Comparative dialectology and romanizations for North and South Korea

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[This is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey]

Your Language Log coverage of the North Korean news item was chilling, but pretty much what we've come to expect of that outrageous regime. If ever there was a clearer contrast between the two worlds in conflict, I've never heard of it. South Korea is now such a star on the world stage and rising so fast, it must be a bitter pill for the regime in Pyongyang to swallow! 

Just a couple of things that occurred to me, though: (1) What authorities in Pyongyang do not recognize, or concede, is that though they point to the Pyongyang dialect as the basis of their standard, that very standard itself is based upon the earlier, traditional dialect of Seoul that represented the cultural and linguistic capital of the Joseon Period (–or "Choson" period, as DPRK spelling of the word would have it). 

And (2): While on the subject of spellings, it might be worthwhile to point out that the romanization the DPRK uses is based upon the McCune-Reischauer system still used by many Western academics. But the North Korean version is actually more pragmatic than Western academic usage in that the North Koreans eliminate the annoying diacritics of McR that have long exasperated so many Western romanizers–and which Seoul academics used as one of the justifications for the new Revised system they introduced in 2000–and which they so dogmatically insist on now.  

But about this particular romanization matter: I swear, South Korean officialdom can be so rigid I find their pushiness most unpleasant. I mean, Seoul romanization warriors often refuse to allow Westerners any freedom of choice in how they romanize Korean. They think they have the right to set the standard for everybody. A close colleague of mine, for one, has told me he has often gotten impolite messages from South Koreans informing him that his online works contained "mistakes" that had to be corrected, meaning that he was using McR Romanization instead of Seoul's own Revised Romanization–and then some of these kibitzers attempted to make those "corrections" themselves even though the works belonged not to the Seoul government but to my colleague as an individual scholar! 

My own obsession, the nit I'd like to pick, is that I think the word 한글 should just be romanized "Hangul" instead of the odd-looking "Hangeul" (odd-looking to Westerners, at least).  I mean, for daily Western usage there's no need for that extra <e> that only makes the word look ill-formed. Koreans, of course, are trying to distinguish between the vowels ㅡ and ㅜ, but here, especially for Westerners, that distinction is meaningless. After all, there is no word *한굴 to be confused with 한글! I mean if you can spell 김치 exceptionally as "kimchi" instead of the prescribed "gimchi", why not hangul? Is Hangul not as important to Korea as kimchi?

Of course it's undeniably true that Revised Romanization seems to have taken over much of what we see out there these days. Nevertheless, let's remember that all along the North Koreans have continued to use their own simplified version of McR. And that means that in the end, I'm not sure it's a given that Revised has to win the world.

Selected readings


  1. Chris Button said,

    April 25, 2023 @ 10:49 am

    English does often use the inverse “ue” for “ü” though, such as in muenster cheese

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    April 25, 2023 @ 11:12 am

    "I think the word 한글 should just be romanized "Hangul" instead of the odd-looking "Hangeul" (odd-looking to Westerners, at least)" — not to all Westerners, surely ? If Google Translate's pronunciation of 한글is correct, then would not a native French speaker be better able to approximate the pronunciation (modulo tones) from "Hangeul" than from "Hangul" ?

  3. David Marjanović said,

    April 25, 2023 @ 2:51 pm

    English does often use the inverse “ue” for “ü” though, such as in muenster cheese

    That's standard practice in German (along with ae, oe) whenever the dots are unavailable or traditionally treated as unavailable (e.g. in almost all crosswords). It's also the historical origin of the dots: they're still vertical strokes in handwriting, descending from the narrow-n-shaped e of Sütterlin-type cursive. Superscript e-shaped e dates back to the Middle Ages (but was never consistently used).

    would not a native French speaker be better able to approximate the pronunciation […] from "Hangeul" than from "Hangul" ?

    Very good point, except that the sequence ge would be misleading.

  4. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 26, 2023 @ 3:04 am

    Similarly, the naive English reader may be tempted to pronounce "Hangeul" as "hange-ool".

    Maybe the Revised fanatics would have found it easier to swallow if the English version had been "Hangool" or something, that looked more obviously like an anglicization of the word than a romanization of the spelling?

