The Problems of Korean Romanization

This article was originally posted in 2017, re-published today with minor revisions.

For Korean pop culture enthusiasts, romanization is a crucial part of life. It makes our stay in the fandom essentially…easier. And it’s pretty obvious why: not all of us can read the Korean script, Hangul. With romanization, we can now casually sing along to our fave K-Pop beats, read famous K-Drama lines, and pronounce basic Korean words. Sometimes this is where we even kick-start our learning of the Korean language. But did you know that behind the convenience of romanization lies dangers that, especially if you’re studying Korean, can get you off on the wrong foot?

Romanization, or at least reading romanized Korean, is easy and convenient, but it is not accurate—and that is where the problem is. While romanization tries to represent the pronunciation of words in the most precise way possible, in many instances, it still fails to do so. The reason is simple: the Latin script and the Korean script are two different writing systems, each having their own pronunciation rules. One could not simply and completely represent the other without compromising the actual sound of their symbols.

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In one of our previous articles, we identified eight Korean words that are often mispronounced, many of which are because of romanization issues. One should always remember that the Korean script is the only script that 100% captures the actual sound of Korean words. The characters have their own distinct pronunciations that are sometimes impossible to represent in the Latin script perfectly. Take “막내” for example. The word is usually romanized as “maknae,” creating the impression that it is pronounced as “mac-neigh” when in fact it’s supposed to sound similar to “mang-ne.” It is no surprise therefore that you can sometimes here non-Koreans pronounce it as the former instead of the latter. Check out the article here and you will see what we actually mean.

Aside from this, romanization can also be confusing. Take for example the romanized lyrics of this K-Pop song by TWICE:

Romanized Version

CHEER UP BABY CHEER UP BABY
jom deo himeul lae
yeojaga swipge mameul jumyeon andwae
geuraeya niga nal deo johahage doelgeol

Hangul Verion

CHEER UP BABY CHEER UP BABY
좀 더 힘을 내
여자가 쉽게 맘을 주면 안돼
그래야 니가 날 더 좋아하게 될걸

What do you notice? The words look too long, with some having multiple vowels and consonants that leave you asking how in the world you are supposed to pronounced them! Take note of the second line. The “himeul lae” is romanized in its actual pronunciation although in Hangul, it would be written as “힘을 내” (transliteration: himeul nae). Relying heavily on romanization, one could incorrectly write the lyrics in Hangul based on what is heard as 힘을 래 (transliteration: himeul lae). Another example is 될걸, the last word in the same song, which was romanized as “doelgeol.” It might confuse some people how to read it, but the pronunciation should be “dwael-geol.”

Lastly, romanization isn’t always uniform. For the Korean language, the most commonly used romanization system is the Revised Romanization of Korean which is the one officially used in Korea. It probably is what non-Korean K-Pop fans are most familiar with. But there are at least three other more romanization systems! And even those who use the McCune-Reischaeur system sometimes add a few exceptions, deviating in a few to several instances from its rules for convenience.

Interestingly, this “romanization” confusion can also be seen in its reverse when English words are written and pronounced the “Korean” way. Take for example Red Velvet’s song “Russian Roulette,” which in Hangul is “러시안룰렛.” The title, when romanized, will actually become “Reosian Rullet” which can confuse everyone. Heck, even Red Velvet member Wendy seems to forget at times!

Now that we have identified the problems of romanization, you probably are asking: what can we do to not fall into the traps of romanized Korean words? Well, the answer is simple: learn how to read and write Hangul.

Easier said than done, definitely. It can be hard at first, and probably even intimidating, especially to those who are new in Korean culture, but reading the Korean script is easy if you really want to learn it! And as much as we don’t like saying it, there is…basically no other way. Learning it will help you associate the sound with the symbol without mixing the Latin scripts in your head. There are a lot of tutorials on YouTube and that could be a good start for you. Or you can go to one of these schools so you can formally learn the language. If you prefer self-studying, however, listening to news and variety shows can help you improve your pronunciation!

Don’t get us wrong. Romanization is not bad. It is a good way to help bridge the gap between two different languages and writing systems. But it is not perfect and that is why we have to be careful when using it. Besides, and we repeat, there is no other script that best represents Korean words and pronunciation than Hangul.


Aya Ople contributed to this article.

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