Category Archives: Hangul

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

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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.

Groan.

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!

Moving up the difficulty ladder

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We’re getting past the stage in Korean class where you spend a lot of time talking about your pencil.

(If you don’t get that reference, sorry. Sadly, I can’t even say “My pencil is big and yellow” in Korean. I can ask you if something is a pencil, I can tell you that something is a pencil or even my pencil, and I can tell you that, no, it’s a pen, but I cannot tell you that it is big and yellow or even that it is not a pencil. Maybe next term.)

Anyway, by now we’re past the point where you say really simple things (“Hello.” “Good-bye.” “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” “Eat a lot!”) and you memorize the words for Korean food (I had a real leg up on that one). Instead, we’re getting into actually making different kinds of sentences.

Which means that the teacher can now spring something on you that you’re not expecting. You’re happily discussing how many pencils you have vs. how many pencils your classmate has, and she suddenly pops out with, “Where’s John?” or “What’s in a library?” and you want to say, “I don’t know!” but you’ve forgotten how.

The thing that makes it even more complicated is the use of endings in Korean. I studied Anglo-Saxon in college, and Korean is a lot like Anglo-Saxon (and Latin, apparently, but I know next to nothing about that) in that word order isn’t that important. Instead, you make a word the subject or the object or indicate that it is a location by adding an ending.

That doesn’t sound that hard, right? For example, the Korean word for book is pronounced chaek and the subject ending is pronounced ee, so if you have a sentence about a book, it would be pronounced chaek-ee, right?

WRONG!

Let’s go back to a happier time, when I was learning Hangul. I wrote:

What’s a soft k? Pronounce the letter k–it makes a sound like kuh. Then relax your throat as much as you can, and say it some more–it starts to sound like guh. The soft in Korean occupies a place betwixt and between an English and k, with its exact pronunciation depending upon a bunch of rules that I still don’t know.

Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?

Chaek ends with a soft k. It is also a one syllable word. When a syllable ends with a soft k, it is pronounced kuh. 

Chaek + ee is a two-syllable word. And in Korean, when the second (or third, or whatever) syllable in a word begins with a vowel sound, and the syllable before it ends in a consonant sound, the second syllable “borrows” the consonant sound from the first syllable.

So, instead of pronouncing the word chaek-ee, you pronounce it chae-kee, right?

WRONG!

No, it’s a soft k. When it gets moved to the front of the second syllable, it is pronounced guh.

So, good old familiar chaek, when it is the subject of a sentence, suddenly becomes chae-gee.

Words cannot describe how much this throws me. I memorize chaek, I learn how to spell chaek, and all of a sudden the instructor asks me where my chae-gee is, and I am lost, lost, lost. And this kind of change in pronunciation happens all the time in Korean.

I’m basically discovering that the way my brain works when it comes to language comprehension is not helpful with Korean. I’m very much in the habit of listening for the beginning and ending consonant sounds of a word. When the end consonant changes, I just have no idea what the word is. I feel like I need to adjust how I tune into a word’s sound–to pay more attention to the first part of the word, maybe.

Anyway, I’ll sort it out–I remember reaching this stage with French, too, where I realized just how different it was from English and how hard it was going to be to truly learn.

(I’ll add that this is why it’s important to actually learn Hangul and not rely on Romanization if you want to learn Korean. If you read chaek and chaegee it probably wouldn’t even occur to you that they were the same word. Plus, Hangul is easy to learn, and believe me, you will need the confidence.)

The Wonder and Glory of Hangul

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As I mentioned, I’m planning to go to Seoul around this time next year, so I’ve signed up for a Korean class that starts next week. I speak NO Korean, and I don’t have a great facility with language (I used to be pretty fluent in French, but that was long ago, and I’ve studied Spanish but never really got the hang of it). So I decided to try to get the jump on things a bit, and I got a Korean textbook.

That textbook was written by linguists, so their idea of providing a helpful pronunciation guide to Korean for the non-Hangul reader involves creating their own alphabet that looks like a cross between algebra and Russian in order to capture every exact nuance of pronunciation, and having you memorize that as well. Hangul isn’t supposed to be hard, so I figured that I would skip a step and just get to it.

So, I studied Hangul for a little bit one day. The next day, I blew it off. The third day, I did study it eventually, but before I did, I went to the Asian market to get ingredients for jjajangmyeon.

One such ingredient was kalguksu noodles. I’m a newbie at Korean food, so I found a package of what looked like–gee, was it kalguksu or kalgulsu or kalguksa?–noodles, but I wasn’t sure they were the exact right kind of noodle.

The package looked like this:

l-0615-2

And there was a word on it that looked like this:

word

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.

The first character in this word had three letters: c1

Now, right here you’re going to learn that Hangul is way easier to learn to read than English. Or, at least it should be. (I don’t actually remember learning to read English–I remember reading a book about a snake one day, and my mom came into the room and said, “Oh, look! You’re pretending to read a book!” I said, “No, I’m reading it,” and everybody went apeshit.) Anyway, reason #1 why Hangul is really easy is because the 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. At first I thought that was silly, but after this incident in the grocery store, I came to appreciate its brilliance.)

So, Letter #1 w1c1 is a consonant. Specifically it’s a kI remembered that because it kind of looks like an upside-down English k.

Letter #2 w2c1 must be a vowel.

One of the brilliant things about Hangul is that letters that look similar, sound similar. In Hangul, a/e sounds are represented by a vertical line + embellishments, while o/u sounds are represented by a horizontal line + embellishments.

I couldn’t remember quite what letter that was, but it was a vertical line, so I knew it was some kind of a/e sound.

Letter #3 w3c1 I had no idea. (But I knew it was a consonant!)

So where was I at this point? K-A/E-[MYSTERY CONSONANT]

Hmm. Let’s move on to the second character: c2

Letter #1 w1c2 we know is a consonant.

And hey, doesn’t it look kind of like this letter? w1c1

Yeah–remember, letters that look similar, sound similar. This w1c2 is also a k. But it has fewer embellishments, so it’s a soft k.

What’s a soft k? Pronounce the letter k–it makes a sound like kuh. Then relax your throat as much as you can, and say it some more–it starts to sound like guh. The soft in Korean occupies a place betwixt and between an English and k, with its exact pronunciation depending upon a bunch of rules that I still don’t know.

What I did know was that I now had: K-A/E-[MYSTERY CONSONANT]-G/K

On to Letter #2, the vowel! w2c2 Yes, folks, we have a horizontal vowel, which means it’s some kind of o/u sound! K-A/E-[MYSTERY CONSONANT]-G/K-O/U

Letter #3: w3c2

K-A/E-[MYSTERY CONSONANT]-G/K-O/U-G/K…. This is looking pretty promising for kalguksu or maybe kalguksa, right?

On to the last character! c3

Letter #1 I will take credit for actually remembering. This: w1c3 is an s.

And this w2c3 looks familiar, right? Another o/u.

K-A/E-[MYSTERY CONSONANT]-G/K-O/U-G/K-S-O/U. Unless I was the victim of a wicked coincidence, that looked a hell of a lot like kalguksu to me. (And as an added bonus, I finally learned the right word for those kind of noodles!) Needless to say, it took everything I had not to start running around the store, waving the package of noodles and screaming “I read a word!”

What really impresses me about this was that I really didn’t know Hangul at all–I hadn’t memorized the alphabet by a long shot. I knew a whopping two of the six letters that appear in that word. But I was still able to read it.

That is some quality alphabet design.