid any rejection of entry among the same family
> members in the foreign airport because of different romaninzation/.] *

Yes, but leaving aside the issue of whether Koreans should be able 
to write their names as they like (which to me is so obvious, it 
needs no discussion), there still needs to be a clear orthographic 
principle as to how names should be transcribed when no preference 
has previously been expressed.

Once again, that's the reason I raised this query to begin with, but 
somehow it keeps getting dragged into the area of the latitude 
Koreans should have when rendering their own names. To me, that is 
somewhat of a non-issue, since it  seems obvious that Koreans should 
be able to romanize their own names as they like.

My concern arises when a first-tier Korean journal (such as Korean 
Studies) which is supposed to adhere to RR, authorizes the 
romanization of the name of a 15th century historical figure named 
이 as "Yi". "Yi" is the well-established MR form of romanization, 
and 이씨 is clearly no longer around to indicate his preference. 
Thus, what would be expressed in MR as "Yi Sŏnggye", should be 
rendered in RR as "I Seonggye".

It seems to me that in these third-person, objective cases where the 
historical personage has never indicated his or her own preference, 
then publications that declare themselves to be adhering to RR 
should either (1) adhere to it, or (2) offer a clear explanation in 
their style sheets, explaining why they do not adhere to it.

At the same time, scholars in Korea who work on the national 
standards committees (mainly people at SNU and AKS, as far as I can 
tell) should endeavor to make these rules more explicit, so that 
people who want to adopt the system can follow the rules precisely.

The argument that says "a romanization system is always a work in 
progress" doesn't work for me. Look at the clear articulation of 
rules for Pinyin laid out in the appendix of DeFrancis' "ABC 
Chinese-English Dictionary." Something like this needs to be done 
for RR. If it has been done, then Korean publications that claim to 
adhere to it should really do so.

In the end, of course, it is usually the case that foreigners end up 
becoming much more knowledgeable about the application of the 
romanization system than the locals. I run into very few Japanese 
who really understand Hepburn--even elite scholars. The same with 
Pinyin for most Chinese. I recently had a go-around with some people 
at the National Institute Korean Language regarding the hyphenation 
rules that they had published, and it was clear to me that the 
persons with whom I was in contact had little understanding of the 
actual application of the rules at all.

So I'm not asking for any big changes here. Just, if Korea-sponsored 
publications are going to use RR, or claim to use RR, they should 
really study it properly and use it. And if there are rules that 
need to be bent, then these should be documented, and taken up for 
discussion at the kinds of committees Sang-Oak Lee is involved with.




A. Charles Muller

University of Tokyo
Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, Faculty of Letters
Center for Evolving Humanities
7-3-1 Hongō, Bunkyō-ku
Tokyo 113-8654, Japan

Office: 03-5841-3735

Web Site: Resources for East Asian Language and Thought


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