01-04-2008 16:11
Meaning of Name


By Sera Park

Whenever asked about the correct spelling of my name, I ask them back ``Have you seen the movie 'Leaving Las Vegas'?'' A short pause ensues, and their faces read bewilderment. I can't help but enjoy their embarrassment: What does the movie have to do with your name?
Losing patience, some ask me again ``Sarah with an `H'?" Then I say as if I have been waiting for it ``With an `E.' S-E-R-A. Sera," just like Elisabeth Shue said in her first encounter with Nicholas Cage.

And I continue, I was named after my Christian name ``Seraphina,'' feeling a brief sense of triumph over cultural and linguistic barriers that I sincerely hope to overcome as a non-native English speaker.

The English naming issue arose again when I had to give a suitable name for my son. I was struggling to come up with a proper one not-too-English and not-too-Korean. Between his Korean and English name should also exist some kind of similarity in phonetics. As a life-long English learner, I only had a very vague idea of what English name would sound plausible.

Thus I consulted with a native speaker to check whether my name sounded okay to them too.

I had to not because I dared to show off my English speaking ability as a non-native speaker _ but because once I had to explain my surname as accurately as possible by adding ``Park as in parking lot." It is funny that I could not think of any other word.

The point is, I do not want that to happen to my son either (Luckily, he will most likely not face any funny situation with his family name ``Lee").

With the birth of my daughter came the same procedures. I decided to name her ``Yoon," a phonetic spelling of the latter letter of her two-syllable first name.

My husband suggested calling her ``So Yoon," her full given name, but I railed at him ``So what?" Bringing up the so-something issue, I got back to my work. Suddenly I found myself stuck in a very tricky situation. I asked myself ``How do I Romanize her name? Is it Yoon, Youn, or Yun?"

For the first time, I realized that Korean proper nouns, including geographical and names of famous Korean figures, rendered into English left me lost in translation.

Before checking the Korean spelling, I could not figure the whom, what and where. Definitely there was a huge difference between the sound of the original word and the way its English translation sounds.

On the Internet I was able to find out about the Romanization rules of the called the McCune-Reischauer system. It says, ``When Romanization rules conflict with the pronunciation of a word, prefer to represent the pronunciation." According to the system, Korean diphthongs spell ``ya, yo, yu, yae, ye, wa, wae, wo, we, ui" in English. In that way ``Seoul" spells "Soul," transforming into a somewhat graceful, meaningful name.

Although a rich variety of vowels in the Korean language reveal the limitations of the McCune-Reischauer system, I have no better option after all. A more refined, standardized system is needed; however with no one to straighten it out, I am the one who has to make a decision.

From now on, I will call her ``Yun" in English. Even if she never knows how much thought I have put into such a simple name, I do not care. At least, I can tell her that I have thought it through and through.

Sera Park works at the Korea Federation of Banks in Seoul. She conducts research on foreign banks and the financial system. She can be reached at ndisclosed77@hanmail.net.