January 16, 2004

President Roh and Dr. No

The romanization of Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun's family name, spelled Roh, pronounced [no], seems to be a cause of on-going bewilderment. Bob Woodiwiss wondered about it, en passant, in a 1997 screed in the Cincinnati alternative newspaper Citybeat devoted to the romanization of the name of the late Chinese leader Deng Hsiao-Ping. More recently, this topic has been a concern of commentators on the right.

In December of 2002 Jay Nordlinger of the National Review had this comment:

I have always chafed at nonsensical transliteration - for example, we're supposed to call President Roh - South Korea's newly elected leader - President No. (Does he have a Ph.D.? With an eye to James Bond, he could be Dr. No!) (Then again, Jesse Helms was "Senator No" - Senator Roh?)
If I had more time, I'd start a For Common Sense in Transliteration committee. And eternally, I'm reminded of Arsenio Hall's complaint about the spelling/pronunciation of Sade (moniker of the pop singer): "That's like me saying, `My name is B-o-b, but I pronounce it `linoleum'"
A month later, in his column "On Language" of January 19, 2003, language pundit William Safire raised the same issue. He reports that he was unable to obtain a satisfactory explanation from President Roh's media adviser, from a spokesman for the Korean Embassy, and from a British-born Buddhist monk at Sogang University named An Sonjae, He finally decided that the best explanation was that offered by former Korean President Roh Tae Woo, who shifted from the spelling No to Roh because the NO on the nameplate of his army uniform reminded him of the English word no, which he felt was too negative for his positive personality.

All the President's Media Advisor, Ben Limb, could come up with is that this spelling is common practice. Safire is right: that isn't much of an explanation.

The Korean Embassy spokesman explained:

The r spelling is a function of the hangul letter and how it is pronounced when that Korean initial letter is followed by that vowel. It is a weird grammar rule.
This is more in the nature of an explanation, but aside from the fact that it doesn't spell things out adequately for someone who doesn't know Korean and its writing system, it doesn't work. It would make sense if President Roh's name were spelled with the hangul letter ᄅ, which is the letter used to write [r], but it isn't. In hangul, this family name is spelled with the letter /n/ (ᄂ), as you can see on the Korean version of his web page: 노무현 대통령. (This says Roh Moo-Hyun Dae To-Ryong "President Roh Moo-Hyun".)

Here is Safire's account of what he learned from Dharma Teacher An Sonjae:

The Korean alphabet, known as hangul, contains a symbol that is usually romanized (spelled in English) as r. When this symbol comes first, it is pronounced as ''a liquid n'' if the vowel following is a simple one, but disappears completely if it is followed by a diphthong, a gliding sound like oi. So? ''The English spelling Roh,'' An says, ''reflects the original Chinese pronunciation more accurately than the spelling in Korean does, but the pronunciation Noh reflects the modern Korean pronunciation.''

The first part of this is a slightly garbled version of the same explanation as that offered by the Korean embassy. And it fails for the same reason: President Roh's name does not begin with the hangul letter ᄅ. The second part invites the inference that President Roh chose the romanization Roh because he wanted to preserve the original Chinese pronounciation, which immediately raises the question of why he would want to do that. It's easy to see why Safire found all of this confusing.

To get to the root of this, we need to understand a bit about the phonology of Korean. Korean has both an [l] sound and an [ɾ] sound. [ɾ] is a kind of r, though it isn't exactly the same as the [r] that most English speakers use. It's the sound that most American English speakers produce in the middle of words like butter and writer if they say them casually. These two sounds do not occur in the same environment; they are in complementary distribution. To be precise, the [l] occurs in syllable-final position and when adjacent to another /l/, and the [ɾ] occurs elsewhere. We therefore say that there is a single phoneme, which we somewhat arbitrarily name /l/, which has two allophones, [l] and [ɾ]. The same morpheme can be pronounced with both if we change the context in which it occurs. For example, the Korean word for "language" is /mal/. When pronounced by itself it has an [l], that is [mal]. But when we add the nominative case marker /i/ the /l/ is no longer syllable final and we get [maɾi].

