A reader asks: “Would you ladies consider doing a post on romanization of Korean names? For example, Im Soo Jung can also be romanized as Lim Soo Jung or Im Su Jeong. The surname 주 is both ‘Joo’ and ‘Ju’. I’m just curious because news sites seem to employ a variety of romanizations and none of them are consistent. Would appreciate you shedding light on this!”
Great question! And a perfect way to start off the Korean names subseries as part of the blog’s Korean Language and Culture series.
As a K-drama blogger myself, it is indeed difficult to decide on romanization of Korean names. In order to answer this question, I think it’s best to start from the basics.
As you may already know, the Korean language doesn’t follow the Roman alphabet (A, B, C, D, etc.). Many non-Korean speakers mistakenly assume that Korean instead uses characters, like Chinese. In fact, Korean alphabet is a phonetic system, with each “letter” being associated with a specific sound.
Source: Think Zone
Romanization is the representation of another language (that doesn’t employ the Roman alphabet, like Korean) using the Roman alphabet. There are several romanization schemes available, not because there are several different ways to pronounce the original language, but because there are many different ways to represent this with the Roman alphabet.
The commonly used romanization systems for Korean are McCune-Reischauer romanization, the Yale romanization, and the Revised Romanization of Korean. For example, the proper way to romanize the Korean word 엄마 (translation: mom) is as “ŏmma” according to McCune-Reischauer and as “eomma” according to the Revised Romanization of Korean. There’s only one correct way to pronounce the word in Korean, of course, but it would be too cumbersome to explain it like this: “The first syllable is pronounced like the English word ‘bum,’ but take out the ‘b’. The second syllable is pronounced like ‘ah’ but attach the ‘m’ sound at the beginning. Put it together and you have ‘um-mah’.”
For uniformity purposes, the Korean government adopted the Revised Romanization of Korean as the official Korean language romanization system in 2000. With this adoption, official names of geographic landmarks, including cities, provinces, and streets, now all follow the Revised Romanization of Korean. For example, the official romanized spelling for the Korean city 부산 changed from Pusan (based on McCune-Reischauer romanization) to Busan (based on Revised Romanization of Korean).
The one exception is names of people. Although encouraged to adopt the Revised Romanization, individuals are free to spell their own name based on their own personal preference. For instance, even in America, although the female name Jenny is most commonly spelled as “Jenny,” the correct spelling of that name for any particular individual is the way it appears in her birth certificate. One individual may spell it as Jenni, another as Jeni, and still another perhaps even as Genny.
According to the Revised Romanization of Korean, the proper way to romanize the name of the actress at the top of this page is “Im Su Jeong.” However, as Revised Romanization of Korean is relatively new, there have been certain ways Korean names have been spelled even years before the Revised Romanization of Korean ever came about. When it comes to names, there have already been some commonly established spellings for Korean names. For instance, 정 is often romanized as “Jung” in people’s names, even though the official romanization would be “Jeong.” 주 is often romanized as “Joo,” even though the official romanization would be “Ju.” The three most common Korean family names are often written and pronounced as “Kim” (김), “Lee” (이), and “Park” (박). And needless to say, none of them follows the Revised Romanization of Korean system.
As to why certain spellings became common in the first place, I do not know for certain. But I assume the reasoning is similar to why certain Eastern European immigrants changed or shortened their names to be easier for Americans to pronounce. Since the adoption of the Revised Romanization of Korean in 2000, however, it is becoming more and more common for people to adopt the official romanization for their own names.
When it comes to names of Korean celebrities, we can never be sure of what is the “correct” romanization of their names until the celebrities romanize it themselves, for example in their international fan pages or fan meetings.
According to the actress’s own website, the actress at the top of the page spells her name as “Lim Soo Jung.” Whether it is “Soo Jung” or “Su Jeong,” it is in fact pronounced the same and in Korean, it is just one and the same name- 수정. The Korean family name “임” is pronounced as “Im” in Korean, but for the past several decades, many Koreans have adopted the spelling as Lim, just like how “김” (pronounced as “Gim”) has been commonly spelled as “Kim.”
As a blogger, if I know of the “correct” romanization of a celebrity’s name (i.e., what the celebrity uses himself), I try to refer to him by that name. But honestly, most of the time, I’m too lazy to look it up myself, and I just go by what is the common way that others spell it on Dramawiki or Soompi forums. Further, I admit that there are some celebrities whose names are officially romanized so differently from what I would have expected that I just choose to ignore the way they romanize their own name. (Bad, I know!)
The prime example is the actor pictured above. Actor 정경호’s name is frequently romanized as “Jung Kyung Ho”. But in fact, I learned that he romanizes his own name as “Choung Kyung Ho”. Even after this knowledge, I’m guilty of continuing to “misspell” his name as Jung Kyung Ho, only because I think his own spelling is… well, weird. (The more conventional way to romanize 정 is as Jung, Chung, Cheong, or Jeong. How the heck he came up with Choung, I do not know.)