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[Lee Kyong-hee] Romanization of Korean -- alphabet buffet

The Oxford English Dictionary’s latest update on words of Korean origin is yet another reminder of chronic confusion in the romanization of the Korean language.

The world’s most authoritative dictionary of the English language added 26 words of Korean origin, more than doubling the number to 50. It was an unprecedented update load from a single language, acknowledgement of the global penetration of Korean cultural content. But while the OED’s description of a “daebak” (jackpot) was fitting, it also underscored glaring inconsistency in the transcription, or transliteration, of the Korean language.

The romanized form of each word of Korean origin appears in the OED along with a dated source. For example, the word for the Korean alphabet includes four versions: “hangul,” “han keul,” “han kul” and “hangeul.” The latter complies with the current standardized system installed in 2000. It first appeared in 1995.

Unfortunately, other entries include a bewildering assortment. If written all at once, they would suggest a writer who has drunk too much soju. For instance, the headword “bulgogi” is followed by boolgogi, bulgogee, bulkoki, poolgogi, pulgogi and pulkoki. For “unni,” meaning a girl’s or woman’s older sister, the variants include eonni, eoni, eonie, eonnie, unie and unnie.

This chaos stems from too many systems and hybrids since the 19th century, when foreign missionaries began transcribing Korean, based primarily on their own phonetic principles. A single universal system never emerged. An informed source claims that by 1939, when two American scholars, George M. McCune and Edwin O. Reischauer, introduced the McCune-Reischauer (MR) Romanization System, there already were 27 other systems. By that time, China and Japan already had widely adopted romanization systems.

The government bureaucracy has added to the confusion, introducing official romanization systems in 1959, 1984 and 2000. Each system replaced its predecessor. Thus, successive generations of students have learned different systems and taxpayers have borne the huge costs of changing official documents, road signs, maps and textbooks.

In each revision, there was little public consensus. The latest change was particularly controversial. Ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Final, the government announced the implementation of the Revised Romanization System for the convenience of foreign visitors. However, the five-year project by the National Institute of Korean Language produced a system deemed too nationalistic and technically inadequate.

The revised system removed problematic apostrophes and diacritics, attached to aspirated, or voiceless, consonants and certain vowels, respectively. But it created other problems in its largely letter-by-letter transliteration scheme. The developers explained the new system was tailored for the digital age, but it embarrasses non-Korean speakers who do not know the Korean alphabet. Actually, no foreigners or Korean professionals using romanized Korean for daily international communication participated in the project.

Among those who adamantly opposed the new system were the two leading English-language newspapers, including The Korea Herald. But eventually, they both yielded, and so did many others. Thus, in 2011, the Pusan International Film Festival finally changed its name to the Busan International Film Festival.

Nonetheless, unlike Incheon International Airport, the historic Inchon Landing and the Battle of Inchon still retain the port city’s old Romanized name in most academic writings. Echoing the international academic community’s unwavering support for the MR system, Steven L. Shields, president of the Korea branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, wrote in his contribution to The Korea Times, “While we go with the flow and accede to the revised romanization, RAS Korea proudly stands by its decades-long support of the MR system.”

His essay “Romanizing in many different ways,” on Feb. 2, 2021, said, “First, by insisting that Japanese pronunciation and romanization system not be used; second, by picking one language phonetic norm (English), and understanding more than 80 years ago that English was the ‘international’ language; third, by being for some years officially adopted by the ROK Ministry of Education as the norm; and finally, by its widespread use throughout worldwide academia, Drs. McCune and Reischauer achieved something no other system has achieved.”

Romanization also remains an issue between the two Koreas. North Korea has consistently used a simplified form of the MR system. Therefore, the revised system requires spelling North Korean toponyms differently. As an editor of English-language periodicals, I have considered it necessary to write North Korean place names in both ways for practical reasons, putting the South Korean version in parentheses: Kaesong (Gaeseong), Kumgangsan (Geumgangsan), Paektusan (Baekdusan), Yongbyon (Yeongbyeon), etc.

James E. Hoare, in Reader’s Notes to his “Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Korea” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), says, “In South Korea, governments have experimented with various systems, but since 2000 the official system transliterates every Korean letter into a roman letter. This produces some strange-looking words and does not help the English speaker to pronounce words correctly. Since this work is primarily intended for the non-specialist, I use a modified version of the MR system, omitting the diacritics and the apostrophes.”

Dr. Hoare, a British diplomat and Korean studies scholar who has served for the UK embassies in both Seoul and Pyongyang, published the “Historical Dictionary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” in 2012. He applies the same romanization system in both of his impressive works.

The global political situation today is so precarious and, with North Korea continuing missile provocations, no less risky is the prospect of peace on the Korean Peninsula. And over the decades, few administrations in Seoul have seemed interested in, or capable of grappling with, such fundamental issues of long-term concern. However, I still hope that the next administration, after the March 9 presidential election, addresses this issue. It is crucial to the nation’s intellectual infrastructure and efficient communication with the world.

It is further hoped that the two Koreas would sit down together to discuss this non-political issue. They could probably restart from their agreement, back in 1992, on an imperfect but unified system of romanization achieved at the behest of the International Organization for Standardization, but later withdrawn.


Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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