Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lee, Lim, and Learning North Korean Dialect

I've heard that the Korean language, known as Hangul (or Hangeul), is one of the most phonetically consistent languages used today. So when you see what we call a vowel, it almost always keeps the same sound. In contrast, English has assimilated so many different words from other languages and kept the foreign pronunciation, it's become somewhat of a tossed salad.

As an example, try this well known poem which makes my point.
Here's a sample:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

So now here's the problem: When Korean is Romanized so that English speakers can read it - there is absolutely nothing we can do but completely BUTCHER this beautiful language. This is one of the main factors which makes it hard for English speakers to learn Korean. (Again... I'll expand on that later. That's a completely different topic).

Why is it difficult to learn Korean?

  1. Korean has vowel sounds that English doesn't have.
  2. Korean has consonant sounds that English doesn't have.
  3. There isn't a huge international demand for learning Korean, thus (unlike English), most people don't know how to approach teaching Korean as a Second Language.
  4. Foreigners coming to Korea speak international English. Different foreigners want to spell Korean words, using the Roman alphabet, in different ways according to how they hear the Korean being spoken.
  5. Because of #s 1-4 above, one Korean word can be Romanized in many different ways, which makes it all the more confusing for those trying to learn. There is no consistency in the Romanization. 
(Note: The consensus of myself and foreigners I've met is that it's NOT difficult to learn to read Korean. With just casual studying/practice, you can have that down in one month.)

So how different can variations of Korean words get when you spell them using the English alphabet? Here are some examples: 

"Lee", "Lim", and the North Koreans

Two Korean surnames are "Lee" and "Lim". The thing is, when speaking Korean, these names are pronounced "EE" and "EEM". There's no "L" sound. So, initially, I held some disdain for the English spelling and pronunciation of these fine names. They had represented a strong pet peeve of mine in how we butcher the Korean language.

The Korean girl I'm seeing has the surname "Lim". One day, I said to her, "You know what? I really hate speaking your last name in English." And I explained why.

So she informs me, "Actually, 'Lim' is the way they say my last name in North Korea."

The same is true for "Lee".


Since learning this fact... I've developed a deep love and respect for the beautiful historical relationship that the English spelling and pronunciation of these names have with Korea today.

I can't wait for the day when Korea is one again. 

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