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 Romanization of Korean
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July, 2000
Ministry of Culture & Tourism


July 2000
Ministry of Culture & Tourism
Why the change?

It was wrong for the information age.
The old system wasn't appropriate for the information age. The breve (as in " " and " ") and the apostrophe (as in k', t', p', ch') were always difficult to use with consistency on computers and on the Internet. It didn't maintain important phonetic differences. When it came to daily usage, the old system was far too often used without the apostrophe. This made it impossible to differentiate between ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅈ and ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅊ. Without revising the system used to Romanize Korean, these consonants would continue to be written the same in most cases.

The breve was left out even more frequently than the apostrophe. Once omitted, however, it becomes impossible to differentiate between the vowels 어 and 오, and 으 and 우. All of these vowels appear frequently, and often they determine the difference between the meaning of one word and another. Leaving the Romanization system unchanged would only guarantee that these critical differences were ignored forever. The frequency of highly abbreviated usage of the old system made revision unavoidable.






July 2000
Ministry of Culture & Tourism
What has been changed?
  1. e been changed from " " and " " to "eo" and "eu."
  2. "ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅈ" have been changed from "k, t, p, and ch" to "g, d, b, and j."
  3. "ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅊ" have been changed from "k', t', p', and ch'" to "k, t, p, and ch."
  4. "ㅅ" used to be written as "sh" and "s," depending on context. Now it will be written as "s" in all cases.

  1. "ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" have been changed from "k, t, p, and ch" to "g, d, b, and j."

    - 광주 Kwangju >> Gwangju
    - 대구 Taegu >> Daegu
    - 부산 Pusan >> Busan
    - 제주 Cheju >> Jeju

  2. "어" and "으" have been changed from " " and " " to "eo" and "eu."

    - 성주 S ngju >> Seongju
    - 금곡 K mgok >> Geumgok

  3. "ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ" have been changed from "k', t', p', and ch'" to "k, t, p, and ch."

    - 태안 T'aean >> Taean
    - 충주 Ch'ungju >> Chungju

  4. "ㅅ" will always be written as "s" instead of both "sh" and "s" depending on the vowel it preceded.

    - 신라 Shilla >> Silla
    - 실상사 Shilsangsa >> Silsangsa

  5. Other changes

    Principles of transcriptions are the same as in the old system, in that words are Romanized according to sound, as opposed to a transliteration system, in which Romanization would be done according to Korean spelling regardless of pronunciation.

    - 한라[할라] Halla
    - 신문로[신문노] Sinmunno
    - 종로[종노] Jongno
    - 독립문[동님문] Dongnimmun
    - 국민[궁민] Gungmin
    - 법문[범문] Beommun

    When at the end of a word or when followed by a consonant, "ㄱ, ㄷ, and ㅂ" are written as "k, t, and p."

    - 곡성 Gokseong
    - 무극 Mugeuk







July 2000
Ministry of Culture & Tourism
Frequently asked questions
  • Reasons for revision
    The old system is widely used throughout the world, why change it now?

    While it is true that the old system has been widely used around the world to record the pronunciation of Korean, from a general linguistic point of view it had various shortcomings. The difference between some voiced and non-voiced sounds are in Korean little more than allophones, but old system transcribed these as entirely different phonemes. This is a problem that should have been remedied long ago, but unfortunately has had to wait until now for attention.

    Because the old system did not reflect the phonetic characteristics of the Korean language, it was never compatible for easy and consistent use of native speakers of Korean, even if it was used outside of Korea without particular difficulty. This difficulty contributed to confusion and inconsistency in the Romanizing of Korean. The old system differentiated between voiced and non-voiced consonants, making it very difficult for Koreans to understand and contributing to spellings such as "Kumkang" and "Hankuk" for "금강" and "한국" instead of "Kumgang" and "Han'guk," as would have been correct according to the old system. There were contradictions as well. "대구" was written "Taegu," but 동대구, the name of Daegu's largest passenger train terminal, was Romanized "Tongdaegu." And because "ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" have to be written in a way that a distinction is maintained between "ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ," people rarely wrote "ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" as "t, p, and ch," even when they were conscious of the fact that this was not correct according to the old system, since they would not want to have words confused with the "t', p', and ch'" that often had the apostrophe omitted. The result was that "ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" were written "t, p, and ch" on road signs but as "d, b, and j" almost everywhere else, such as personal names and the names of companies and schools.

