Posted by: rbbadger | May 27, 2010

How to write Korean in Roman letters?

The Korean language is blessed with an utterly perfect and scientific alphabet.  It is something which Koreans take a great deal of pride in, as well they should.  Even today, scholars marvel at the elegance of the design.  It fits the language like a glove.

However, there are times when Korean has to be written using Roman letters.  In scholarly papers in English, there are two main preferred styles.  One of them is the McCune-Reischauer system.  My dad is probably most familiar with this one.  In scholarly literature in the West today, the city of Incheon will appear as Inch’ŏn.  The McCune-Reischauer system uses ŏ for the vowel 어 and ŭ for the vowel 으. The problem with this system is that keyboards generally do not have the capability of typing ŏ or ŭ. So you have to know some code in order to do it.

The Yale System of Romanization does not suffer from these problems. It is used only by linguists, though, and the spellings seems really strange to me. It is not as user friendly as the McCune-Reischauer system is, at least for reading by the unitiated.  King Sejong becomes King Seycong, Ŭijŏngbu becomes Uycengbu and it doesn’t adequately distinguish between 으 and 우 (one is ŭ and the other is just plain “u”).  However, if you want to access such things as Samuel E. Martin’s Reference Grammar of the Korean Language, you have to know it. 

In 2000, the Korean government came up with its own Romanization, known as the Revised Romanization.  The English spellings of cities and towns were immediately changed.  Kwangju became Gwangju, Inch’ŏn became Incheon, and Ŭijŭngbu became Uijeongbu.  Incheon fought a legal battle with the government to keep the old spelling, but lost.  The Chosŏn Dynasty became the Joseon Dynasty, Koryŏ became Goryeo and much more. The government wants everybody’s names to conform to this standard on new passports. So those who previously spelled their family name as Kim will now bear the name of Gim, those who spelled their name Pak, Park, or Bahk will become Bak, and those whose family name is Lee will become just plain I (pronounced like “ee”).

Currently, nobody outside of Korea really uses the Revised Romanization. For non-linguistic papers in English or other European languages, the McCune-Reischauer system is and remains standard outside of Korea. For those who are linguists, Samuel E. Martin’s Yale System remains the standard in that particular profession.  In Korea, however, anything published in English now tends to conform to the Revised Romanization of 2000.

Korean does not led itself well to being rendered in Roman letters. Mercifully, the writing system is easy to learn. Sometimes there is confusion, as this sign for the Gyeseong Girls’ High School in Seoul shows. There’s no need for the breve over the o.



  1. I am not good at either McCune-Reischauer or Yale system, because I did not have a chance to learn it except IPA (international phonetic alphabet) in Phonetics class.

    It will be really confusing to write “I” instead of “Lee” for family name in revised Romanization. Then, one might introduce oneself: “Hello, I am I. By the way, she is I and he is I too.”

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