A note on Korean romanization

Meet you where?

An often heard conversation amongst people who don’t speak Korean, and live in Seoul.

A: Meet me at Sin chan station on subway line 2.

B: Do you mean Shincheon, or Shinchon?

A: Huh? Shin-what?

B: S before i is Sh, but there is a Shinchun, and a Shinchoan.

A: Huh, dude, WTF, meet me at Shin chan.

B: You’re not pronouncing it right. I don’t know which one you mean!

A: Dude, come on, we’ve only been in Korea for 2 weeks, and you already think you can lecture me about pronunciation?

B: No, what I mean is that there are two stations with similar sounding names on the same line. Which one do you want me to meet you at, the one north of the river or south of the river?

A: I don’t know that much about the geography of Seoul yet.

B: Then, can you read Chinese characters? Is it “new river” or “new town”?

A: Chinese? What? We’re in Korea man.

B: Yea I know but Koreans use Chinese characters too for.. ah nevermind, what do you see near you?

A: Well there’s a sign for Ooha University.

B: Ooha? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that. Hold on let me get my subway map.

A: Okay

B: Allright, what’s the number of the station?

A: 240

B: Oh, you mean Sinchon!

A: That’s what I said in the beginning!!!!!!!

B: HAHAHAHA! It’s not OOHA University, It’s Ihwa!

A: No, it’s spelled Ewha, so.. Ew = OO, ha = HA.

B. Yes, but the school was named almost a century ago when there wasn’t any standard romanization.

A: Why can’t they just spell things right here!

From the above conversation, it must be obvious that getting used to Korean romanization is difficult. I’ll attempt to explain why and explain how to read it after the jump.

No, the Pusan I'Cons didn't relocate, the official spelling of the city's name changed.

What’s in a name?

Look at the picture on the left. These are official logos of the K.League Soccer team, the I’Cons. They play in Busan, which used to be spelled as Pusan. Other cities in Korea have also had their official spellings changed. Gwangju used to be Kwangju. Gyeongju was once Kyoungju. Jecheon was once Chechon. Daegu was once Taegu. The funny thing is that none of these cities have actually changed their names.

Huh? But you just said they changed!

No I didn’t; I said that the spelling in the Roman alphabet changed. The change in spelling in English does not reflect a change in pronunciation in Korean. Rather, the updated name is a policy by the Korean government to favor one romanization system over another.

Why would the government care how someone writes something in English?

You can’t really say it’s English. It’s an approximation of Korean sounds using the Roman alphabet. The main reason the government chooses one romanization as standard is becuase if there were no standard spelling, then there would be chaos. Take 독립문 (Independence Gate), a well known place in northern Seoul, for example. Dongnimmun, Tongnimmun, Dongneemmun, Tongneemmun, Dongneemmoon, Tongneemmoon, Dongnimmoon, Tongnimmoon, Tokripmun, Togripmun, Toklipmun, Tokribmoon, Doglibmoon, Dogribmoon, Doglipmun, Doglipmoon, Togribmoon, Toglipmun, Dongnip-mun, Tongnip-moon, Dongnim-mun, and Dongnib-mun would all be possible transliterations of this word. This is only a fraction of all logical possibilities of how to write 독립문 in the Roman alphabet. Just for sanity, it’s important that someone decide a standard for everyone to use. But even if the spelling is standardized, it doesn’t always convey the correct pronunciation to non-speakers of Korean who aren’t familiar with how the romanization system works. The only way to really know how to pronounce something based on how it’s been romanized is to learn Hangul (the Korean alphabet).

But if I learn Hangul then I wouldn’t need romanization in the first place! That’s Dumb!

Welcome to Korea.

The Seoul Searcher’s guide to using Revised Romanization for Korean words

The name of the romanization system that the government uses is called the Revised Romanization system. Well, when I write Korean words in this blog, I usually tend to follow the rules exactly, but not always. It’s even possible that I have chosen two different romanizations for the same word in the same article. That might be confusing, but that’s because I don’ t like the Revised Romanization system. But for the sake of non-speakers of Korean who read this blog, I’ll give you the best guide I possibly can for reading Korean Revised Romanization. Please keep in mind that sometimes I forget and I don’t always follow the rules.

Rule #1

Read single vowels as if they were written in Spanish or Italian.

There is only one way to pronounce A I O or U. (ㅏㅣㅗㅜ).

The A and the I and O are the same as in “Santiago”.

The U is the same as in “Luna”.

If you can follow only one of these rules, this is the one you should follow.

Rule #2

Two vowels next to each other don’t apply to rule number one. (ㅐㅔㅓㅙㅚㅡ)

“AE” is like the vowel sound in the word “day” (as spoken in standard English American English).

“EO” is like the vowel sound in the words “sun”, “fun”, and “run”. Did you know that Seoul has two sylables, and that it sounds more like (Saw-OOL)? Wait, that makes my alias not work…. crap!

