A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Romanization of Asian Language Writing Systems

When it comes to languages that use script different from the Roman alphabet used in many European languages, a perennial problem is how to best represent the sounds of those languages in “romaji,” as romanized script is called here in Japan. Of course, if foreigners take the time to learn the local language and its writing system, then they can communicate directly with that. Needless to say, that is not a realistic option for those who can’t devote years of study, and even then, one still needs to at least begin with a romanized representation of the words one is learning. So, how were the various systems of romanization developed, and which is to be preferred?

With respect to the Japanese language, if a foreigner unfamiliar with Japanese sees a word such as “syukai,” how likely is it he or she will pronounce it “shukai?” About the same chance as the proverbial “snowball in hell,” since what usually comes out is something like “sai-yu-kai.” “Syu” makes sense from the standpoint of the Japanese phonetic system, where it is written as a combination of “し” (pronounced “shi” but sometimes written as “si,” another source of confusion) and “ゆ” (“yu”). In combined form, then, it comes out as “しゅ”, which logically could be romanized as “syu.” The problem is, of course, that a foreigner will likely think this represents two separate syllables, “sy” and “u,” and pronounce it accordingly. Thus, from that standpoint, “shu” is clearly a better choice.

So the question that really needs to be addressed is, “For whom is the romanization being produced?” Presumably, it is for the foreigner who hasn’t learned that language and needs a romanized writing system to be able to at least come close to correctly pronouncing unfamiliar words and names. It would seem, then, that the principle for deciding on a romanization system should be just that — namely, what system will make it easiest for such foreigners to most closely approach a proper pronunciation. In reality, however, this seemingly obvious principle is often overridden by all sorts of other competing factors, including cultural pride and politics.

Romanized Japanese is relatively easy to deal with, when compared to certain other Asian languages. Some, of course, are inherently difficult to represent in a romanized system, as various indicators need to be added to express such things as tones and other linguistic aspects not found in western languages (the tonal language of Chinese being a prime example of that).

The linguistic turmoil going on in Korea is an interesting example of how political considerations have trumped the pragmatic need of a romanization system designed for foreigners. Prior to the “turn of the century,” you would fly into “Kimpo” airport and perhaps take a trip to the southern city of “Pusan” to eat some “kimchi.” According to the newly imposed romanization system, however, to do the exact same thing today, you fly into “Gimpo” airport and take a trip to “Busan” to eat “gimchi!”

No, the Koreans have not suddenly changed the way they pronounce these words, and from what I, a foreigner who has only superficially studied Korean, can tell from what I actually hear them say, it sure sounds like the old system accurately portrayed these and numerous other words, whereas the new system at first glance just seems “nuts.” The Korean linguists who developed the new system, however, were not “nuts,” and there actually are logical reasons behind the need for a new system. It seems that the rationale presented is that in this age of the internet, the former “McCune-Reischauer” system caused too many problems. What was needed was a system that used only the ordinary English letters required by the internet and also could have a one-to-one correspondence between a certain Korean sound and its romanized equivalent. (In other words, two distinct Korean sounds shouldn’t look the same in romanization.)

While that is certainly a necessary property of modern romanized writing systems, in the case of Korea, it seems that politics also played a major role. The name of the former system, McCune-Reischauer, gives a hint of what is involved here. The new system, by the way, is called the “Sejong system,” and is named after the famous King who first commissioned scholars to come up with the ingenious “hangul” writing system over 500 years ago.

You’ll no doubt recognize the name “Reischauer,” as he was the American ambassador to Japan following WWII, among with many other notable achievements. His parents had come to Japan as missionaries, and so he was born and raised in Japan. Being fluent in Japanese and familiar with the culture, he was of immense importance in U.S.-Japan relations during and after the war. During the summer of 1937, Edwin Reischauer was on his way to China to research a paper he was writing in Japan, but the turmoil that took place in China at that time forced him to lay over in Korea for a couple of months.

The Japanese, who had ruled Korea since 1910, had come up with their own romanization system for use in Korean, but it had numerous problems, and so Reischauer worked together with a missionary named George McCune to devise a better system that could more accurately represent Korean sounds. That system was formally adopted in 1939, and it served well for many years, until the issue of the internet arose. The problem was that it included “diacritic” marks on some vowels to distinguish them, but these could not be used for web and email addresses. What was needed was a system that used only regular alphabet letters that would also have a one-to-one correspondence with specific sounds represented in hangul letters. (Similar issues exist in Japanese, with the lengthening of certain vowel sounds. For instance, the “o’s” in “Tokyo” are technically lengthened “o’s” that can be more accurately written as “Tōkyō.” But “ō” is not “internet-friendly.” It could be written with “oo” or “oh” to indicate this distinction, but most people deem it unimportant, and so “Tokyo” it is.)

So, are such distinctions in Korean so important that a slightly modified McCune-Reischauer system couldn’t be devised? While the subtleties of Korean pronunciation are beyond my expertise, it would certainly seem that the wholesale changes brought about by the new “Sejong system” involve a whole lot more than just making the system internet friendly. When I asked a friend of mine who is a long-term resident of Korea about this issue, he said, “When the decision to change the romanization was made, the foreign community was locked out of the process and a group of Korean linguists made all the decisions. Of course, Koreans resented the McCune-Reischauer system because of its Japanese connections and because it was done by foreigners.”

Just like any other sovereign people, the Koreans are, of course, free to make their own system whatever they want it to be. Just because native English speakers pronounce alphabet letters a certain way doesn’t mean that everybody has to follow suit. After all, are we going to dictate to the French that they shouldn’t spell “Bordeaux” the way they do and should instead change it to “English-friendly” “Bordoe?” Obviously not.

There is, however, a huge difference between that and the situation in Korea. Not only is there the issue of foreigners getting very confused by the difference between what the romanized spellings would seem to indicate and the way Koreans actually pronounce those words, but also, many Koreans are equally confused about English pronunciation because they are trying to sound out words based on the Korean romanization they are learning. The problems are so pervasive that there is active discussion going on about trying to revise the system again.

Frankly, I’ll take the problems with “romaji” we have here in Japan to the issues the Koreans face. Somehow, the linguistic issues surrounding “taking a trip from Tukuba to Tōkyō to eat some susi” don’t seem nearly as daunting as “flying into Gimpo Airport and taking a trip to Busan for some Gimchi.” Nevertheless, it would be nice to be consistent here in Japan as well, and “take a trip from Tsukuba to Tokyo to eat some sushi!”

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