    This revision of the Romanization of Korean was undertaken with the belief that if not corrected, this confusion and inconsistency would only continue to worsen with time. Priority was given to pronunciation instead of Korean orthography out of consideration of the needs of foreigners, and in this sense the government's Romanization policy remains unchanged. The difference is that phonological opposition is made clear in the new system.


  • Special symbols

    The old Romanization system was based on the one developed privately in 1939, and was unfit for the information age. The old system used the breve (v), which is not to be found on a computer keyboard. The apostrophe is on all keyboards but was still omitted more often than not in common usage. , , k', t', p', and ch' are all lacking in existing ASCII code, making them difficult for everyday usage with computers and the Internet. It is only a matter of course that, rarely used properly anyway, these be left out of the new system.

  • Distinctions of consonants

    Why does a Romanization system have to differentiate between "ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" and "ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ"?

    Massive confusion occurs if a distinction is not made between "ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" and "ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ." The difference between many personal names cannot be made without respect for this distinction, for example in the case of "대수" and "태수" names that can easily that of two brothers. Without guaranteeing this distinction, one ends up with a situation like would be in English by writing both "Tale" and "Dale" as "Tale." While perhaps not a particularly dire problem in some languages, in Korean the distinction is critical, particularly for personal names.

  • Distinctions of vowels

    Why is the difference between "어", and "오" and "으" and "우" so important?

    "어" and "오" are completely different phonemes in Korean. A distinction not only must be made but is also possible. The same goes for the two vowels "으" and "우." Korean family names are an easy example, as the names "선" and "손" both become "Son" when the breve is omitted, just as "성" and "송" both become "Song." The native speaker of Korean clearly feels a difference between the vowels, and so many have little choice but to improvise. Again in the case of names, someone with the name "성" does not want to become "Song," so, having no guarantee that their name will be written consistently as "S ng," often felt the need to write "성" as "Sung" to make this distinction, leaving it to guesswork to determine how that person may have Romanized their name.

  • The characteristics of the Korean language

    Does a Romanization system have to reflect the characteristics of the Korean language?

    Romanization systems exist for the purpose of reflecting the phonetic characteristics of a given language that does not ordinarily use Roman letters. Any Romanization system that does not respect the phonological opposition of Korean is not maintaining the principle purpose of a system in the first place. Phonological opposition with consistency is entirely possible when Romanizing Korean, and so it is only a matter of course that this be assured with a new system.

  • Usage overseas

    Most of the maps and encyclopedias of the world use the McCune-Reischauer System of Romanization of Korean Language for Korean place names, won't the change cause confusion?

    Much confusion can be expected for some time. The old system, based on the McCune-Reischauer system of Romanization for the Korean Language, is widely used overseas, particularly in Western countries. Many other documents besides maps and encyclopedias use the old system as well. It is indeed believed that it will take considerable time before the new system is recognized around the world. Confusion between the old and new systems can be expected. But if we delay making this needed change out of fear of this initial confusion, problems of inconsistency will only worsen, making the situation only more difficult to rectify for the next generation. The Korean government is prepared to do its part so that the new system is widely recognized and understood in Korea and around the world. The new system will not be accepted overnight, but the government is prepared to apply patience and effort to making this new system work.

  • The benefits of revision

    What's so good about the new system?

    While at first there may seem to be little advantage to following the new system, the benefits will be great over the long run. Since in the old system both "ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" and "ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ" end up written as "k, t, p, and ch," even simple tasks such as Internet searches suddenly become highly inefficient. Since 대성 and 태성, for example, but become Taesong when the apostrophe is omitted, a search for either would turn up both. A system that is easy to follow and always maintains critical and frequent phonetic differences will make finding people, places, and everything else immensely easier because phonetic distinctions will be maintained consistently and there will be little cause for arbitrary improvision.

