Why Is the McCune-Reischauer System So "Complicated"?

The McCune-Reischauer system is a transcription system; it re-writes Korean words in the Latin alphabet based on their sound.  Readers illiterate in Korean have no way of knowing the sound of 독립 not to mention its meaning.   Transcription, or the recoding of  독립 as tongnip,  helps them to recognize and reproduce its sound.  (Its translation, independence, helps them to understand its meaning.)

While the function of the McCune-Reischauer system is straightforward--All it does is match each Korean consonant and vowel with the roman letter or letters equivalent in sound--the system is criticized for being too complicated to use.  There are two main reasons for such criticisms: the use of a diacritical (meaning distinguishing) mark for certain vowels and the use of multiple roman letters for some consonants. 

While it is true that the M-R system uses a diacritical mark and associates multiple roman letters for some consonants, these problems are hardly attributable to the M-R system.

First, Korean has more vowels than the Latin alphabet. Specifically,   and  do not have roman letters equivalent in sound. While o and u come close to these vowels, they are closer to and than to and ㅡ.(1)   Consequently, these roman letters are reserved for and .  Since o and u cannot be used for and , it is impossible not to "create" new roman letters.  The McCune-Reischauer does it efficiently by using a single diacritical mark over o and uŏ for and  ŭ for .  These letters are awkward but the M-R system should not be to blame for them.  And although ŏ and ŭ were hard to type in the past, today,  most word-processing programs can handle these letters easily.
 

Vowel Table of the McCune-Reischauer System 

a ya ŏ yŏ o yo u yu ŭ i wa wŏ ae e oe wi ŭi wae we yae ye

"The Romanization of Korean According to the McCune-Reischauer System," Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society  38, 1961, p. 128.

Second, some Korean consonants represent two or more different sounds depending on their position in a word or phrase.(2) A different roman letter is then required to represent each sound.  (Korean vowels, on the other hand, do not change their sounds.)  Sound changes are confusing and inconvenient but the M-R system should not be to blame for them.

Example)  is pronounced as k in or , g in , or ng in .
 

Simplified Table of the McCune-Reischauer System

Row: Initial
Column: Final
*1 K N T (R) M P S2 CH CH' K' T' P' H
K G KK NGN KT NGN NGM KP KS KCH KCH' KK' KT' KP' KH
N N N'G NN ND LL NM NB NS NJ NCH' NK' NT' NP' NH
L R LG LL LT LL LM LB LS LCH LCH' LK' LT' LP' RH
M M MG MN MD MN MM MB MS MJ MCH' MK' MT' MP' MH
P B PK MN PT MN MM PP PS PCH PCH' PK' PT' PP' PH
NG NG NGG NGN NGD NGN NGM NGB NGS NGJ NGCH' NGK' NGT' NGP' NGH

1. A consonant between two vowels is transcribed with its initial value except that ㄱ is G, ㄷ is D, ㅂ is B, and ㅈ is J.
2. 쉬 is romanized SHWI.

 "The Romanization of Korean According to the McCune-Reischauer System," Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society  38, 1961, p. 128.

Simplified Table vs. Comprehensive Chart of the M-R System

While the simplified table is sufficient for the transcription of most proper names,  the comprehensive chart covers irregularities in consonant combinations:

A Comprehensive Chart for the Romanization of the Korean Language According to the McCune-Reischauer System

Row: Initial

Column: Final

K

N

T

(R)

M

P

S

CH

CH'

K'

T'

P'