In Southern Korean dialects, in most cases, /l/ becomes /n/ in word-initial position. That is why all of the old loans from Chinese that began with /l/ in Chinese have initial /n/ in Korean. (In this case, the /l/ and the /n/ are not allophones of the same phoneme. Since this rule changes one phoneme into another, it is what is called a morphophonemic rule.) Until recently, this rule applied without exception, but it has been disrupted to some extent by the influx of loans with initial /l/. The word "radio", now pronounced with an initial [ɾ], used to be pronounced with initial [n]. It has always been spelled 라디오 /ladio/. A Southern Korean reader would know to pronounce the letter ᄅ as [n] in word-initial position.

In Chinese characters President Roh's name is written like this: 盧武鉉. The character 盧, which means "vessel, pot, stove", was pronounced something like [lwo] in Middle Chinese, which is when it was borrowed into Korean. Its current pronounciation in Cantonese is [lo], in Japanese [ɾo]. So it was borrowed into Korean as /lo/. In Northern Korean dialects this is pronounced [ɾo]. In Southern Korean dialects it is pronounced [no] (assuming it is word-initial). Such /n/s not only derive historically from Chinese /l/s, but if they can appear in non-word-initial position, they actually alternate with /l/ (usually pronounced [ɾ]). For example, consider the two morphemes 理 /li/ and 論 /lon/. These can be combined in either order, yielding:


論 /lon/ is pronounced with an initial [n] in "logic" where it is word-initial, but with an initial [ɾ] in "theory" where it is intervocalic. (The reason that 論 /lon/ ends in /l/ in "logic" is that its final /n/ assimilates to the initial /l/ of 理 /li/. The absence of an [n] at the beginning of "theory" is explained below.)

So, what Dharma Teacher An and the Korean Embassy spokesman were getting at is that word-initial [n] in Southern Korean, as in President Roh's name, can have two sources, /n/ and /l/. Historically, and arguably synchronically as well, the particular [n] that begins President Roh's family name is underlyingly an /l/, not an /n/. The spelling Roh reflects the underlying form (keeping in mind that [l] and [ɾ] are allophones of a phoneme that we have been calling /l/ but with no greater arbitrariness could call /ɾ/). The reason that their explanations didn't quite work is that they made the mistake of referring to letters rather than to sounds. President Roh's name is no longer written with the hangul letter ᄅ /l/. It once was, but the spelling changed quite some time ago. It does, however, underlyingly begin with the sound /l/, and so can legitimately be romanized with an initial l or r.

If you've gotten this far, you may be wondering what the Korean Embassy spokesman was talking about when he said "when that Korean initial letter is followed by that vowel". He was referring to another rule of Southern Korean phonology, one that deletes both /n/ and /l/ immediately preceding the vowel /i/ and its semi-vowel counterpart /j/. That is why the common family name 李 (hangul 이, formerly 리) is pronounced [i] in Southern Korean dialects, and why it is variously romanized Lee, Li, Yi, Yee, Ri, Ree, and Rhee. So the embassy spokesman was referring to the fact that word-initial /l/ is pronounced [n] except before /i/ and /j/, where it is not pronounced at all. Dharma Teacher An was referring to the same thing when he said that the [n] "disappears completely if it is followed by a diphthong", though he didn't state the environment for deletion quite correctly.

You may still be wondering why President Roh would romanize his name in a way doesn't correspond straightforwardly to its pronounciation. Safire did:

Wait a minute. If the name in Korea is pronounced with what we romanize as an n, why do we write it in English to make it sound like an r? That defeats the whole idea of transliteration -- imitating the sound of one language in the alphabet of another. Makes no sense.

The short answer is that transliteration serves a number of sometimes conflicting purposes. Enabling foreigners to pronounce the words of your language is only one of them. I haven't discussed this (or anything else) with President Roh, but it's a fair guess that when he decided how to romanize his name, how foreigners would pronounce it wasn't his chief concern. The romanization may well have been intended in the first instance for other Korean speakers.

Anyhow, there shouldn't really be much need to transliterate 한글 (hangul). 한글 is a terrific writing system and is not hard to learn. Everybody should. Why bother transliterating something as easy and pretty as 노?

Posted by Bill Poser at January 16, 2004 09:33 PM