  • Consonants

    Westerners tend to hear "ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" as "k, t, p, and ch." Why do these consonants have to be written "g, d, b, and j"?

    It is true that most Westerners hear "ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" as "k, t, p, and ch" when these consonants appear as the first letter in a word. But the problem is that "ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ" also seem like "k, t, p, and ch" to the average Western ear as well, and the differences between each of these vowels are important in Korean. The Korean phonological opposition must be given first priority in a Romanization system designed for Korean, even if to foreign ears these differences are not easily recognized. In addition, when the differences between "ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ" and "ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ" are written with consistency, it makes non-native pronunciation of Korean more distinguishable to native speakers.

  • Vowels

    Aren't "eo" and "eu" rather distant from "어" and "으"?

    When it comes to views about the new system, many have expressed opposition to transcribing "어" as "eo" and "으" as "eu." Some may think it ideal to write "어" as "o" and "으" as "u," but then there becomes no way to distinguishing "어" from "오" and "으" from "우." This leaves one with little choice but to develop a way to make this distinction. As long as " " and " " are no longer going to be used, the only option available is to Romanize "어" and "으" using two Roman letters.

    "어" is a front vowel, while "으" is a back vowel. Both lie between "o." "으" comes from closer to the front of the mouth than "u," and so it was decided to place add "e" in front of "o" and "u". Given the phonetic characteristics of Korean, a language of many written vowels all of which experience no variation, we are left with little option but to explain to non-native speakers that "eo" is "어" and "eu" is "으." Roman letters will have their own sound value in every language, whether that languages uses Roman letters as its main script or only when Romanized. Using "eo" and "eu" to Romanize "어" and "으" is unavoidable.

  • Family names

    Will family names be written according to the new system?

    In principle family names should follow the new system, but there are names that will have difficulty doing this. The family name "이" should be written as "I," but no one with this family name currently writes their name this way. Ninety five percent of all persons with the family name "이" write their name "Lee," though one can also find "Rhee," "Yi," "Ri," "Li," "Rhie," and "Lie." The Ministry of Culture and Tourism will continue to work towards determining methods of Romanization for family names that might have difficulty following the new system and announce these separately. Some family names may require the setting of a separate standard for the sake of consistency within that name. This will be determined as the soonest date possible.

  • Business names

    Will business and schools have to change the spelling of their names?

    Just as in the case of Romanizations of personal names that have already been established, businesses that so desire may continue to use previously established Romanizations. Business names such as Samsung and Hyundai, both known the world over, will not be required to change to "Samseong" and "Hyeondae." New companies, however, will be encouraged to follow this system. Also, the government will gladly welcome decisions by companies using inconsistent names to follow the new system.






July 2000
Ministry of Culture & Tourism

The Romanization of Korean

1. Basic Principles of Romanization

(1) Romanization is based on standard Korean pronunciation.
(2) Symbols other than Roman letters are avoided to the greatest extent possible.


2. Summary of the Romanization System

(1) Vowels are transcribed as follows:

  • simple vowels

  • a eo o u eu i
  • diphthongs

    ya yeo yo yu yae ye wa wae wo we ui

    Note 1: ¤O is transcribed as ui, even when pronounced as ㅣ.

    Note
    2: Long vowels are not reflected in Romanization.
(2) Consonants are transcribed as follows:
  • plosives (stops)

    g, k kk k d,t tt t b,p pp p

  • affricates

    j jj ch

  • fricatives

    s ss h

  • nasals

    n m ng

  • liquids

    r, l

    Note 1 : The sounds ¤¡, ¤§, and ¤² are transcribed respectively as g, d, and b when they appear before a vowel; they are transcribed as k, t, and p when followed by another consonant or form the final sound of a word. (They are Romanized as pronunciation in [ ].)

    e.g.

    구미 Gumi

    영동 Yeongdong

    백암 Baegam

    옥천 Okcheon

    합덕 Hapdeok

    호법 Hobeop

    월곶[월곧] Wolgot

    벚꽃[벋�] beotkkot

    한밭[한받] Hanbat


    Note 2: ¤ⓒ is transcribed as r when followed by a vowel, and as l when followed by a consonant or when appearing at the end of a word. ㄹㄹ is transcribed as ll.

    e.g.

