It is dinner time, you are walking around your neighbourhood, you come across a Korean restaurant and decide to go in to try some of the food you have always wanted to try from your favourite K-Dramas: some tteokbokki. Or is it topokki? Or perhaps ttŏkpokki? Maybe it is ddukbukki. In the end, you give up on trying to pronounce it, point at the menu, and simply wait to enjoy your meal. Hangeul (the Korean alphabet) is romanised in so many different ways that learning how to properly pronounce the words becomes a frustrating and arduous task.
Photo from the book Hallyu by Judith Mallol, taken by me
Photo from the cooking book Korean Food Made Easy by Caroline Hwang, taken by me
Photo of a ‘topokki’ cup,
taken by me
Different romanisation systems
As mentioned previously, there are a few different systems used to romanise Korean, which share many similarities, but also have some key differences. The two most widely used are:
McCune–Reischauer Romanisation (MR, developed around 1939), which attempts to represent the phonetic pronunciation of Korean, and it is characterised by the use of apostrophes, breves and diereses to indicate orthographic syllable boundaries or to differentiate vowels. While this system may be the one that showcases pronunciation with most depth, it requires the reader to have previous knowledge of the meaning of every symbol used, as omitting the use of the symbols makes it impossible to differentiate the nuances of some sounds. This is especially notable on the internet, as many keyboards do not have the necessary symbols, which renders MR rather useless in certain online situations. Nonetheless, a variation of this method is the official romanisation system used in North Korea.
Revised Romanisation of Korean (RR, developed in 1995), which has been the official Korean language romanisation system in South Korea since the year 2000. This system was based on MR, but removed the use of symbols, opting instead to represent the sound differences through the use of different letters from the Latin alphabet. As an exception, hyphens are sometimes used in this system to disambiguate syllables and for given names. Even though RR solved many of the problems presented in MR, it is still not a perfect system, and the inaccuracy of some sound representations still causes confusion to many learners of Korean.
Street signs in South Korea, with examples of RR (top) and MR (bottom). Photo taken from: http://pinyin.info/news/2009/korea-may-make-some-spellings-mandatory/
Other romanisation systems in use are the ALA-LC (American Library Association – Library of Congress), which is used to represent bibliographic information by North American libraries and the British Library, and it emphasises the use of hyphens to separate syllables, but greatly disregards sound changes; and the Yale romanisation system, widely used among linguists, and distinguished by its focus on the morphophonemic structure of words (i.e. the sound changes produced in morphemes when combined to form words). While all these systems have advantages and disadvantages, one common denominator in their partial failure is the reference language they use: English.
English, an inadequate reference language
English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and it is often used as a lingua franca among foreigners from different countries, so in a way it does make sense that this be the language used as reference for standard romanisations of the Korean language. However, from the point of view of phonetic accuracy, since English and Korean phonologies (i.e. the collection of sounds specific to each language) are completely different, it becomes rather difficult to learn to pronounce Korean words correctly. Every language has its own set of sounds, and its own correlation of those sounds to the letters/characters in its alphabets, therefore it is counterproductive to try to represent a sound from a language (in this case, Korean) using a language that does not have that sound (English). In addition, non-English learners of Korean will often read the English romanisations following the set of pronunciation rules from their own languages, which adds another layer of confusion.
While romanisations can be useful for those that do not want/need to learn Korean, but rather just need to read some random Korean words (e.g. from a menu at a restaurant), or those who are beginning to learn the language but don’t quite know Hangeul yet, it is discouraged to rely on them too much, as if you become too dependent on them, it will be very difficult to get accustomed to reading Hangeul and to pronouncing it properly. This was the case of a Japanese classmate of mine, who struggled to pronounce 오, even though the teacher was clearly demonstrating how to say it, and the fact that in Japanese they have a character that is pronounced the exact same way, just because she was too focused on the romanisation and kept pronouncing it in English.
Image with examples of Konglish, made by me in Canva
The same case can be observed, but in reverse, with Konglish (Korean spelling of English words), since, as I mentioned before, the two languages have very different sets of sounds, and therefore a Korean native speaker trying to learn English relying solely on Konglish will never reach a native speaker level of pronunciation. In fact, while still not a perfect global solution, a more appropriate international language to use as reference for romanising Korean would be Spanish (especially the Castilian variant), as it has a more similar phonology to Korean.
Photo taken from: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hangul
Photo taken from: https://sites.google.com/site/funfunkor97/howtoreadhangul
In conclusion, if you are interested in learning Korean and want to be able to pronounce it as correctly as possible, make use of romanisations wisely and in the right measure, and take the time to familiarise yourself with Hangeul and the pronunciation rules of Korean, and you’ll be speaking the language like a native in no time!
Photo taken from: https://www.pinterest.es/pin/560557484872104836/
“ALA-LC Romanization.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Sept. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ALA-LC_romanization.
Lois. “Korean Romanization – How to Write Hangeul with English Letters.” 90 Day Korean®, 90 Day Korean®, 20 Sept. 2022, https://www.90daykorean.com/korean-romanization/.
“McCune–Reischauer.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Sept. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCune%E2%80%93Reischauer.
“National Institute of Korean Language Republic of Korea.” National Institute of Korean Language, https://www.korean.go.kr/front_eng/roman/roman_01.do.
“R/Koreanfood – K-Food Names Romanization.” Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/KoreanFood/comments/qu3l1m/kfood_names_romanization/.
“Revised Romanization of Korean.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Sept. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revised_Romanization_of_Korean.
“Romanization of Korean.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Aug. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanization_of_Korean.
“Yale Romanization of Korean.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 June 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yale_romanization_of_Korean.
Written by: Anna Franco Ucar
Reviewed by: Andrea Ramírez