Romanization and pronunciation of Korean names
The romanization of Korean names is pretty haphazard.
There is a well-established system for transcribing Korean words into English. It is the Revised Romanization of Korean. It is a very logical system (with a few odd quirks) and if you are familiar with it, it is very easy to know how to pronounce a Korean word from its English spelling. The problem is that if you are not familiar with it, it can make things very difficult.
The problem with RROK
For example, I used to live in the city of Gumi. That is its correct spelling when transcribed in the Revised Romanization system from the Hangul characters 구미. The first syllable is pronounced like the English word goo, and the second syllable like me. However if you don’t know, for instance, that u as a syllable on its own is always “oo”, you might be tempted to pronounce it “gum”. The final vowel, if you didn’t know better, might be pronounced like the letter I.
Koreans, when romanizing their own names, tend to completely disregard the official romanization and do whatever they want. Usually this means either resorting to traditional romanizations, which pre-date the Revised Romanization system and have no end of quirks, or asking the nearest foreigner, or Korean who they think speaks English well, and accepting their verdict and using that spelling for the rest of their lives.
Koreans seem to be curiously uncaring about what English speakers call them, or how they spell their names. I’m not sure if it is politeness, or an unshakeable belief that foreigners can’t pronounce Korean anyway. I can think of two examples that illustrate this well:
1. Many Koreans have an “English name” – a first name lumped on them at some point by a foreign English teacher, which they will happily offer to foreigners and accept as their own name. “Christine” is popular, because of its association with Christ. So are names that sound somewhat Korean like Mia. They will rarely choose a name with difficult-for-Koreans sounds like F and V. There aren’t a lot of Korean Freds.
2. The figure skater Kim Yuna. Her Korean name is 연아, which should properly be written “Yeon A”, pronounced “Yohn Ah”. However, the Korean vowel 어 is particularly problematic when romanized, as it officially should be, as “eo”. No English speaker, without understanding the system, ever pronounces it correctly**There is a theory that eo was chosen as the romanization of the Korean vowel 어 just so Seoul could keep its traditional spelling. It’s absurd but there is no other logical explanation for it. – so Koreans frequently transcribe it instead with the letter u. Apparently in the third grade, Kim Yuna applied for a passport and attempted to spell her name “Yuna” on this basis. But the passport staff then incorrectly hyphenated it out again to Yu-na, which tournament officials invariably interpreted as “Yoo”, rather than “Yuh” – the latter, incidentally, would have left her name unchanged according to the rules of Korean pronunciation.
The point here is her reaction to this, which seems typical of Koreans. I think people of many other nations might have made some effort to correct what is essentially a change of names, but her response (Korean language article) seems typical of Koreans: “연아라는 이름도 예쁘지만, 유나도 좋다” – “Yeon A is a pretty name, but Yu Na is good, too.”
Here are the three most common Korean family names, used by almost half of all Koreans, with the reasons behind their peculiar romanizations:
Usually romanized as: Kim
Should be written: Gim
Correctly pronounced: with an unaspirated K sound, which doesn’t come easily to English speakers. Aim for something halfway between a G and K.
This is a legacy of the previous system of romanization, the McCune–Reischauer system, which romanized initial gieoks as K. As with the other family names here, I suspect the reason it has survived, apart from inertia, is that it “looks like an English name”.
Usually romanized as: Park
Should be written: Bak
Correctly pronounced: with an unaspirated P sound, which again isn’t easy for a native English speaker. Aim for something halfway between B and P. Definately has no R sound in it. This romanization was based on British English, and the Brits, like Australians, tend to drop R sounds.
Usually romanized as: Lee
Should be written: I
Correctly pronounced: Ee
The ultimate strange case. When I first came to Korea, I wondered about this endlessly – why did people with the family name 이 gain an initial consonant, particularly one that is foreign to Korean speakers? Korean words never begin with an initial L sound – words that start with ㄹ are pronounced with a sound much closer to R, with the exception of a few loanwords such as lemon.
The answer is a little roundabout. The Korean surname 이 is based on the Chinese character 李. This is also a very common surname in China, where it is pronounced Lee and usually romanized Li. At some time in the past (and to this day, in North Korea) Koreans pronounced this name with an initial R sound. Nowadays they don’t, but again the fact that it “looks like a name” (while Ee or I as a surname look strange to English speakers) keeps it alive today.
Ultimately, you can try to appear sophisticated by pronouncing Korean names “correctly”, but it’s unnecessary. A Korean named, say, 이명박 may happily introduce himself in English as “Hi, I’m Johnny Lee. Nice to meet you.” (Well – maybe not.) Call them what they’re happy to be called.
It does, however, produce problems with Korean idols. Whenever I see 은정 from T-ara’s name transcribed as “EunJung”, I wince at both its incorrect romanization and the horrors of people trying to guess, from that, how to correctly pronounce the name. The Korean drama wiki devotes an entire page to their own, mishmash system that attempts to romanize Korean names according to how they’re usually written by drama fans. It’s irregular, to say the least.