    구리 Guri

    설악 Seorak

    칠곡 Chilgok

    임실 Imsil

    울릉 Ulleung

    호법 Hobeop

(1) When Korean sound values change as in the following cases, the results of those changes are Romanized as follows:

1. The case of assimilation of adjacent consonants

    e.g.

    백마[뱅마] Baengma

    신문로[신문노] Sinmunno

    종로[종노] Jongno

    왕십리[왕심니] Wangsimni

    별내[별래] Byeollae

    신라[실라] Silla

2. The case of the epenthetic ㄴ and ㄹ

    e.g.

    학여울[항녀울] Hangnyeoul

    알약[알략] allyak

3. Cases of palatalization

    e.g.

    해돋이 haedoji

    알같이[가치] gachi

    맞히다[마치다] machida

4. Cases where ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ are adjacent to ㅎ

    e.g.

    좋고[조코] joko

    놓다[노타] nota

    잡혀[자펴] japyeo

    낳지[나치] nachi

However, aspirated sounds are not reflected in case of nouns where ㅎ followsㄱ, ㄷ, and ㅂ, as in the examples below.

    e.g.

    묵호 Mukho

    집현전 Jiphyeonjeon

Note: Tense (or glottalized) sounds are not reflected in cases where morphemes are compounded, as in the examples below.

    e.g.

    압구정 Apgujeong

    낙동강 Nakdonggang

    죽변 Jukbyeon

    낙성대 Nakseongdae

    합정 Hapjeong

    팔당 Paldang

    샛별 saetbyeol

    울산 Ulsan

(2) When there is the possibility of confusion in pronunciation, a hyphen '-' may be used.

    e.g.

    중앙 Jung-ang

    반구대 Ban-gudae

    세운 Se-un

    해운대 Hae-undae

(3) The first letter is capitalized in proper names.

    e.g.

    부산 Busan

    세종 Sejong

(4) Personal names are written by family name first, followed by a space and the given name. In principle, syllables in given names are not separated by hyphen, but the use of a hyphen between syllables is permitted.

    e.g.

    민용하 Min Yongha (Min Yong-ha)

    송나리 Song Nari (Song Na-ri)

① Assimilated sound changes between syllables in given names are not transcribed.

    e.g.

    한복남 Han Boknam (Han Bok-nam)

    홍빛나 Hong Bitna (Hong Bit-na)

② Romanization of family names will be determined separately.

(5) Administrative units such as 도, 시, 군, 구, 읍, 면, 리, 동, and 가 are transcribed respectively as do, si, gun, gu, eup, myeon, ri, dong, and ga, and are preceded by a hyphen. Assimilated sound changes before and after the hyphen are not reflected in Romanization.

    e.g.

    충청북도 Chungcheongbuk-do

    제주도 Jeju-do

    의정부시 Uijeongbu-si

    양주군 Yangju-gun

    도봉구 Dobong-gu

    신창읍 Sinchang-eup

    삼죽면 Samjuk-myeon

    인왕리 Inwang-ri

    당산동 Dangsan-dong

    봉천1동 Bongcheon 1(il)-dong

    종로 2가 Jongno 2 (i)-ga

    퇴계로 3가 Toegyero 3 (sam)-ga

Note: Terms for administrative units such as 시, 군, 읍 may be omitted.

    e.g.

    청주시 Cheongju

    함평군 Hampyeong

    순창읍 Sunchang

(6) Names of geographic features, cultural properties, and man-made structures may be written without hyphens.

    e.g.

    남산 Namsan

    속리산 Songnisan

    금강 Geumgang

    독도 Dokdo

    경복궁 Gyeongbokgung

    무량수전 Muryangsujeon

    연화교 Yeonhwagyo

    극락전 Geungnakjeon

    안압지 Anapji

    남한산성 Namhansanseong

    화랑대 Hwarangdae

    불국사 Bulguksa

    현충사 Hyeonchungsa

    독립문 Dongnimmun

    오죽헌 Ojukheon

    촉석루 Chokseongnu

    종묘 Jongmyo

    다보탑 Dabotap

(7) Proper names such as personal names and those of companies may continue to be written as they have been previously.

