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April 15, 2012

Why I Don't Like Korean Romanization

Korean Romanization is the spelling out of Korean words using the English alphabet. Here are three reasons why I don’t like Korean Romanization:

1). There are too many Korean Romanization systems.

tall stack of booksWikipedia lists six widely used Korean Romanization systems! I recently purchased a Korean/English dictionary which was not satisfied with any of them, and made up yet another system of its own. They are all different, and you can’t always tell which one you are looking at when you view a Romanized word. This is a real problem in online searches, and in trying to look up Korean words you have heard but not seen. Most importantly…

2). The systems are arbitrary and unintuitive.

Take the Korean vowelㅓ, for example. Several systems Romanize it as eo. Eo is a vowel combination that doesn’t occur all that often in English, and when it does, it may represent two separate one-vowel syllables (as in stereo). However, in Korean, it is a one-syllable sound, pronounced aw (as in lawyer) or uh (as in huh?). Do you get that from “eo”? Of course not!

Another example: the word 피 (blood) is pronounced like the English word “pee,” slice of a piebut is usually Romanized as “pi,” despite the fact that pi is an actual English word which is pronounced “pie,” not “pee.” So you can see how Romanization is problematic, even with sounds that can be accurately represented in English. But that’s not the only problem…

3). Some Korean sounds just don’t translate.

Korean includes a number of sounds that are halfway between two English letters, such as ㄹ(l/r), ㄴ(sometimes n, sometimes d), and ㅁ(m/b). Hangul (also Romanized as “Hangeul”) is an easy to learn and perfectly good alphabet to represent Korean sounds, being as how it was created to do just that. Romanization can actually impede students of the language by forcing a convoluted process of running Korean words through the English alphabet in your brain before (mis)pronouncing them.

Now I do understand that not everyone wants to learn Korean. Off-the-cuff phonetic spelling of a word you have heard is a natural and reasonable way of trying to identify it. Most of the time, people who are fluent in Korean (and English) will be able to figure out what you mean.

However, if you have the remotest interest in learning Korean, free yourself of Romanization as soon as you can. person throwing trash in garbage can Print out a Hangul alphabet chart, and play some online flashcard games to learn the Hangul alphabet. It only has 24 letters – you can do it! Enable Hangul on your computer so that you can see and type Hangul characters. When you use Korean words in posts and emails, type them in Korean instead of Romanization.

If you have access to Korean TV, watch the 뉴스 (news) and practice sounding out the ticker tape one-liners. You won’t know what the words mean at first, but it will improve your reading speed. Koreans love to splash comments across the screen on game and talk shows, so you may want to record these types of programs so you can pause and translate. Also, many music programs caption song lyrics in Hangul. Seeing the Hangul flashing on the screen as you hear the words sung is a great way to forge new associations between Korean sounds and Korean letters in your brain.

7 comments to Why I Don’t Like Korean Romanization

  • Dan

    Surprise: several Koreans have told me that they use English spelling to write names. I couldn’t have guessed: Lee has an inaudible “L” because of Chinese etymology. The “u” in Samsung is pronounced like “song”. And the Woori bank has no “w” sound. One would think that they want to confuse foreigners and that there are no rules for this. Indeed my wife was first asked how to romanize her name when she applied for a passport – she had never given it any thought.

    However there are three formal systems for rendering Korean in latin letters. Yale is a rather confusing one and no longer used outside of academia. McCune-Reischauer (henceforth: MR), official in the north, is named after the linguist and the scholar with profound knowledge of east asia, who together conceived it. The revised romanization (henceforth: RR), official in the south, is supposedly based on the former, but differs so strongly that it is essentially a system of its own.

    As the saying goes “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. So is MR broken? There are two extreme positions one can take when transcribing a language: Either you try to render the inherent system of the language. The complex phonology of Korean is not even fully served by Hangŭl, which needs many extra rules to accomodate all the complex changes in pronunciation. MR doesn’t even try. The other possible aim is to render the pronunciation, a goal that MR succeeds well. Once you learn it, which is not too hard, you can manage a decent enough Korean pronunciation.

    I hear a rumour that RR was created because of dislike for diacritics. That would be ridiculous, because almost all languages written with latin letters use them abundantly (French: çéê蜅, German äöüß, Polish: ćęłż…, Romanian: ăâșț…, Esperanto: ĉĝĵŭ…). The two notable exceptions are Latin, for which the alphabet was made, and thus fits nicely. The other is English, which, as a result of randomly writing 46 phonemes with 26 letters, has one of the most chaotic spellings around (e.g. “ough” has nine different pronunciations).

    But more importantly: diacritics are part of the genius of Hangŭl: ㄷㅌ, ㄱㅋ, ㅅㅈㅊ, ㅣㅏㅑ. So it would seem a hommage to King Sejong and a natural choice to use them to transcribe Korean.

