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Posted : 2012-07-16 17:25
Updated : 2012-07-16 17:25

Unified system of Romanization


By Robert J. Fouser

Quietly, ever so quietly, displeasure with the current Romanization system of Korean is seeping into the news.

The issue stands with Chinese characters as the most contested Korean-language issue of the last 50 years. It stirs passions and sets groups of language experts against each other. Why is this so, and what, if anything, can be done about it?

The heart of the problem is ownership of language. Koreans naturally believe that they ``own" the Korean language and frequently refer to it as ``our language" (uri mal). In the postcolonial context of recent Korean history, the sense of ownership over language is magnified as memories of forced use of Japanese during harsh colonial rule from 1910-1945 are passed down to younger generations.

The last years of colonial rule were particularly severe as Japan forced Koreans to adopt Japanese names and banned the use of Korean in public. After liberation in 1945, those who fought to protect it during the colonial period were considered national heroes.
Ownership of Korean is closely tied to national identity and the collective trauma of Japanese colonial rule. Roman letters are not Korean, but Romanization of Korean immediately becomes a matter of ownership because Korean is ``our language."

The problem, of course, is that non-Koreans, particularly native speakers of languages that use Roman letters, believe that they have ownership over them and, by extension, ownership over the Romanization of Korean. Non-Koreans thus believe they should have the larger voice in deciding how to Romanize Korean.

The battle lines are clear: Koreans believe they should own Romanization by developing and promoting a ``Korean system"; non-Koreans believe that they should have the final say on the matter. This explains why many non-Koreans continue to reject the revised system of Romanization that the South Korean government adopted in 2000.

As with most ownership disputes, the Romanization debate is fraught with complications. The most obvious complication is that Koreans on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone have developed two official systems of Romanization. In 1992, a unified system was developed, but it failed to take hold on either side. Today, North Korea uses a variant of the McCune-Reischauer system that was the official system in South Korea from 1984-2000.

With much of Romanization referring to proper nouns that both Korean states share, the existence two systems make it difficult for organizations in third countries to choose a ``Korean" system. This explains why the McCune-Reischauer system and close variants of it remain the de facto standard in Korean studies outside of Korea.

For all its faults, it is neutral and has a long history of wide use. It remains that standard for nearly all scholarly books and articles outside Korea. Journalism and many websites, interestingly, commonly use the South Korean system to refer to South Korea and the North Korean system to refer to North Korea.

Another complication, of course, is the McCune-Reischauer system itself. The system was developed in 1938 by George M. McCune, a Pyongyang-born member of the McCune missionary family, and Edwin O. Reischauer, a famous 20th-century scholar on Japanese history.

For many Korean language scholars, the ``foreign" origins of the system during the Japanese colonial period are a metaphor for loss of ownership. Dropping the McCune-Reischauer system thus symbolizes the recovery of ownership of Korean. For average users, of course, the diacritic mark used in the McCune-Reischauer system is a major inconvenience, particularly in the digital age.

Clearly, the current situation is unacceptable. Romanization divides Koreans between themselves and between Korea and the rest of the world. Visceral claims of ownership between Koreans and non-Koreans make dispassionate discussion difficult. The historically dominant system is outdated and inconvenient.

The beginning of a solution starts with ownership. Koreans need to update "our language" to include non-Koreans. The multiculturalization of Korean society is challenging traditional definitions of national identity. This more inclusive attitude will eventually weaken notions of language ownership. Non-Koreans need to recognize the needs that Koreans have for Romanization and the inconvenience of the orthodox McCune-Reischauer system.

All of which leads back to the 1992 proposal that both Koreas made after five years of negotiations. The proposal was wonderfully simple: the South Korean proposal for vowels and the North Korean proposal for consonants. The resulting system was an inclusive ``Korean" system that was enough like McCune-Reischauer to vie for dominance. The way forward, then, is for both Koreans to sit down again and revive negotiations based on the 1992 proposal.

In the end, only the legitimacy and shared ownership of a unified system can bring an end to the Romanization wars.

The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Email him at fouser@snu.ac.kr.

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