(8) When it is necessary to convert Romanized Korean back to Hangeul in special cases such as in academic articles, Romanization is done according to Hangeul spelling and not pronunciation. Each Hangeul letter is Romanized as explained in section 2 except that ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㄹ are always written as g, d, b, l. When ㅇ has no sound value, it is replaced by a hyphen may also be used when it is necessary to distinguish between syllables.

    e.g.

    집 jib

    짚 jip

    밖 bakk

    값 gabs

    붓꽃 buskkoch

    먹는 meogneun

    독립 doglib

    문리 munli

    물엿 mul-yeos

    굳이 gud-i

    좋다 johda

    가곡 gagog

    조랑말 jolangmal

    없었습니다 eobs-eoss-seubnida


Additional Provisions
  1. This system of Romanization becomes effective on the date it is formally proclaimed.
  2. Signs using the previous system of Romanization (road signs, official large-scale notices, information posted at cultural sites, etc.), when this system of Romanization becomes effective, must follow this system by December 31, 2005.
  3. Publication such as textbooks using the previous system of Romanization must follow this system by February 28, 2002.

New Romanization System (Simplified Table)

a eo o u eu i ae e oe wi ya yeo yo yu yae ye wa wae wo we ui

initial

final


g

n

d

r

m

b

s

j

ch

k

t

p

h

k

g

kg

ngn

kd

ngn

ngm

kb

ks

kj

kch

kk

kt

kp

kh(k)

n

n

ng

nn

nd

II(nn)

nm

nb

ns

nj

nch

nk

nt

np

nh

l

r

lg

ll

ld

ll

lm

lb

ls

lj

lch

lk

lt

lp

lh

m

m

mg

mn

md

mn

mm

mb

ms

mj

mch

mk

mt

mp

mh

p

b

pg

mn

pd

mn

mm

pb

ps

pj

pch

pk

pt

pp

ph(p)

ng

ng

ngg

ngn

ngd

ngn

ngm

ngb

ngs

ngj

ngch

ngk

ngt

ngp

ngh

* "Final" refers to the final position character in a Korean syllable.
"Initial" refers to the first position character in a Korean syllable. When the final position character of one syllable is followed by the first position character of the next, the phonetic value of either or both characters changes in a limited number of cases as demonstrated here.







July 2000
Ministry of Culture & Tourism

Examples



old

new

old

new

부산

Pusan

Busan

대구

Taegu

Daegu

광주

Kwangju

Gwangju

대전

Taej n

Daejeon

인천

Inch'on

Incheon

전주

Chonju

Jeonju

제주

Cheju

Jeju

청주

Ch' ngju

Cheongju
경주 Ky ngju Gyeongju 김포 Kimp'o Gimpo
고구려 Kogury Goguryeo 동대구 Tongdaegu Dongdaegu
부곡 Pugok Bugok 정읍 Ch ng p Jeongeup
울산 Ulsan Ulsan 묵호 Muk'o Mukho







July 2000
By Kim Myong-sik
In Defense of the New Hangeul Romanization System

Both English language newspapers published in Seoul, The Korea Times and The Korea Herald, are commended for their sincere efforts to convey the positions of the foreign community in Korea and some members of Korea's intellectual society that are generally against the new "Hangeul" Romanization system announced by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism earlier this month.

In reviewing the opinions expressed by various knowledgeable individuals to justify their objections to the new system, however, I have noticed with surprise that quite a few of them lacked a genuine understanding of the new MOCT method. One commentator, for example, in apparent attempt to ridicule the government authorities who were responsible for what they believed unnecessary change, said MOCT Minister Park Jie-won will now have to change his business card to print his name as Bag Ji-weon.

