Adventures in Romanising

Written by on August 24, 2012 in Lifestyle

A few years ago, I met an expat visiting from Japan, where the expat experience is much different from here. For one thing, nearly everyone who spends a year in Japan learns a hefty amount of the language, largely out of necessity. He told me that he found it especially infuriating where he lived in Nagoya, because so many foreigners couldn’t say the name right.

“It’s NA-go-YA, not Nuh-GOY-a,” he explained to me.

“I know exactly what you mean,” I agreed. “So many foreigners can’t pronounce the name of the city where I live either.”

“Oh yeah?” he said. “Where do you live?”

“Seoul,” I responded.

“Where is that?” he asked.

You have ten days. Go.

“This city we’re in right now,” I replied.

The fact that he was unable to recognise the name of Seoul when pronounced properly speaks something to the opacity of this metropolis’ name. Perhaps he might’ve better understood “Sole,” or if he was Spanish “Sae-ool.” The truth is, the name is so subtly impossible to say unless you’ve mastered the ㄹ consonant-ending sound, and even I still mess it up often enough.

We’ve all had it drilled into our heads that Hangeul is a fantastic invention that makes it easy to become literate in Korean in a very short time. But until you learn those characters, you’re at the mercy of imperfect romanisation and it’s nigh-impossible to even fathom the pronunciation of way too many Korean names.

I continue to be surprised meeting people who come to Korea for sizeable lengths of time and don’t even go to the trouble of learning how to read Hangeul. It’s only 24 characters, and it’s remarkably easy to learn. “A wise man can learn it in one morning,” wrote scholar Jeong In-ji in the Hunminjeongeum Haerye, “and a fool can learn it in the space of ten days.”

Not learning it can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings, with which I will regale you. These tales are intended to inform you and help you avoid certain pitfalls, or just amuse you.

Sinchon vs Sincheon

Back in 2004 when I was in my first year in Korea, I lived in Suwon and would visit Seoul pretty well every weekend. Back then I knew pretty well all the characters, but sometimes I mixed up my vowels. For instance, I wanted to find a record store in Sinchon, and I got into a debate with a fellow foreigner in Suwon over which Sinchon I wanted to go to. If you look at a subway map,  신촌 and 신천 are both on opposite sides of the city on line 2.

Which Sinchon do I want?

Now, I knew that 신촌 was where I wanted to go, but I wasn’t sure which corresponding romanisation was the one I wanted: Sinchon or Sincheon.It made sense that 천 would be closest in pronunciation to Chon, which meant that by default Cheon would have to be 촌, because who knows what that “eo” sound means.

Anyway, before I made the mistake of ending up on the wrong side of Seoul, we made a friendly bet over a round of drinks, and I lost. But this issue might be made even worse because Sinchon is in close proximity to Sangsu, and Sincheon is quite near Seongsu.

Being named Jon, I’ve continually been plagued with this mismatch, as most Korean people call me 존, which sounds to me like Joan, which was my grandmother’s name. And when I explain that the proper pronunciation is closer to 전, that gets a bit of a laugh from them too.

But at least it still beats Joan.

Busan vs Pusan

A short while afterward, one of my friends from my hometown decided to get a job in Korea too. He sent out applications, and one day he e-mailed me with the exciting news: “I got hired by a school in Pusan!”

I got back to him later, offering all sorts of information about what it’s like in Busan.

“No, no,” he retorted, “I said Pusan, not Busan.”

Well of course they’re the same city, romanised using the  McCune–Reischauer system and Revised Romanisation respectively. The further we get from 2000 when RR went into effect, the fewer misunderstandings there are, but back in 2004 the transition was far less total. To wit, it was only in 2011 that the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) turned into BIFF. Even Busan’s main university is still Pusan National University. Odd, considering their website has one of the most useful romanisation tools I’ve seen, but if even Ehwa Womans University continues to actively preserve the typo in its name, who am I to judge?

Pusan is supposed to be more representative of how the name is said in the local dialect, but it causes non-Korean-speakers to go heavy on aspirating, saying something closer to 퓨산 (a habit that took a while for my friend to break). In making it easier for us to differentiate between ㅂ, ㅃ, and ㅍ, I think that B is a lifesaver.

Chungju vs Cheongju

Back in those days, Cheongju had the next biggest punk scene in Korea outside of Seoul, producing high-quality bands like 13 Steps and Attacking Forces which are still active today. My second visit to the city was in spring 2005, to see the American hardcore band Champion on tour there.

We all boarded a bus in Nambu for the city, and I followed my Korean friends to their hometown. I’d agreed to meet up with another Canadian for the show there, who was coming in from another town somewhere in Korea’s interior. We’d only talked online on an old message board (anyone remember those?), and I gave him detailed instructions of how to get to the show.

