[KS] Romanization of Korean surnames by Sang-Oak Lee

gkl1 at columbia.edu gkl1 at columbia.edu
Thu Jul 11 23:53:26 EDT 2013

   There is a lot of sense in Chuck Muller's comments on the  
romanization issue, and I agree with just about everything he has said.

   But solutions are hard to find given the real problem: the  
complexity of the Korean language itself. Chinese and Japanese are  
languages for which romanization rules can be straight forward and  
easily understood. In Korean, the relatively large number of discrete  
vowel phonemes, three separate classes of voiceless consonants, and  
complicated consonantal sandhi rules make understanding difficult for  
folks who have had no linguistic training. And even those who  
understand the issues very well have great difficulty devising the
romanization solutions that are called for. The McCune-Reischauer  
romanization is the only one that has seriously tackled the problem,  
but it left us with the paradox of a solution that just magnified the  
confusion for the Koreans, most of whom can not understand why there  
needs to be more than one equation for some of the Hangul letters:  
they know the rules instinctively, that is, without without being  
aware that they know them. The great majority of them find McR's  
rational solutions baffling. I see no way out of this situation.

   I feel bad for all the librarians, whose work serves us all and who  
work hard to get things right. Korean romanization is an especially  
challenging problem for them.

   As for consistency in romanizing distinctive surnames, the present  
project seems to have proposed to do so only for 60-odd surnames. But  
the household census of 1985, carried out in South Korea by the Office  
of Surveys and Statistics in the Economic Planning Ministry lists 230  
distinct Korean surnames. There are 44 additional surnames which each  
have less than 100 individual bearers. All together, that's 274  
surnames known in South Korea as of 1985.* The
statistical listing is arranged from the most common names to the most
obscure. The listing from the largest surname population to the
smallest, and has a distinct provincial/major city breakdown.

*See 1985年 人口및住宅 센서스:姓氏및本貫 集計結果 報告, 經濟企劃院 調査統計局, published in December, 1987.

   So only roughly 25% of Korean surnames are up for distinctive  
spellings. If they're going to do it why for only 25%? What are they  

Gari Ledyard

Quoting Charles Muller <acmuller at l.u-tokyo.ac.jp>:

> 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 Songgye", 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.
> Regards,
> Chuck
> -- 
> -------------------
> A. Charles Muller
> University of Tokyo
> Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, Faculty of Letters
> Center for Evolving Humanities
> 7-3-1 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku
> Tokyo 113-8654, Japan
> Office: 03-5841-3735
> Web Site: Resources for East Asian Language and Thought
> http://www.acmuller.net
> <acmuller[at]l.u-tokyo.ac.jp>

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