Under the new system, the Korean consonant ¤¡ will be transcribed as k when it forms the final sound, hence Bak in the case of the minister's name, rather than Bag as the commentator guessed. And the complex vowel I will be written as wo instead of weo. Meanwhile, the ministry announcement made it plainly clear that Koreans may continue to use their current Romanized names as they are as long as they live. (Because Koreans' ways of Romanizing their names were so diverse even under the hitherto dominant McCune-Reischauer system, the ministry will in the near future recommend samples for the transliteration of family names to minimize diversity. A recent survey showed while none of the AI clans uses "I" as their Romanized name, 95 percent transcribe it to Lee with the rest choosing Rhee, Rhi, Ri, Yi, Li or even Lie. So Mr. Lee Hyon-soo can rest assured, as can his Yonsei alumni who would still be free to call their alma mater as they do now. In fact, not only Yonsei but Ewha Womans, Korea, Dankook, Dongguk, Kookmin, Kyung Hee and Sung Kyun Kwan Universities have failed to follow the M-R system in Romanizing their names, to name a few.)

Another major misunderstanding among the opponents of the new system seems to be the notion that the MOCT formula generally ignores the phonetic quality of Korean words in favor of almost automatic letter for letter transliteration. The fact is that the new system is quite similar to the M-R system in that it tries to maintain the Korean sound to the fullest extent possible as ¿E is to be spelt "ot" instead of "os" as Professor Kim Jong-gil unnecessarily worried. There are of course some legitimate and plausible points of arguments in defiance of the new system. They can be summarized as follows:
    1. Why initial sounds ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ should be transcribed as g, d, b and j instead of k, t, p and ch?
    2. Why vowels ㅓ and ㅡ should be written as eo and eu, respectively?
    3. Why the National Academy of the Korean Language was commissioned to do the task of devising a new Romanization system rather than a more multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary body that could ensure broader participation of various other groups interested in this matter?
    4. Why in the first place try to change a system (the Ministry of Education system promulgated in 1984 based largely on the M-R system) that has been fairly established domestically and widely accepted internationally, despite the huge cost involved in switching to the new formula?
    5. Why not wait until the time when the currently improving inter-Korean relations have further developed so that a unified Romanization system could be devised by experts of South and North Korea?
Of all the pro and con (mostly con) discussants about the issue, linguistics Professor Steve Garrigues of Kyongbuk National University made a particularly valuable contribution (The Korea Times, July 18 edition, page 6) to a constructive debate, but I regret that not many real experts have come up with authentic academic treatises, leaving the matter largely to amateurs from either the local or foreign communities.

It seems the designers of the new system and its supporters find the key drawback in the M-R system comes in the use of two different sets of Roman consonants for the same Korean consonants ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ depending on their location in a syllable, and the attaching of diacritical marks to denote unique Korean vowels ㅓ and ㅡ. There have been endless debates among linguists and the interested public over the true quality of Korean consonants ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ ever since Shannon McCune and Edwin O. Reischauer produced their Han-gul Romanization system back in the 1930s, and the argument seems to be at its height again in these days of the new millennium in the face of the official change of the transliteration system.

I, as an interested observer, made a little experiment with some of my Western (native English-speaking) friends to determine how these Korean consonants are perceived and pronounced by them. (For a long time while I was working for English-language newspapers in Seoul, I was one of the strong advocates of the M-R system, faithfully following the system in Romanizing my own name. I genuinely accepted the theory that Koreans make different sounds when they pronounce consonants ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ when they are spoken as the initial or final sound of a syllable and when between two vowels, voiced in the former case and non-voiced in the latter.) But comparing my own pronunciation of such Korean words as 고구마, 도다리, 바보 and 자전거, with that of my Western friends in the experiment, I came to an important realization. In my speech, the difference between voiced and non-voiced sounds was almost indiscernible despite my conscientious efforts to find any, it was distinct and clear when it came to my friends' utterances.

