[OUTLOOK]Get Used to It: It's Busan and Jeju Now

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[OUTLOOK]Get Used to It: It's Busan and Jeju Now

When this newspaper began publication last October, one of our burning questions was how to write Korean words and names in the Roman alphabet. Should we use traditional spellings, or adopt the new Romanization then just starting to be introduced?

We compromised. We adopted the new Romanization, but with exceptions for anything that looked funny. Busan and Daegu and Jeju looked funny, so we stayed with Pusan and Taegu and Cheju, which are closer to the Korean pronunciations anyway.

Kimpo Airport wasn't changing its name, so we didn't see why we should write it as Gimpo.

The city of Seoul (spelled the same in all systems) Romanized its subdivisions - Chongno-ku be-came Jongno-gu - but some of the well known sites kept their old names. Thus Myongdong Cathe-dral is in Myeong-dong.

Museums and palaces - Doeksu, not Toksu - pasted little stickers over their information boards identifying items and events from the Joseon Dynasty. But it's still the Chosun Hotel.

Evidently we were not alone in tolerating inconsistency for the sake of comfort during the transition period.

But Kimpo now has metamorphosed into Gimpo, and Jeju doesn't look as funny as it did last year. The time has come for this newspaper to go the rest of the way with the Korean government's new Romanization. Westerners sometimes wonder why the Korean government presumes to tell us how to spell Korean in our alphabet; we don't try to tell them how to spell our words and names in Hangul ... sorry, Hangeul.

My wife Betsy's name is an example. Rendered in Korean characters, it looks marvelously exotic, beginning with what Westerners hear as a "P" and rolling through three consecutive characters that sound to Westerners like "Ch." I can think of a simpler way, but our teacher Lee seonsaeng-nim says that's the way to write it in Hangeul if you want Koreans to know how to pronounce it. Who am I to argue?

If you took the Hangeul version of Betsy's name and tried to Romanize it back, however, you get this: "Baetjji." It looks chic, especially with the honorific: "Baetjji ssi." But it's not much help to one trying to figure out how to pronounce my wife's name.

Why do countries insist on adopting writing systems that don't reflect the way people pronounce their language? China did the same thing when it directed the world to Romanize Chinese characters according to the "pinyin" system. Thus the last emperor was from the Qing Dynasty, and the terra cotta warriors were unearthed near Xian. If they want to use arbitrary symbols that bear no relation to standard pronunciation in any language, why misuse Q and X? Why not make up new symbols or anoint "#" and "? as Chinese phonemes? Or why not write Chinese in Morse code?

The new Korean system is not an exact letter-for-letter substitution; it follows pronunciation in some cases. Thus the word formerly Romanized and pronounced as "Shilla" will become "Silla," but not "Sinla," after the written Hangeul characters.

The Korean government defends the system as needed for precision in computer searches and, more vaguely, as "modern" and "Korea's own," meaning, I take it, not invented by foreigners. (It is always foreigners who invent the first transcription systems; only foreigners need them.)

There is at least one practical reason for the new Romanization. Previous systems relied on apostrophes and breves to modify letters capable of multiple pronunciations. The apostrophe (') you know, but what is a breve? Well, that's the point; there isn't one on most typewriter or computer keyboards. It's a little upturned saucer that went atop some O's and U's to indicate that they were pronounced differently from other O's and U's. The second O in Choson and the U in Hangul should have breves.

Of course, there will still be compromises. We won't disturb the traditional spellings of personal or company names. We will not force Hyundai to do business as Hyeondae. Korea's many millions of Kims will not become Gims, nor will Mr. Park become Mr. Bag. We will not rewrite history to harmonize the surnames of Syngman Rhee and Admiral Yi.

Some Koreans may now find it easier to write their names so foreigners can read them. There is a surname that under the old rules would be Romanized as So, with a breve over the O. But as the breve is not in common use, Koreans have struggled to write the name as it sounds. To me it sounds like "Saw," but I have never seen that spelling. I have seen Seo, Suh, Ser, Sye and even Surh.

The spelling Seo will now tell everyone familiar with both alphabets how to write the name. But don't be surprised when most Americans pronounce it with two syllables - See-oh.


The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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