“OE” is most likely sounding like “WAY”

“OI” exists in the frequently mispronounced name “Choi” , and should be pronounced “CHAY”

“EU” is hard to describe. Smile. Without moving your tongue or lips, make a U sound.

If you can remember these two rules, you’ll have almost no trouble at all.

Rule #3

s before i is sh. I don’t think I understand exactly why they don’t just write it with sh. Most likely I will write it with an sh even if I am not supposed to, so forgive me.

Rule #4

If there’s no vowel after it, close your mouth.

The Korean word 빛 would be rendered as “bit” But don’t let any air out of your mouth after forming your tongue to make the t sound. It’s almost as if it’s a silent T. The same is for final Bs, Ps, Gs, and Ks.

Rule #5

This is the double consonants rule. ㅃㅉㄸㄲㅆ

If you see bb, jj, dd, gg, or ss together, good luck!















Haha, okay I’ll try to explain.

In English, the mouth’s shape is the same for P sounds and B sounds. The difference is that for P, a rush of air comes out after the consonant, but for B, it does not. Try it. What is the difference between “bay” and “pay”? The rush of air… In Korean both B and P exist and are usually rendered as such. But there is a third sound which can be made with your mouth in this shape. It is rendered as “bb”.

No, not saying b twice. It’s not romanization for a stutterer! It’s a sound that is between b and p. In my case, I can hear the sound, and when I speak people understand me most of the time. But I know I have not mastered this whole set of sounds. I don’t want to say that I never will, but they are very difficult. I’ve tried reading other peoples’ suggestions for these, but they always try to explain them based on the sounds of certain English words… and I must be speaking a different kind of English than they are.

Anyway jj is between j and ch.

dd is between d and t

gg is between g and k (Sometimes there will be two g’s next to each other, but they don’t represent the gg sound. Remember Cheonggyecheon? It’s Cheong-gye-cheon, not Cheon-ggye-cheon.)

ss like ts, but not really.

Sorry, I can’t be of more help here.

Rule #6

People have the right to romanize their names following any romanization they please. Thus, names may or may not apply to Rules 1-5

Under the Revised Romanization, 1/4 of all Koreans would be spelling their name wrong, as Kim, under this system should be Gim. Khim, Keem, Keam, and Ghim are also acceptable.

Bark, Park, Pak, and Bak are all the same name.

Baek, Paek, Paik, and Baik, are the same name, but are different from the 4 names in the previous sentence.

Hwang, Whang, and Whong are all the same name, but not the same as Huang,Wong, or Wang, which are Chinese names, but might use the same Chinese character.

Lee, Ree, Rhee, Yi, I and Ee are all the same name.

Seo, Suh, and Sur are all the same name.

Heo, Huh, and Hur are all the same name.

Cho and Jo are the same name but they are different from Choe, which is the same name as Choi.

If anyone wants to be fancy and use Z in their name, it’s really J. So Zina is Jina. Zizung is Jijeong.

Sometimes people will try to be fancy and use C in their name, or the name of their product. It’s almost always a K, unless it comes before Y in which case it’s an S. (Cyworld, Cyon) If it comes before I, it’s SH (because s before i is always SH, rule #3)

If you are writing someone else’s name, you shouldn’t simply romanize it, you need to ask that person how he or she romanizes it. Thus:

Syngman Rhee is the only way to spell the name of 이승만, the first president of Korea. A different 이승만 can spell his name however he wants, but the government would suggest Yi Seungman.

Yuna is the name of an olympic figure skating champion. Someone who shares her name might choose Yeon-a, however.

That’s too difficult! It would be easier to learn Hangul than it would be to remember all that.

Yes, that’s true. And when you learn Hangul, the romanization will actually make sense to you.

If you’d like a guide on how to read Hangul, Try this blog post I found over at Ask a Korean.


17 Responses to “A note on Korean romanization”

  1. Wow! That’s so confusing!

    I heard in Japanese that they also have two systems, but one is for Japanese people, and the other one is for foreigners learning Japanese. Couldn’t Koreans just do that?

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Well, the only differences in the Japanese romanization scheme I can explain here.

      TSU is the same as TU
      CHI is the same as TI
      O with a line on it is the same as OO or OU

      The Korean language has more sounds that react certian ways with each other. Much like English, sometimes things aren’t spelled the way they are said (example… “Knife”, why is the K and the e necessary?). If you make a romanization you have to adhere to either pronunciation or spelling. With spelling it’s easy to write but impossible for those who don’t know Korean to read correctly. With pronunciation it’s difficult to set any rules, because there are so many exceptions.

  2. Gina Joy Says:

    You didn’t mention l/r sounds. They sound very definitely like an l at times and other times more of a cross between an r and a d. Koreans themselves don’t seem to hear the difference, but when a syllable ends with ㄹ and the next one begins with ㄹ, the sound will be much more definitely an l to English speakers.

