A note on Korean romanization
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.
B: Allright, what’s the number of the station?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.