H

KK

TT

PP

SS

TCH

ㄱ, ㅋ, ㄲ, ㄳ, ㄺ K   ng-   ngn ng-                 kk        
N -'g   -d ll   -b   -j                    
ㄴ(+ㅅ),ㄵ N       (nn)     ns-                      
N -k'   -t' -n   (p') ns- -ch'                    
ㄷ, ㅅ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅌ,ㅆ T   n-   (nn) n-   s-               tt   ss tch
ㄹ, ㄼ(noun) L -g ll   -l   -b             r-          
ㄹ(+ㅅ), ㄼ(verb), ㄽ, ㄾ L       -l     ls-           r-          
L -k'   -t' -l   (-p') ls- -ch'                    
ㅁ, ㄻ(noun) M -g -d -n   -b   -j
ㅁ(+ㅅ), ㄻ(verb) M       -n     ms-                      
ㅂ, ㅍ, ㄿ,ㅂㅈ P   m-   mn m-                     pp    
NG -g   -d -n   b-   -j                    
ㅇ(+ㅅ) NG       -n     ngs-                      
(+ㅅ) - k- n- t- nn m- p- s- t-                    
T k' n- t' (nn) n-   s- ch'             (tt)     (tch)

"The Romanization of Korean According to the McCune-Reischauer System," Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society  38, 1961, p. 124.

Step-by-Step Romanization of 독립 according to the M-R System

The above tables do appear complicated but such appearance is misleading. They are actually much simpler and easier to use than they first appear.  The following exercise is intended to prove this point.   

독립 can be disaggregated into   + and then further into   +  ㅗ + + +  ㅣ+ and are underlined to indicate the possibility of sound change. 

(1). in is an initial consonant with no preceding final consonant. The roman letter for such is T(1) in the consonant table below.  (All other roman letters in the column are for initial consonant preceded by final consonants in previous syllables.) (2)  The roman letter for in is o(2) in the vowel table below
(3)
in is a final consonant followed by an initial consonant in .  The roman letters for this - pair are to be found at the intersection of  the row and the column:  NGN(3)
(4) The roman letter for in   is i(4) in the vowel table.
(5) Finally, in is a final consonant followed by no initial consonant.  The roman letter for such is P(5) in the row. (All other roman letters in the  row are for final consonant followed by initial consonants in the next syllables.)
(6) The final outcome is tongnip.

Consonant Table

Row: Initial
Column: Final
* K N T (1) (R) M P S CH CH' K' T' P' H
K G KK NGN KT NGN(3) NGM KP KS KCH KCH' KK' KT' KP' KH
N N N'G NN ND LL NM NB NS NJ NCH' NK' NT' NP' NH
L R LG LL LT LL LM LB LS LCH LCH' LK' LT' LP' RH
M M MG MN MD MN MM MB MS MJ MCH' MK' MT' MP' MH
P(5) B PK MN PT MN MM PP PS PCH PCH' PK' PT' PP' PH
NG NG NGG NGN NGD NGN NGM NGB NGS NGJ NGCH' NGK' NGT' NGP' NGH

Vowel Table

a ya ŏ yŏ o(2) yo u yu ŭ i(4) wa wŏ ae e oe wi ŭi wae we yae ye

 

What the M-R System Does and Does Not Do

The McCune-Reischauer system helps authors to approximate the sounds of Korean words using the Latin alphabet. Korean and Western languages, however, differ not only in their alphabets and pronunciations but also in grammar and usage.  The M-R system is neither intended nor able to reconcile differences in grammar and usage.  Korean and English, for example, differ in terms of word division, capitalization, and punctuation.  Inconsistency and arbitrariness in Korean romanization often stem from differences in word division, capitalization, and punctuation between the two languages rather than from the M-R system.

The United States Library of Congress and the American Library Association created rules to regulate word division, capitalization, and punctuation in Korean romanization. While these rules fill an important gap left by the M-R system, they are far from perfect.  In fact, they are becoming increasingly outdated,  too complicated for general users, and not free of arbitrariness.  In other words, in supplementing the M-R system, it has created a new set of problems, many of which have been incorrectly attributed to the M-R system. 

___________________________

(1) To be more accurate, o and u sound like and in Italian.  As in the Hepburn system for Japanese and the Wade-Giles system for Chinese, the vowels, o and u included, are pronounced as in Italian.  This creates confusion for English speakers, but not necessarily for Koreans, who typically associate o with ㅗ and u with ㅜ.     
(2) The consonants, on the other hand, are pronounced as in English.
   

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