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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Could a simple 'C' ease tensions?

Jan 17,2003
The year-end holiday season must have been extremely boring in Pyeongyang. On the day after Christmas, while those of us down here in the South who celebrate the holiday were munching on yummy leftovers, trying out our new gifts or perhaps recovering from a hangover, scholars in North Korea were gathered at an academic forum. According to reports heard on the North's Central Broadcasting Station, they adopted a motion calling on South Korean scholars to join them at a follow-up conference to be held either in North Korea or in a third country.

It is only natural that they would put aside holiday frivolities to offer whatever expert advice they could that might help solve the current international crisis. Well, these were not experts in weapons of mass destruction or politics or diplomacy; these were historians and linguists, and the issue they were discussing was the spelling of "Korea." It seems they want the South to join them in lobbying the English-speaking world to spell "Korea" with a "C." They say the "K" spelling was the doing of the Japanese, who did not want Korea to precede them in alphabetical order.

Actually, the spelling "Corea" was once the more common spelling in English and is still used in such Romance languages as Italian and Spanish. Even as late as the 1940s, one could run across an occasional atlas or history book that gave "Corea."

If you were here this past June during the World Cup, you probably noticed that many of the red-clad fans of the Korean national team wore tee-shirts or carried banners with the spelling "Corea" prominently displayed. So I know I risk getting flamed to a crisp when I say that to me the "K" spelling seems more appropriate to the genius of the English language. Although English has borrowed profusely from Latin, French, Greek, and other languages, it is still fundamentally a Germanic language, and in Germanic languages, ""K" is the letter of choice for the sound we hear in the name "Korea."

In fact, virtually all languages that are written with the Latin alphabet use "K" for this sound except those languages derived directly from Latin itself. Look at Turkish or Hungarian or Maltese, for instance. "K" is a letter you can trust. You see a "K" in one of these languages and you know it's pronounced "K" without even having studied the language. But "C" cannot be trusted. In Turkish it sounds like a "j"; in Hungarian it gives "ts"; and in Maltese it's "tch," as in "itch." In English, "C" is involved in "chicanery," "cello," "licorice," and "Mackinac."

"C" has always been a rather shifty character. It is derived from the Greek letter gamma, and so you'd think it would be pronounced like a hard "g." But it came into Latin via the Etruscan language, and for the Etruscans, the "k" sound and the "g" sound were just variants that made no difference in meaning. For the people of Latium, however, the difference was crucial, so it just would not do to use the same letter for both sounds. They did have the letter "K," so you'd think some smart fellow would have said, "Hey, let's go back to using the Greek gamma sound for 'C' since we have this 'K' lying around pretty much unused." But no. For some reason they chose to let "K" lie fallow and they invented a new gamma by adding a stroke to "C," creating "G."

To confuse things even more, later on in Latin, the pronunciation of "C" softened to an "s" or "ch" sound before "I" or "E" but stayed hard before other vowels. But then the "u" part of "qu" got lost in most dialects, so any words that had "que" or "qui" in them wound up sounding like "ke" and "ki." This would have been an ideal time to just throw the letter "C" out altogether and spell such words the way they sounded, but if human beings had that kind of good sense, English spelling would be perfectly regular and this whole argument about how to spell "Korea" would never have come up in the first place.

Now doesn't this spelling change sound like just the sort of issue the world needs to deal with urgently in this time of international tension? Why not go all the way back to the nation's founding myth and rename the country after the first capital of Go Joseon, which according to some scholars was located near present-day Pyeongyang? That should really make North Koreans happy, and the name "Asadal" would put us right up there in the A's.


by Gary Rector

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily.


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