[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Romanization rears its ugly head

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Romanization rears its ugly head

Korean romanization can be both intimidating and annoying: intimidating to the reader who hasn't learned much Korean and finds himself faced with long strings of letters arranged in unfamiliar and seemingly unpronounceable patterns like "Hyeonchungsa" or "Geungnakjeon," and annoying to the reader who knows Korean and finds himself wishing that English-language publications would just print all the Korean words in Hangeul.

Of the columns that appear in this paper, mine is probably one of the most bothersome in this regard because I'm constantly throwing in Korean expressions and terminology. I've received quite a bit of e-mail about this problem, most of it asking why I don't at least put the Hangeul in parentheses after such romanized words. I personally wouldn't mind taking that extra step, but that's easy for the writer to say, and in any case such things are a matter of the newspaper's style, not the personal preference of the columnist.

So what are we to do about this? We just have to bite the bullet and familiarize ourselves with romanization. Fortunately this is a lot easier now than it used to be.

Until two years ago, the official romanization was a slightly modified version of the McCune-Reischauer system commonly used by most scholars in the West. The big problem with that system was that it required the use of diacritical marks and lots of apostrophes. Since readily available fonts didn't come with the needed diacritics, most publications, including the newspapers, simply dispensed with them.

Apparently they also thought that the peppering of apostrophes was ugly because they dropped those, too. This meant that in many cases it was impossible to tell what Korean word or place name was intended. I can recall a number of times when I had to look for the same story in the Korean-language papers in order to figure out some of the details.

The new system doesn't require any diacritics or apostrophes and yet still provides distinct representations of all the sounds that are distinguished in Korean. Since the Latin alphabet doesn't have enough letters to go around, those who devised the system were forced to resort to the use of digraphs (sequences of two letters used to represent single sounds), and that's how we wound up with those strange-looking strings of vowel letters, as in "Yeouido" or "Haeundae."

In spite of its many good points, this system is not free of problems. Like all things created by committee, its weaknesses show where compromises have been made. It purports to be "based on standard Korean pronunciation," but it backs off from that principle in personal names and certain compound place names and follows the Hangeul spelling. Thus, a woman whose given name is composed of the character "bok" followed by the character "nam" is supposed to write her name as "Boknam" even though it's actually pronounced "Bongnam." It's for this same reason that we wind up with a "ui" in "Yeouido" even though the island's name sounds like "Yeoido."

This isn't the only case where we get stuck with the inconvenience of having more than one representation of the same pronunciation. "Kk" stands for the same sound as "kg," "pp" for the same sound as "pb," and so on.

The system also provides for an optional hyphen to be used for clarification "when there is a possibility of confusion." Anyone who's ever visited Busan would doubtless know that the beach I mentioned above is pronounced "Hae-undae," but someone who is ignorant of that city's geography could just as well guess that it was "Ha-eundae." The same goes for the combination "ng." Is it "n+g" as in "Han-gang" or "Han-geul"? Or is it one sound, as in "jung-ang"? Since it's optional, the newspapers leave it out, so we are often forced to guess which pronunciation is intended.

This column is not an appropriate venue for a crash course in Korean phonology or a complete tutorial in romanization, but I know that, while to many readers it doesn't matter much, there are lots of others who get frustrated when they don't know how to pronounce something they're reading about. That's why, from time to time, I will give a bit of extra information about how a term I introduce is pronounced. The romanization alone is often just not adequate.

People who want the full dope on the official system of romanization can find it on this website: http://www.korea.net/learnaboutkorea/hangeul/revised.html. If you read the article "In Defense of the New Hangeul Romanization System," try not to be offended or get discouraged.

In spite of its almost racist remarks about the differences in language ability between Caucasians and Asians, white folks can learn how to pronounce Korean properly.


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The writer is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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