[Editorial] Romanizing Korean

      July 04, 2000 19:42




      The System of Romanization for the Korean Language has been revised after sixteen years of use. Now that the new system has been reported to Tuesday's cabinet meeting, Romanizations of Korean in publications such as textbooks, road signs, informational signs at cultural sites, and maps will all now follow this system. The new Romanization system's most obvious characteristics can be found in the way it does not use special symbols such as the breve and the apostrophe, it does not differentiate between voiced and non-voiced sounds, and ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, and ㅈ are written as g, d, b, and j when they are followed by vowels.



      The changing of a nation's language policy will always be complicated and be a financial burden. Confusion can be expected for quite some time. The government's explanation for the change is that the previous system was unfitting for the information age in that it was extremely cumbersome for use on computers, and that the method of Romanization itself was more difficult than it had to be. The new system has vastly improved on these shortcomings and it is evident that the new system is the result of much effort, but there remain elements that will make permanent use difficult. The vowels ㅓ and ㅡ will each be written as eo and eu respectively. The consonants ㅉ, ㅃ, and ㄲ, are to be written as jj, pp, and kk. Plenty of room remains for doubt about whether this is the best possible answer. It had been suggested that ㅓ be written as o or u, but in the end this new system reverts to the writing ㅓ as eo, just like in the system used before 1983. This is limited thinking, and will be difficult for foreigners to read.



      Nevertheless, the new Romanization system is the result a wide variety of opinion observed at public hearings and after much controversy. The goal now must be for everyone to follow the principles of the new system to alleviate the confusion within the shortest time possible. The government must work to help both Koreans and foreigners understand the new system so that it will gain wider confidence. According to the new system, the "turtle boat" previously written as "kObuksOn," but now that it's “geobunseon,” many English native foreigners will pronounce it as “jee oh book say ohn.” Nevertheless, the spelling of any word is a social contract, and every country will have its own sound value for what are often the same characters. We need to be ready to inform those who wouldn't otherwise know how to pronounce the "turtle boat" properly. China once wrote "Beijing" as "Peking." It took years for China to get the rest of the world to write its capital as "Beijing."



      Textbooks, maps, and other government publications that use the old system of Romanization will be allowed to be used until the end of February 2002. Road signs and signs explaining cultural sites will be allowed to remain unchanged until 2005. A gradual and effective plan must be implemented to reduce cost as we make the change. Previously used Romanizations of personal and company names will be exempted from being required to follow the new system, but the government will have to continue to work to unify the Romanizations of family names at the earliest date possible.



      (July 5, 2000)

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