  5. Taylor, Philip said,

    April 26, 2023 @ 3:45 am

    "Very good point, except that the sequence 'ge' would be misleading" — agreed, so how about "Hangueul" ?

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    April 26, 2023 @ 5:12 am

    Yes, it is worth pointing out that the modern standardization of the language was carried out before the division of the peninsula, and both North and South Korea inherited a standard language that was based on the Central Korean dialect of Seoul (which had been the capital since the late 14th century).

    There has been some divergence in the linguistic norms since, at least some of which were probably motivated by dialectal differences (the lack of the 'initial sound rule' in North Korean orthography for instance reflects the fact that this sound change was incomplete in the northern dialects), but the fact remains that the standard language in both Koreas is based on the same speech variety. It is assuredly not the traditional speech of Pyongyang, which belongs to a separate dialect area, Northwest Korean. The standard word for 'mother' is 어머니 in North Korea as it is in the South, not the Pyongyang dialect form 오마니.

    In fact, I wonder how much of the traditional dialect remains in today's speech in Pyongyang. The traditional dialect of Seoul has mostly disappeared due to demographic changes and pressure from Standard Korean, which it is very similar but not identical to. I suspect the Northwest Korean dialect is alive and well in the surrounding countryside, but there must be pressure from the North Korean version of Standard Korean within Pyongyang itself.

  7. Ebenezer Scrooge said,

    April 26, 2023 @ 10:10 am

    Some of us lawyer types benefit from Romanization Nazis. If you want to take a useful security interest in the assets of a company, you've often got to get its name right at the state filing office. This isn't hard for US companies, since they have unique names in Roman, and US filing offices work in Roman. But foreign companies in non-Roman jurisdictions? Japanese companies are helpful enough to have an official Romaji name. Other countries have Romanization rules. The more rigid these rules, the better, so you don't have to think of variant spellings. All hail the pinheaded Korean bureaucrat!

  8. Jongseong Park said,

    April 26, 2023 @ 11:31 pm

    I treat Hangul as an English word, and write han'geul when I'm explicitly romanizing the word as part of a Korean text, e.g. 한글학회 Han'geul Hakhoe (Korean Language Society). The Revised Romanization could really do with taking a page from McCune–Reischauer and requiring an apostrophe to disambiguate the sequence ㄴㄱ n'g from ㅇ ng. In fact, I use the apostrophe whenever you have sequences like ae, eo, eu, oe, and ui that do not stand for single medials, e.g. 가을 ga'eul instead of 개울 gae'ul. The official rules allow the use of hyphens for this purpose, but I prefer to reserve hyphens where they make more sense, like between particles and the words they attach to.

    Also, the official romanization examples insist on duplicating the word division of Korean orthography in romanization, meaning that they would write Hangeulhakhoe for 한글학회. This leads to egregious examples like Samgungnyusa for 삼국유사 (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), which even most Korean speakers would automatically write as Samguk Yusa, because treating the whole thing as one word means having to romanize the sound changes that occur across its internal boundary. I get that there are advantages to rigid, unthinking standardization, but let's be reasonable here.

  9. Peter Grubtal said,

    April 27, 2023 @ 1:04 am

    It's interesting to see how the poor Koreans get all this stick for trying to impose some uniformity, with the argument that it's odd-looking ….(odd-looking to Westerners, at least) and contains awkward diacritics. The impostures of the PRC with pinyin however, which is even more grotesque in those regards, are accepted meekly…nay are anticipated avidly, with what in Germany is called vorauseilende Gehorsamkeit.

    Someone was saying, it's likely that Hong Kong is next for this treatment.

  10. Chas Belov said,

    April 29, 2023 @ 3:11 am

    I'm actually glad they do ue rather than just u, so that I'm reminded it's a different vowel.

  11. cliff arroyo said,

    April 29, 2023 @ 4:30 pm

    "annoying diacritics of McR "

    I _like_ the diacritics of McR… though in terms of frequency I wish that u and ŭ were reversed since the latter is much more common than the former (o and ŏ too….).

    But McR looks feasible and the current SK system is just ugly….

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