Saturday, July 11, 2009

Korean Romanization Stirs Debate

One of my first challenges in learning Korean was also trying to figure out romanization. As a historian, we favor the McCune-Reischauer (MR) method. BTW I quickly found out that romanization actually hurt learning Korean, nevertheless, I find it interesting that it continues to be modified and stir debate,

Joongang Ilbo notes.
“The Korean romanization system has been modified three times over the past six decades since 1948 when it was first officially formulated,” said Professor Song Ki-joong, a professor emeritus of Korean language at Seoul National University, who has been involved in numerous Korean romanization projects since 1983. “There have simply been too many changes.”

The romanization system last got an update in 2000, when the Korean government implemented use of the Revised Romanization of Korean.

Prior to that, romanization of Korean was primarily accomplished through the system created by scholars George McCune and Edwin Reischauer, albeit with two major adjustments in 1959 and 1984, when the Korean government adopted it as the country’s official romanization system.

The Revised Romanization system doesn’t differentiate between how voiced and voiceless sounds were transliterated, resulting in the change in the way the name of the southeastern city was written in English: from “Pusan” under the McCune-Reischauer system to “Busan” under Revised Romanization.

The romanization issue recently flared again when the Presidential Council on National Competitiveness announced two weeks ago that it would change the system yet again in a bid to raise the Korean language’s international competitiveness.

Under the plan, a new romanization system would be introduced in 2011.

The announcement caused immediate controversy among scholars and the general public, mainly due to the fact that the latest revision was carried out only nine years ago.

“The current system is causing confusion because it is different from the McCune-Reischauer system used widely abroad,” the council said.

Kang Man-soo, the council chairman who is well known for his advocacy of the McCune-Reischauer system, said that the Revised Romanization system should be changed to reflect international standards and the preferences of foreigners.

In early 2000, when he was the vice finance minister, Kang had a heated argument about the government’s shift away from the M-R system with the National Institute of the Korean Language, which created the Revised Romanization system, through a series of columns.

Last year, when he was the head of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, Kang, a major political figure with close ties to President Lee Myung-bak, was also reported to have made a personal request to Culture Minister Yu In-chon to consider revision of the romanization system.

“It is also problematic that discussion of a matter of such national importance would be put down according to the will of someone higher up,” Professor Song said.

Skeptics tend to argue that romanization should be a matter of consistency, rather than of efficiency.

“It’s not uncommon to find signs and Web sites that use old spellings [from the M-R system]. What’s confusing is not necessarily the current system, but rather that there are a couple in use, and there are a number of hybrids,” Brian Deutsch, an English teacher based in South Jeolla and a regular JoongAng Daily contributor, wrote in a recent column. “The fact that there are so many systems and hybrids in use shows that no single one is perfect and that a great deal of thought is needed before changing things yet again.”

But any changes to the system at this point will put a large economic burden on the nation. According to estimates by the presidential council, implementation of a new romanization system, which includes the cost of changing English names on official documents and signboards around the country, would cost 300 billion won ($235 million).

The idea that the government should take its time before moving forward with its romanization plans may be, in part, a response to the government’s previous attempt to change the system.

Youe Mahn-gunn, a professor emeritus at Sungkyunkwan University who chaired a subcommittee of six scholars established by the National Institute of the Korean Language charged with devising a new system, acknowledged in a 2005 interview with a local broadcaster that the decision to change the M-R system and the process of developing Revised Romanization was done quickly in anticipation of the number of foreign visitors set to arrive for the 2002 World Cup.

Professor Song at SNU, who had initially been part of the subcommittee, which was set up by the Culture Ministry in 1997, said he was one of the people on the committee who was strongly opposed to the introduction of a new system.

“I actually preferred the previous system [M-R] to the current one [adopted in 2000]. But I object to a new revision of the system, even if that means going back to the previous system,” Song said.

“What we need is not to create a new system but stick to a single system once it is set. I think it is problematic for the government to change the system every now and again,” he added.

“Given that it is impossible to perfectly transliterate Korean into English or another language, who can guarantee that the government will not come up with a new method again, say, after 10 years, that it claims is even more efficient?”

The necessity of staying with a single system once it is established seems evident, considering the confusion that already exists.

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