14 August 2011

The Problem With Korean Terminology

Looking at “sabum” 사범, the Korean word for instructor – how do you pronounce that “u”? Are you pronouncing it sa-boom? sa-bam? sabom? The latter is probably closer to the correct pronunciation. How about “gup” 급, meaning your rank? Do you pronounce the “u” as an “ah” or as an “oo”? Neither is correct. Actually the vowel in “gup” doesn't exist in English. The closest is probably the article “a”, as in “I'm a man,” but pronounced with your jaw closed more and the corners of your lips pulled back in a wide fake smile. The “u” in the words sabum, gup and Dan-Gun is each pronounced differently in Korean. In each of these words, “u” is used to represent a completely different vowel sound [어] [으] [우]. Of course, the typical English speaking Taekwon-Do practitioner has no idea that this is the case and if they knew that there actually is a difference, they cannot tell how the “u” ought to be pronounced differently, unless they can find the original Korean characters and know how to read them.

A Hangeul-Romanization Chart -- Image Source
The problem is that there is no absolute standard for romanization of Korean characters into English—“romanization” means to transliterate the Korean characters into the Roman characters that we use in English. Because there is no absolute standard, different people use different systems to Romanize Korean into English, hence the “u” is used differently by different people. The “u” could represent /oo/ like in “pool” or /ah/ as in “bucket” or /o/ as in “gone” and so on. Since non-Korean speakers are not sure how to interpret the “u” they pronounce it any which way. This does not only apply to the “u”, many other romanized characters are equally unclear. The result is that the Korean terminology of Taekwon-Do techniques are often pronounced terribly wrong. This is quite unfortunate because the reason we use Korean terminology in the first place is in order to have one set of terminology that everybody, regardless of their personal language, can understand. In theory I should be able to walk into any dojang anywhere in the world and still understand the training session, because we are all using the same commands, but because the Korean terminology is often so terribly mispronounced this is seldom possible.

ITF 15 Volume Encyclopaedia
Image Source
The problem is increased by the fact that the English version of the ITF Encyclopaedia is inconsistent. A technique may be spelled in English one way on one page and then differently a few pages later. While there exists about four or more Romanization standards, the ITF Encyclopaedia is not consistently using any specific one of these. Furthermore, the Romanization standards are not intuitive, in the sense that one cannot just look at how the words are romanized and pronounce them correctly. You first have to spent some time studying the system. In my opinion, if you are going to spend time figuring out how to pronounce your romanization system of choice, you can just as well spend that time on learning Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. Unfortunately this doesn't solve the problem as most people will be using romanizations and you may still have to write techniques in romanized form for the benefit of those that cannot read Hangeul.

What's the solution? Well, if there was one unified international Taekwon-Do body, it could have decided on a single romanization system. This would have ensured standardization and even if people pronounced things wrong, at least they would have pronounced it wrong together, and thus still be communicable. I strongly suggest that national governing bodies ought to at least decide on a specific romanization system for their countries.

For myself, I have committed to learn Hangeul (it is really easy, just do it), to at least ensure that I personally pronounce the techniques correctly. But I've also decided on one romanization system. I use the Revised Romanization of Korean (RRK), currently used as the official system for South Korea. While I don't think it is perfect, it is nevertheless a good standard that is not too difficult to learn and easier to apply than some of the other systems. It also reflects the consonants better than most other systems and is plain ASCII text friendly (it doesn't require breves and other diacritics). Although I do try to consistently use the RRK, I've decided to retain the old spelling of names; for instance, according to this system "Taekwon-Do" ought to be spelled "Taegwon-Do." It may be a better reflection of the pronunciation, but I'm too used to the old spelling, so that Taegwon-Do seems terribly unsightly. Apart from such familiar spelling of names, I usually try to keep to the RRK's suggestions. I've also recently bought myself the Korean version of the ITF Taekwon-Do Condensed Encyclopaedia (ITF Taekwon-Do Bible). With this I can look up the correct Korean spelling of all the techniques to ensure that I'm pronouncing them correctly. Finally, I ask Koreans. Of course, seeing as I live in Korea this is easier for me to do than for most, but if you have access to a Korean speaker, this is probably the easiest way to ensure that you at least pronounce the terminology properly.

If you have any questions about terminology I'd be happy to try and help.


Colin Wee said...

How about a Korean to English dictionary so I can have everything in English, and vice versa ... and which will prompt me to choose equivalents which I'd be happy with. For instance, for Kwang Jang Nim I could choose to use Principal or Head of School.

SooShimKwan said...

Hi Colin,

There are Korean-to-English and English-to-Korean dictionaries. The good dictionaries are usually Hangeul-to-English (and vice versa) dictionaries, but on occasion one can find romanized dictionaries, although they are seldom as good.

Unfortunately the same problems are still in effect. Since there are different romanization systems my Korean-to-English dictionary and your Korean-to-English dictionary may romanize the same word differently. Your dictionary may have it as "kwanchangnim" and mine might render it as "gwanjangnim", which is likely to result in us pronouncing the word differently. (Btw, I go with "kwanjangnim", although "gwanjangnim" is probably the better rendition.)

Another problem is that martial art terminology is highly specific and like with the language of most disciplines, they are considered technical jargon and are therefore not often found in dictionaries. You will find the general verb for "kick" in a dictionary, but it is unlikely that you will find "side-piercing kick" or "roundhouse / turning kick" in any dictionary.