Many people who came into contact with the Korean language soon notice that there are very many ways to relay the same Korean word in English.
You get to know a Korean lady called Mison, for example, and then you see her name spelled as “Misun” or “Miseon.” You hear about a demonstration in a city of Kwangju. You look for it on the internet and find that many sites spell it “Gwangju”.
There are two most widely-known transliteration systems for turning Korean language into Latin script.
The first one is called McCune-Reischauer (MCR) and is named for its developers – George McCune and Edwin Reischauer. This a very good and logical system, which is still widely used in the academic community.
There is just one problem with it – the MCR system uses diacritical marks (symbols like ŏ and ŭ) and it just so happens that English, the second most popular language on Earth, does not use them.
There is nothing wrong with diacritical marks. French, German and Czech readers are not at all surprised to see words like “système”, “Baden-Württemberg” or “čeština”. But English only utilizes diacritics for borrowed words and modern English keyboards generally do not support diacritical input.
One option would be to simplify MCR by omitting diacritical marks. For example, spelling Ch’ŏngjin as Chongjin. For decades, many Korean scholars did this – and so did the DPRK government (however, their system differs from simplified MCR, in one regard: the letter ㅈ is reflected as Ch in standard MCR and as J in North Korea.)
Perhaps the simplified MCR would have become the standard if it were not for the South Korean government. In 2000, Seoul revealed the Revised Romanization of Korean. Compared to McCune-Reischauer, it has one advantage: no diacritical marks. In all other regards, it is terrible.
For example, Korean has letters for normal and aspirated ‘p’ (ㅂ and ㅍ respectively). In standard McCune-Reischauer normal ‘p’ is, logically, written as ‘p’ and aspirated ‘p’ as ‘ p’ ‘, while the North Korean romanization changes the latter for “ph”.
Meanwhile, the Revised Romanization prescribes that the normal ‘p’ should be spelled as ‘b’ and aspirated ‘p’ – as ‘p’, which is, of course, very different from the original sounds. Imagine someone creating a system which prescribed spelling of “Clinton” as “Glindon” and you’ll see the level of error. Whose mind could have conceived this terrible idea, I cannot imagine.
The simplified MCR would have become the solution if it were not for the South Korean government
The second mistake was to relay some clearly monophthong phonemes with a diphthong. For example, a close central unrounded vowel (ㅡ) is relayed as ‘eu’ in the Revised Romanization, while it is perfectly clear to anyone that ‘eu’ being pronounced in English is very different from the original Korean phoneme.
Since 2000, the Revised Romanization has been promoted by Seoul with a lot of vigor, pushing names like “Busan,” “Daejeon,” or “Gyeonggi” instead of “Pusan,” “Taejŏn,” and “Kyŏnggi”.
The worst part of all is that the South Korean government has started to apply this Romanization to all languages which use Latin script, disregarding the fact that these languages have different phonetical systems.
For example, the name of Russian President is spelled “Wladimir” in German and his surname – “Poutine” in French, but if Moscow had acted like Seoul did, they would have just written “Vladimir Putin” in all languages, ignoring, for example, the fact that “Vladimir” in German sounds like “Fladimir” in English.
Similarly, Chuan station in Inchon became “Juan” under the new system. This applied to all languages, including Spanish, in which the letter J in this language is pronounced closer to English ‘h’.
Some South Korean institutions started to apply the Revised Romanization even to North Korean names, resulting in “Pyeongyang,” or “Gim Il-seong” (poor, poor Great Leader) and other monstrosities.
Meanwhile, ordinary Koreans generally ignore all the rules mentioned above. In school, they learn how to transliterate their name with a single purpose – so that a native speaker of American English (of a Californian variety, to be specific) can pronounce it in a way similar to its original spelling.
This is why an overwhelming majority of Korean names you would see on business cards would not correspond to any established system – a Korean man whose name is spelled “Chin-uk” according to McCune-Reischauer and “Jin-uk” according to Revised Romanization can easily introduce himself as “Geneuch”.
Linguists can also use another system called “Yale Romanization,” which lies in the middle between the other two systems in terms of easiness of understanding. Outside of linguistic works it is almost never used.
AND THE EXOTIC
The oddest names, however, come when a Korean word is transliterated through a third language. The most prominent case of this is Japanese. As readers will know, Korea was a colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945 and during this time geographical names of Korea were transliterated according to Japanese pronunciation of the characters.
Some South Korean institutions started to apply the Revised Romanization even to North Korean names, resulting in “Pyeongyang” or “Gim Il-seong”
Pusan was called Fuzan, Pyongyang became Heijo, Chongjin – Seishin, to name a few. It is also important that the Japanese also adopted a new transliterating system in early 1940 – not that dissimilar in inconvenience with the Revised Romanization of Korean, and Korean names became even less recognizable. Fuzan became Huzan, Heijo – Heizyo and Seishin – Seisin (by the way, Mt Fuji on the Japanese mainland became Mt Huzi).
The system was occasionally used in the West even during the Korean War – for example, the well-known “Battle of Chosin Reservoir” should really be called the “Battle of Changjin Reservoir” according to its Korean spelling.
The second exotic system comes from the USSR. In 1945, the Soviet Army arrived in North Korea. The army’s interpreters were Soviet Koreans, who spoke their own dialect, which is roughly as different from standard Korean as Indian English is from Received Pronunciation. So the Korean words were, in a double twist, written in Cyrillic transliteration of the dialect.
For example, good luck trying to guess who “Tsoi Yen Gen” was (for those who did not – this was how Vice-Marshal Choe Yong Gon’s name was spelled).
As the Soviet Union was of domineering force in Eastern Europe, the Korean names there were often transliterated from Russian. For example, in many East German documents, Choe Yong Gon ended up being called “Zoi En Gen” – in perfect accordance with Russian-to-German transliteration convention.
The moral of the story is that these systems are extremely complex and incoherent for those who do not know Korean script.
Unlike in Chinese, which in 90% of cases uses Pinyin, or Japan, which in 99% of cases Hepburn is used, in Korea you never know what kind of transliteration you might encounter. So if you are connected to Korea in any way, but do not know the alphabet – learn it. It is simple, and takes one day to learn and roughly two to three weeks to master – and will save you a lot of time.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Many people who came into contact with the Korean language soon notice that there are very many ways to relay the same Korean word in English.You get to know a Korean lady called Mison, for example, and then you see her name spelled as "Misun" or "Miseon." You hear about a demonstration in a city of Kwangju. You look for it on the internet and find that many sites spell it “Gwangju”.
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.