    Of the two philosophies mentioned above, RR follows neither. Some transcriptions are completely different from Hangŭl, rendering the pronunciation, e.g. Hallyu or hamnida. Others moderately follow Hangŭl, like sijang, where you must know that “s” before “i” is “sh”. For example RR’s spelling of the name itself could be decomposed four ways, to totally different pronunciations: Han-geul 한글, Han-ge-ul 한게울, Hang-eul 항을, Hang-e-ul 항에울. Such an arbitrary system is just rubbish!

    Noone gets it right. Even from one road sign to the next, the RR transliteration may vary. Koreans are not aqcainted enough with romanization, after all, Hangŭl serves them better. And foreigners, once they start to grasp the phonetics, already know so much Korean that romanization becomes a burden.

    • Mihansa

      I share your dislike of RR, though the (South) Korean government is very insistent that it is the only correct system. I suspect this is more of a political stand than a linguistic one. North Korea has made much of their rejection of hanja, the Chinese characters that were formerly used to write in Korea. So the fact that they still use a western-derived Romanization system, while South Korea uses a KOREAN-authored system scores points for the ROK in a “more Korean than thou” competition.

      While the superiority of Korean authorship for anything pertaining to Korean language would seem on the face of it to be a reasonable position, Romanization is for the benefit of English speakers, and I would argue that Korean-Koreans may not be the best judge of how to most intuitively represent sounds in Roman letters (though I must hasten to say that I have met many, many Korean-Americans who were born in Korea and lived there into adulthood, who speak English like it’s their native tongue). However, I’m not a fan of systems, wherever they are authored, that require diacritics, or any other special knowledge. It’s perfectly possible and a lot more accessible to use everyday English. Phoneticizing on a per-word basis might be more laborious, but it also produces better results than any system.

      There’s a weird ambivalence about English in Korea. It has a cool factor which is often at odds with Korean nationalism. There are English signs all over the place, Kpop bands and singers use English names, and English as a core subject in primary and secondary education, though recently controversial, is ongoing, despite the fact that most Koreans never use it. There’s some serious haziness about the goal of all this tutelage. Although far better results are documented with native English-speaking English teachers, most Koreans say they are more comfortable with Korean teachers. So it’s no surprise that while many Koreans can read a little English, most cannot understand or express themselves in spoken English. Even fluent Koreans make startling errors sometimes (Arirang Radio’s newscaster, for example, persists in pronouncing “martyrs” as a three-syllable word something like “mur-teer-ers” which comes across sounding disturbingly and inappropriately like “murderers”).

      Re: Samsung (삼성), ㅓ can be pronounced uh or aw, depending on what part of the country you are from, so both “sung” and “song” are correct. Americans can’t really complain about that. We have our own regional variations that can be pretty extreme. And English from countries outside the U.S. can be so different that it isn’t initially intelligible (it took me days to adjust to the differences in vowel pronunciation of some New Zealand houseguests, for example. Then I found myself in the bizarre situation of translating their English to other English-speakers!).

      Diphthongs notwithstanding, single vowels in Hangeul are pretty consistent, which makes correctly pronouncing words the first time you read them much easier than it would be in English. However, guessing at the spelling of heard words is a little more difficult, given similar vowels like ㅐ and ㅔ, and variations in pronunciation.

      Romanization might be useful for business travelers making a brief visit, who have no ongoing interest in Korea, and are unlikely to visit again. For anyone else, learning Hangeul just isn’t that hard, and makes far more sense.

  • Dan

    Thanks for your insight! As for diacritics, if you grew up without, you can be pardoned for considering the English mess a solution. But once you know (mostly) consistent systems like Spanish, Italian, Romanian or Esperanto, or fairly regular ones like French or German, you’d reconsider.

    The other choice is whether to have one system targeted towards Korean, or a plethora for the speakers of every language. Even if a solution were found based on English, it would often leave non-native speakers at a loss.

    • Mihansa

      You raise a good point – that Romanization isn’t only used by English-speakers. Which makes the case for learning Hangeul instead of Romanization even stronger. If Korean grade school kids can manage it…

      As for English and messes, I’m profoundly grateful it is my native language. With its diabolical inconsistencies, learning English as a second language would be a torture. I am mystified that it’s become an international business language. Wouldn’t Spanish make so much more sense?

  • Zyla

    I use for things I need to remember/learn. It is available on google play for phones. There are many languages available through shared decks and you may make your own deck as well. It uses spaced repetition. There are Hangul decks that have audio, pictures and writing practice. If you prefer not to use Romanization, edit the deck by deleting the Romanization on each card. The decks you create can also be shared.

  • knightmadge

    Didn’t know if this had went through so I reposted it:

    I use for things I need to remember/learn. It is available on google play for phones. There are many languages available through shared decks and you may make your own deck as well. It uses spaced repetition. There are Hangul decks that have audio, pictures and writing practice. If you prefer not to use Romanization, edit the deck by deleting the Romanization on each card. The decks you create can also be shared.

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