Romanization plan will create more confusion

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Romanization plan will create more confusion

Last week we learned that the chairman of the Presidential Committee on National Competitiveness wants to tinker with South Korea’s romanization system, by which Korean words are written in the Latin alphabet.

It was most recently changed in 2002, though it’s not uncommon to find signs and Web sites that use old spellings. The chairman was quoted as saying, “If we change romanization, it should be globally accepted and more convenient to use for foreigners.”

What’s confusing is not necessarily the current system, but rather that there are a couple in use, and there are a number of hybrids.

I live in Jeollanam-do (South Jeolla), but many Web sites and tourist guides tell me I live in Chollanam-do, or Jeonranam-do, or Chunranam-do. And a “Google War” between Gwangju and Kwangju shows the latter is the more popular spelling on the Internet, even though Gwangju is the official spelling today.

There are a few different reasons for this.

Kwangju, for example, was the spelling used in 1980 during the democratic uprising, the incident for which the city is most famous. People confuse the systems, and some symbols are not found on modern keyboards.

Still, “there’s consistency within systems,” writes Gomushin Girl. “For example, linguists all use the Yale system (but are the only ones who do so), other academics primarily use the McCune-Reischauer [system], and most other groups including the Korean government and associated bodies all use the revised system introduced in 2002.

“The real problem doesn’t seem to be finding and sticking to a system, but teaching the systems themselves. I can read and use both the MCR and the RR, but in both cases I had to learn the correspondence between the sound, the hangul, and the roman letters.”

Writes kushibo: “The problem prior to 2002 was not the romanization issue itself but the inconsistency in using it ... [some characters were] a problem for some on their computers and in doing searches, but it would have been a lot cheaper for the Korean government to work with Microsoft and Apple to make [certain characters] mutually searchable than to spend the tens of millions of dollars they did changing signs and everything else.”

Another comment notes the heavy-handedness with which the government controls the language, and not simply its English spelling.

“Seoul has to refuse the bureaucratic inclination to mandate a new romanization strategy as a means to market the country,” writes Baltimoron. “Korean is difficult, but it’s because it’s an artificial language created by government-supported academics and publications out of popular speech and elite texts from the ruins of Japanese attempts to destroy the language.”

For foreigners in Korea, the best option is to just learn how to read hangul, both because of these inconsistencies and because the quality of English-language material just isn’t very good.

“The one thing that ALL the romanization systems have in common is hangul,” writes Andy. “Learn hangul first, and then deal with different romanization systems later. With everyone using different systems, and mixing and matching, it can confuse the hell out of people.”

Romanized Korean is of course used in Korea, but it is a vital connection with the outside world.

Thus it is important to actually consult with people abroad, rather than implement systems willy-nilly. Writes ROK Hound: “The last time they tried for a ‘new’ romanization - with it came some valid criticisms from foreign language scholars of what was wrong with some of the rules within it - foreign critics were told to ‘shut up’ because it was ‘not for foreigners anyway; it is Korea’s language, so it is only Korea’s business.’”

The fact that there are so many systems and hybrids in use shows that no single one is perfect and that a great deal of thought is needed before changing things yet again.

Visit Brian in Jeollanam-do at:

*Readers are welcome to send suggestions for topics that they wish to be covered or blogs that they would like to see featured in this column. Please e-mail us at:

By Brian Deutsch Contributing writer

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