Thus I formulated a theory of my own (or an assumption) from the experiment. The two young Asian studies scholars, McCune and Reischauer, when they were grappling with Romanization of Korean words were so conscious of the differences in initial and interim sounds that they used two different sets of Roman consonants to transcribe the same Korean consonants ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ. My theory went on that the two co-workers might have been influenced by the Japanese linguistic pattern which exhibits very distinct phonemic differences between initial and interim sounds. In the Japanese language with only 50 sounds and characters, the use of different Roman consonants for the same “kana” character in different positions is justified. Yet, as is well known, Korean is far richer in sound, and our inventers of “한글 (훈민정음),” having included such non-voiced consonants ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ and ㅊ in their original 28 basic characters, must have used them as initial sounds instead of ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ for 코구려, 태동강, 푸벽루 and 총로 if they really sounded so.

The M-R system, as observed above, failed to Romanize the phonetic value of the Korean language as it is spoken by Koreans and it reflected the Westernized sound of the Korean language, in other words the Korean language spoken by early Christian missionaries serving in this country.

Roman letters were invented for Western languages and Hangeul for Korean. It simply is impossible to find perfectly matching pairs of letters between the two writing systems. The ㄴ sound happens to be very close to n in Korea's Hangeul, and so does ㅁ to m, ㅅ to s, ㅇ·(이응) to ng and ㅎ to h, but the rest of Korean consonants such as ㄱ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅂ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ and ㅍ, it is relatively less easier to find their Roman counterparts. The ㄱ-k/g, ㄷ-t/d, ㅂ-p/b and ㅈ-ch/j combinations are made up to provide maximum convenience for communications between races speaking different languages. We should all admit that even with life-long training we cannot perfectly emulate the sound of words that do not belong to our mother tongue.

I worked for Arirang TV, a Seoul-based English cable channel, for more than two years and there I had a chance to observe languages spoken by a number of young reporters and newscasters with a variety of ethnic and educational backgrounds. Through this experience, I concluded that perfect bilingual ability is hard to attain for any individual, whether a second or a so-called 1.5 generation Korean-American or Korean-Canadian. And I realized some ethnic Korean staffers who were born and educated in the United States and therefore spoke (nearly) perfect English had much less difficulties in pronouncing such names as 김대중, 김영삼 and 김종필 compared to their Caucasian colleagues in the Arirang newsroom.

Such linguistic affinity can also be found from the speeches of some exceptionally talented foreign residents here with Asian backgrounds. Laxmi Nakarmi of Asiaweek and Pedro Bernaldez at the Graduate School of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, among my foreign acquaintances, belong to this group. But Prof. Edward Poitras, who formerly taught at the Methodist Seminary in Seoul, and Gary Rector, who was naturalized in Korea a few years ago after nearly three decades of living in Korea, still had their weakness in the sounds of ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ like many other foreign residents here. So it is no wonder that even long-time foreign residents like Mr. Horace G. Underwood (The Korea Herald, July 18 edition, page 6) resent so strongly the new Romanization system using g, d, b and j for Korean ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ sounds because for them (for their ears and tongues) k, t, p and ch are much closer to what they pronounce or emulate as the Korean sounds of ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ.

The new Romanization system is basically aimed at producing sounds closest to what is spoken by Koreans, goguma for 고구마 and babo for 바보. Insisting on the continued spelling of koguma and pabo may be demanding that Koreans give up efforts to help foreigners pronounce Korean words just as they are spoken by the native people, as much as possible. It could be compared to Korean residents in the U.S. continuing to spell such geographical names as 로스안젤스, 아리조나, 요세미테 and 산호세 in their local Korean language newspapers although there are better ways of transcribing these names to make them sound closer to the original English pronunciations. I am afraid continued use of the M-R system will help keep foreign residents here from being able to speak more like their host people. Let's think for a moment about the word “bus” which has become a Korean word with the Korean spelling of 버스. Does it sound more like 퍼스 when Koreans speak it, conspicuously different from native English-speakers' pronunciation?


The new MOCT system solves the problem of unfamiliar signs used in the M-R system to denote Korean sounds which have no ready counterparts in the Roman letters. It uses k, t, p, and ch for ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ and ㅊ without putting an apostrophe. And while the halfmoon signs fixed on o and u to indicate ㅓ and ㅡ were discarded, eo and eu were chosen to represent these vowels, respectively. I say “represent” because, as the opponents of the new system argue, these digraphs do not readily convey Korean sounds ㅓ and ㅡ. Although there are English words like surgeon, bludgeon and dungeon, few Western speakers will be able to produce anything close to the sound 어머니 when it is spelt eomeoni. But let me ask the objectors if it was any better when 어머니 was written as omoni with the halfmoon signs were put on o under the M-R system. 하회마을 in Andong was spelt Hahoe Village by the M-R system, but I have confronted with many foreign friends who called it Ha-ho-w (assuming hoe must be pronounced as in hoe meaning the small digging instrument).

