Koreanization; or, Why there is more than one right way to say Block B


I’ve been thinking about doing this post for some time, but today (which was an annoying day in many respects) I saw not one but two references to Koreans not being able to pronounce English words correctly because of their (hilarious!) accents.


OK. Obviously, yes, there is such a thing as a Korean accent. That is true.

Buuuut…when Korean speakers pronounce English words “incorrectly,” oftentimes they are pronouncing the words perfectly correctly–in Korean.

What the hell do I mean by that?

OK, remember my post on consonants, and how romanization is completely unreliable if you are attempting to pronounce a Korean word correctly? I wrote:

Because English vowels are so unstable, when Korean is romanized, extra consonants are thrown in to force English speakers to pronounce the vowels correctly.

There are examples of unreliable romanization there, and here’s another: Woo Taewoon’s name contains NO w sounds whatsoever. NONE.

Imagine a Korean person saying, “Oh, those English speakers can’t pronounce Woo Taewoon’s name correctly, because of their funny accents!”

That person would be pretty ignorant, wouldn’t they?

Do you know who is even more ignorant? The people who think that it would be so nice if someone would take those silly Koreans and teach them how to “properly” pronounce English words. For example, certain people would just love it if someone could teach the Korean fans of Block B to not chant the group’s name like this, because it is so wrong:

And if the Korean fans were saying “Block B,” the patronizing dipshits would–well, they’d still be patronizing dipshits, but at least they wouldn’t be quite so hypocritical on the subject of ignorance.

The thing is, the Korean fans aren’t saying, “Block B.” They’re saying, “블락비.”

If Hangul doesn’t show on your computer, that’s a three-syllable Korean word that is pronounced beul-lok-bi–in other words, exactly what the fans are chanting. They are saying the word that way because it is spelled that way, just as English speakers say Woo when they read the word “Woo.”

They’re not stupid, they’re not silly, and they’re not ignorant: They’re literate.

With romanization, Korean words get all messed up because of 1. the necessary efforts to tame our wild vowels, and 2. the completely different way consonants work.

When an English word is Koreanized and put into Hangul, it gets messed up because there are certain rules regarding how each syllable in Hangul must be crafted–rules that do not always work so well with English.

Going back to my first post on Hangul, I wrote:

Now Hangul has characters that, if you’re me, look kind of like Chinese characters, but they couldn’t be more different. Hangul is a phonetic alphabet, so each letter makes a sound–just like English. Each character contains between two and four letters. . . . [T]he first letter in a character is always a consonant, the second letter is always a vowel, and any following letters are always consonants. (If the word starts with a vowel sound, the initial consonant is a special silent consonant that looks like a zero.[)]

Each Hangul character represents a syllable. In other words, in Korean: No syllable can start with two consonants.

St-? Tr-? Sp-? Not possible. Doesn’t happen. (Well, OK, you can do sh- and any consonant combined with a w or sound, but those don’t count in Korean because the second “consonant” sound is actually a part of the vowel.)

Guess what else you can’t do? Bl-!

The only way to get those two consonant sounds into the beginning of a word is to put them into separate syllables. The shortest choice is either beul-lok-bi or beu-lok-bi. There’s no blok-bi–you just can’t do it.

Needless to say, some English words are a real mouthful in Korean. “Christmas” goes from two syllables to five (keu-ri-seu-ma-seu), and that’s with dropping a consonant sound!

(But wait! you shriek, They could make it four syllables! There’s no need for the -s at the end to get its own syllable!

You are so wrong, I sorrowfully reply. Remember that consonants at the end of the syllables are have different rules of pronunciation. You’d wind up with keu-ri-seu-mat, which wouldn’t help anybody.)

“Ice cream” also becomes a five-syllable word–not just because of the cr- but because Korean vowels are such Steady Eddies. It takes two vowel sounds (and therefore two syllables, since you can only have one vowel sound in each syllable) to mimic that long sound. (The result is a-ee-seu keu-rim.)

Imagine Koreanizing Yiddish!

Another factor in Koreans’ “incorrect” pronunciation is that there are certain consonant sounds that exist in English but not in Korean. Since Hangul is a phonetic alphabet that was designed specifically for use with Korean, letters representing those sounds do not exist.

That’s why “Zico” is pronounced Jee-ko by Korean speakers–there’s no zuh sound in Korean, so there’s no letter to represent it, so in Hangul his name is written with a j. There’s no fuh or vuh sound, so English fs and vs become Hangul ps-slash-bs.

I guess all this is a really long way of saying (once again): If you want to learn Korean, learn Hangul. And don’t call people ignorant when you don’t know the first thing yourself!


10 responses »

  1. I wonder how to say Jaehyo? From the hangul, it seemed the same as in English.

    I guess I never noticed a “problem” with Korean pronunciation of English words since I grew hearing other languages adopt English words and pronounce accordingly. It seemed perfectly natural to say things according to one’s own alphabat.

    However, and this is a side note, because I have difficulty pronouncing things the Korean way, I’m thinking I might learn some Japanese instead…

    • Jaehyo’s name is romanized decently–Ahn Jaehyo. In Hangul his last name has no “h” in it, but I feel like it’s a fair romanization because the “h” does force English speakers to say the “a” correctly (otherwise we’d totally pronounce it like the “an” in “an onion”), plus it doesn’t add in some big, dramatic consonant sound (like an “r” or a “w”) that isn’t really there.

        • I’m curious about Japanese now, because apparently the grammar is very similar to Korean, although the words themselves are different. But my attempt to learn Spanish right after learning French was just a disaster (I kept confusing them), so maybe I should hold off….

          • Yeah, don’t confuse yourself. 🙂 Japanese is just so much clearer in sound. However. Korean sounds prettier (to me, anyway).

  2. Pingback: More fun with Korean consonants: Double consonants and the L/R conundrum | My Other Blog

  3. Pingback: How do you say the names of the members of Block B? BUCKLE UP! | My Other Blog

  4. What I really wonder is, why is it written beul-lag-bi? I mean why 블락비 and not 블럭비 (or maybe 블록비 but that sounds silly, too)?
    블락비 sounds to me (and is written as) black, not block. That’s so weird to me.

    Btw. sounds for z (ㅿ), v (ㅸ), f (ㆄ) and w (ㅱ) did exist in the past. When hangeul was created, there were more sounds existing than in modern korean language and also several combinations of two consonants as they were used to transcribe chinese.

    So it’s funny, all those things became obsolete because in modern korean language those sounds don’t exist, but now as they’re using more and more (for example) english words those sounds come back into their language but they can’t write nor spell them properly down anymore.

    But as someone wrote that japanese is much clearer in sound, japanese would say and write aisu (ice) and also burokku (block) but that’s another story.

    • To my American ear, ㅏ sounds shorter and less nasal than the a in “black,” and “락” is a pretty good “lock.” It’s the same difference in pronunciation that distinguishes “박” from “back.” (ㄱ is pronounced more like a k in both cases because it’s a batchim.)

      According to Ask a Korean, Korean also used to have tones! http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2014/01/tonal-vestige-in-korean-language.html I think the effect of Hangeul on written Korean is fascinating–but maybe it’s just because I’m used to English, where any given letter can pretty much be pronounced any which way….

  5. Pingback: “Sizzle my nizzle”–the Korean S & SH | My Other Blog

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