    • Gina, This isn’t a tutorial on how to read Hangul, it’s a tutorial on reading romanization. As such, L’s are L’s and R’s are R’s.

      In the word 라면, Ra-myeon we use R, because ㄹ comes at the beginning of the word.
      In the word 생활, Saenghwal, we use L, because ㄹcomes at the end of the word.

      If something appears as an R or an L in the Revised Roamanization, that’s what it is.

  3. seulkee7 Says:

    Yes, sometimes it’s a little bit confusing even for me.(I’m Korean)
    That’s why I understand when my friends pronounce my name incorrectly as if they are reading a word in their own language.
    My name is Seul ki (슬기) and I know it’s actually hard to pronounce my name for people who don’t already speak Korean. Sometimes my name is Seoul ki, like capital of Korea. So it’s really funny, I’m Seoul ki from Seoul.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Well at least you didn’t use a foreign name like so many other people choose. Ex) Hi, my name is Seongjin Lee, but you can just call me Richard…

      As far as your name, Seul ki, it’s too bad that the romanization isn’t friendly to you. Have you thought of going with a different spelling? What about Silky? If you say it with an American accent, it’s kind of close. HAHA..

      I don’t see how that would ever make anyone call you 서울기 though. Then again, nobody outside of Korea pronounces Seoul correctly anyway. STUPID ROMANIZATION!!!!!!

  4. O.o
    When I was taking my Hangul classes (with a Korean girl) she was very strict with the pronunciation, I had problems specially with the O and U, but after a few classes I managed to say them correctly.
    I think this tutorial is very useful for all of us learning (or trying to) Hangul.

    Thank you XD

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Yea, well reading about it online is no substitute for having a real person to help you. I reccomend if you want to really learn to speak Korean, you suppliment your study with actual people and actual conversations.

  5. Yea, I take lessons with a tutor and also from watching series or even listening to music is helpful.

  6. I’d like to introduce this posting: http://shmori6.blogspot.com/2010/05/what-is-korean-alphabet-hangeul.html

    I posted it before to introduce Hangeul 🙂 Hope it to be helpful to you guys!

  7. Oh yeah, romanization is always difficult! I prefer reading the names in Hangeul/Hangul.
    Is it right to call romanization as Romanji? Or is it just for Japanese?
    As far as P and B is concerned, as you already said they share the same mouth shape (bilabial) but the main difference isn’t the rush of air (airstream). P and B are plosive (explosive) consonants which means that they both have an airstream. P has a more strong airstream than B.
    The real difference is that B is a voicing consonant (the vocal cords vibrate) and P isn’t (the vocal cords don’t move).
    How to distinguish a voicing consonant from a mute one?
    Just put your hand on your throat! Pronounce B and you will feel the vibration. Pronounce P and there won’t be any.

    This is the main difference between ㅂ(more like [b]) and ㅍ (more like [p] and precisely: [pʰ]).

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Japanese calls it ローマ字 (romaji). “ji” is the Japanese reading of the character 字(letters) which in Korean would be “ja”. So in Korean I’d have to guess that it’s romaja 로마자, however, most people will say, “write it in English” when they want to romanize things.

      Thanks for the in depth tutorial on the p’s and b’s, but that’s got to be a little complicated for most people with no linguistic background, haha!

  8. Hmm.. I was just learning Korean for 3 days.

    First, I don’t understand why Gi Kwang’s hangul (Beast member) is gi-gwang. Yeah, it’s hard for me to distinguish between p and b, and k and g. And, when I search Lee Taemin’s hangul (SHINee member), it’s i-taemin. Then, I search Park Bom (2NE1 member), it’s said bark-bom. Why don’t use p for park? I think Korean has “ㅍ”.
    One more thing, please tell me why they call this “입니다” = imnida? Why don’t ibnida? Hmm.. I guess it’s just the same, right?

    Well, it’s confusing, though 😐 But I won’t give up just because of this, hahaa 😀

    • First, all the hangul is their original name, and the English spelling is romanization. They won’t use ㅍ for Park, because the name is 박. It really depends on which romanization system you use, but for names, like I said, it’s really up to the person who’s name it is.

      As for 입니다, it’s imnida because b before n makes an m sound. The name Lee, originally was spelled 리 a long time ago. North Koreans still spell it this way. The spelling changed in South Korea to just 이 to better reflect Seoul dialect. Romanization has simply stayed the same.

      Keep studying!

  9. Maybe… bb and dd are similar to the b and d in pinyin? (Unaspirated p and t) They’re somewhat different to the p and t in English and Spanish, sometimes we make unaspirated Ps and Ts but we still perceive them to be Ps and Ts, whereas in Chinese they’re completely different sounds.

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