We should accept that any transliteration system is a contract or a convention between its designer(s) and users. The diacritical signs that were used for the M-R system were a kind of code established between the inventors McCune and Reischauer and those Westerners and Koreans who learned the method and began using it. Faced with the inevitable limitations in finding corresponding vowels in the Roman writing system, the devisers of the new Romanization system produced these codes eo and eu to indicate the Korean vowels ㅓ and ㅡ. No non-Korean will be able to pronounce sounds close to the two uniquely Korean vowels when they read a text using these codes eo and eu. It will be embarrassing to hear a native English-speaker pronounce Admiral Yi Sun-sin's turtle ship 거북선 as 지오북시언 as it will henceforth be spelt geobukseon under the new system. (Many critics seem to have misunderstood that 거북선 is to be spelt geobugseon as under the old Ministry of Education system and 독립문 as Dogribmun but the new system established the principle of respecting the original sound instead of automatic interchange of letters, thus 독립문 will be Dongnimmun and 백령도 will be Baengnyeong-do.) With the lapse of time, more people will understand the merits of the new system.

Officials at the Ministry of Education and later the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the members of the National Academy of the Korean Language, ever since they started working on a new Hangeul Romanization system five years ago to meet the needs of the computer age, had the greatest hardships in finding an adequate way of transcribing vowels ㅓ and ㅡ. Many in and outside the institute suggested different ways of solving the problem, such as Chungbuk National University Prof. Kim Bok-mun's proposal to transcribe ㅓ as ur to make 철수 Churlsu, but few came up with an acceptable formula. The native speakers of English, which admittedly is one of the most illogical languages in the world in terms of pronunciation, so strongly wanted to maintain the M-R system that they shunned taking part in official discussion sessions arranged by the ministry, let alone providing any viable alternatives.

Many foreigners I met, for their part, criticize government authorities concerned with the task for their failure or lack of sincere efforts to hear foreign community opinions on a broader basis. Some foreign diplomats and journalists were informed of the schedule for public hearings but academics were not invited, they argued. The foreign critics say it was wrong from the start that the National Academy of the Korean Language was given the important mission while it basically is an organization dedicated to research on the Korean national language. They even cite a nationalistic bias in what they perceived as a government attempt to replace a foreign-devised system with one created by Korean experts. MOCT officials explain that they did look for proper organizations and individuals, both foreign and local, to assign the task but finally chose the NAKL because it comprises a number of linguists of high stature well versed in comparative study of languages.

Clear to anyone, Romanization is for foreigners. Geographical names are Romanized to help foreigners find the place they intend to go to and help them remember cities, villages and mountains they visited and climbed. But it is Koreans who make up the Roman transcription of their proper names to print on their business cards and draw up maps for international tourists. Sometimes, they write the lyrics of a Korean song in Roman letters to help foreigners join in a singing session or write part of a public address (in Korean) in Roman letters for a visiting foreign VIP. In this sense, it is for both foreigners and the local public. The Romanization system must not be a code only for the native English-speaking community here but an important tool for international communication between Korean society, foreign residents in the country and the entire external world. If any method causes much confusion because it is unable to properly reflect the original sound to the extent that different words are transcribed into the same Roman characters too frequently, it definitely is not a good system.

Mr. Nakarmi expressed concern about the huge cost involved in changing the system, such as the expenses for replacing the numerous road signs and reproducing books about Korea. These jobs, though inevitable, will not have to be done overnight. Road signs, for example, will be changed over the next five years, the standard period for their replacement even without the changing of the Romanization system.

The writer is director of the Korean Overseas Information Service of the Government Information Agency. _ ED
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