Anyway, right before the show started, he called me on my phone. “Hey, I’m in Choongju now,” he said.

“Uh, did you say Choongju?” I replied, startled.

Turns out, I’d been telling him Chungju online, despite knowing it was Cheongju. The reasoning was pretty simple to me: show someone who doesn’t know a word of Korean the word “Chungju,” and they’d say 청주 perfectly. I was being stubborn about my spelling of Cheongju, but I was completely caught off guard by 충주, or Choongju as I called it, whose official name is Chungju. So, I’d sent him to the wrong city.

This is probably one of my biggest problems with RR, as it took the devastatingly simple romanisation of the Korean vowel ㅜ, which is literally just “oo,” and turned it into the much more ambiguous “u.” So now due to the two systems, if you see “Chung,” you’re not sure if we’re talking about 청 or 충 or 정 or 중. And the old system covered this so well before; which romanisation of 남대문 do you think would be easier for a newcomer to pronounce: Namdaemun or Namdaemoon?

Anyway, fortunately Chungju is just an hour away from Cheongju, so he only missed the opening act.

Gyeongju vs the Rest of Korea

Even after over eight years of living in Korea, I still very frequently mix up Gyeongju and Gwangju. It’s not a romanisation thing, just something that takes a couple extra turns of the gears for me to process. This isn’t even a romanisation error, just an issue I have because both names feel the same on the outside but have different guts. I would never have trouble differentiating Gyeongju from Cheongju, nor with the old Romanisation: Kyongju vs Ch’ongju (I don’t miss that apostrophe).

Other people have even different issues with this city name. Just last week I was talking with some Germans, and when I asked them about their travel plans, they said:

“We’re planning to go to…Chonju?”

“Oh, Cheongju?” I said.

“No, a historic city,” they replied (note: they’re identical twins and both spoke at the same time like this).

“Jeonju?” someone said.

That made sense; Jeonju is a very nice city with some historic sites such as the Jeonju Hanok Village.

“Gyeongju,” it was finally revealed.

Hongdae vs Bangbae

For Christmas 2009, an American friend was coming up from Gimhae to visit for Christmas, and I promised to show her around Hongdae. She called me from Seoul Station, unsure how to get to Hongdae. I tried explaining the subway system to her, but it was hopeless.

“Go into the subway station and take line 1 north one stop. Transfer at City Hall, and head west five stops.”

She got into the station and was completely lost.

“Which way do I go?” she asked.


“Which way is that?”

“Toward City Hall.”

“How do I know which way City Hall is?”

“It’s only one stop away; it should say right on the wall.”

“What do I do when I get to City Hall?”

“You know what? It’s not that far. Just take a taxi.”

So she went up and caught a taxi. It should’ve only taken about 20 minutes, but I could see traffic was bad. Still, after an hour of sitting around alone on Christmas Eve waiting for her, I was getting worried, so I called her up.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “the taxi driver says we’re almost there.”

A few minutes later, she called back again. “Uh, we’re not where we’re supposed to be,” she said, very confused.

“Where are you?” I ask.

“The taxi driver says…Bangbae?”

As best as I can figure, he must’ve mistaken her pronunciation–instead of 홍대, she said 헝대, and his brain translated that to 방배. There is really no elegant solution to this problem; no matter how you spell it, the o in Hong looks like a short o (the vowel sound in “long”) when in fact it should be a long o (the vowel sound in “bone”). The difference between the systems is simply irreconciliable.

I considered once romanising ㅗ as “oa,” but then “Hoang” would look more like Hwang. Maybe the only solution is to break out the umlaut, and call it Höngdae; there is really no other way to show that the pronunciation rules for this word are different from regular English. Well, at least the metal bands would like it.

Anyway, the driver felt bad, and he drove her all the way back to Hongdae free of charge, I imagine wasting a lot of his earning potential on a very busy night. After an hour more of waiting, we were finally able to celebrate Christmas.

Well, that’s all I can muster up for now, unless I choose to open up the can of worms that is Hyundai (everyone’s had their own pronunciation for that–mine used to be Hi-un-dye) but I’ve had enough of romanisation.

When I studied Korean in university back in Canada, I was too slow at reading Hangeul so I would spell out all the words in my textbook in romanised English underneath. The system I had for doing this was sensible and systematic, but it would probably only ever work for me. I’m pretty sure I had ㅓ as “aw” rather than “eo” and for ㅗ I had “oh” rather than “o.” Thus, the romanisation I used for Seoul was Sawool, and it tricked my anglophone tongue into pretty decent Korean pronunciation. Not the most aesthetic romanisation system, and certainly incompatible with both of the official systems, but it got me through Korean 101. If only there were some methodical way to get everybody else through Korea 101 as well.


About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is an editor and staff writer for His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats