Grammar Rule: Beginning-Sound Rule [두음법칙]

Dear Korean,

Why is the Korean family name 노, as in 노태우 and 노무현, anglicized as "Roh"? It's both spelled and pronounced as "Noh" in Korean, and there's no reason it can't be anglicized as such in English (it's not like "Noh" is not a sound that's foreign to English).

Anonymous Coward

Basically, this happens as certain words go through two levels of transliteration--first from Chinese to Korean, then from Korean to English. Let's take a look at each step in turn.

First, the Chinese to Korean part. Korean language uses a great deal of Chinese-derived words, much like English uses a great deal of Latin-derived words. This is to be expected, given that Korea spent its entire history right next to the extremely influential Chinese civilization. But by accident of history, Korean language and Chinese language belong to two different "families"--Chinese language is Sino-Tibetan, while Korean language is Altaic. This means that Korean language actually has a vastly different grammatical style from the Chinese language. 

Because of the grammatical differences between Korean and Chinese, Chinese words go through certain modifications as they are incorporated into Korean. One of the modifications is called the Beginning-Sound Rule [두음법칙]. (Please note that this is the Korean's own translation and not the official one.) Altaic grammar tends to avoid beginning a word with "n" and "r/l" sounds in certain situations. But Chinese language has tons of words that begin with "n" and "r/l" sound. When those words are imported into Korean, they are modified according to the BSR.

If you can read Korean, you can read the official explanation of the BSR at the website of the National Institute of Korean Language, the ultimate authority on Korean grammar. Here is a quick summary of the rules:
(1) The "n" sound rule:  If a Sino-Korean word begins with 녀 [nyeo], 뇨 [nyo], 느 [neu], 니 [ni], those sounds are converted to 여 [yeo], 요 [yo], 으 [eu], 이 [yi]. 

Examples: 

- Korean word "woman" is a Sino-Korean word, spelled 女子 in Chinese. Read as it stands, 女子 should be written and pronounced as 녀자 [nyeoja]. But because the word begins with 녀, the beginning sound is converted to 여. Therefore, Korean word for "woman" is 여자 [yeoja].

-Similarly, Korean word for "pseudonym" is a Sino-Korean word spelled 匿名. This should be written and pronounced as 닉명 [nikmyeong], if the word is to be read as it stands. But because the word begins with 닉, the beginning sound is converted to 익. Therefore, Korean word for "pseudonym" is 익명 [ikmyeong].

(2) The "r/l" sound rule 1:  If a Sino-Korean word begins with 랴 [lya/rya], 려 [lyeo/ryeo], 례 [lye/rye], 료 [lyo/ryo], 류 [lyu/ryu], 리 [li/ri], those sounds are converted to 야 [ya], 여 [yeo], 예 [ye], 요 [yo], 유 [yu], 이 [yi].

Examples:

- Korean word "manners" is a Sino-Korean word, spelled 禮儀. This should be written and pronounced as 례절 [lyejeol], but 례 is converted to 예 under this rule, making the correct word 예절 [yejeol].

- A very common Korean last name is 李, which should be written and pronounced as 리 [li]. But because of the rule, 리 is converted to 이. Therefore, although outgoing president's name should be strictly read as Lee Myeong-bak [리명박], Koreans pronounce his name as Yi Myeong-bak [이명박].

(3) The "r/l" sound rule 2:  If a Sino-Korean word begins with 라 [la/ra], 래 [lae/rae], 로 [lo/ro], 뢰 [loe/roe], 루 [lu/ru], 르 [leu/reu], those sounds are converted to 나 [na], 내 [nae], 노 [no], 뇌 [noe], 누 [nu], 느 [neu].

Examples:

- Korean word for "paradise" is spelled in Chinese as 樂園, which should be read and written as 락원 [lakwon]. But the beginning 락 sound is converted into 낙, making the correct Korean word 낙원 [nakwon].

- And now, the mysterious last name of Roh Tae-woo and Roh Moo-hyun. In both cases, the last name is spelled in Chinese as 盧, pronounced 로 [lo]. But because 로 cannot start a word, the word is converted to 노. Therefore, the name is 노무현 [No Mu-hyeon], although the Chinese spelling reads as 로무현 [Lo Mu-hyeon].
Think these rules are arbitrary and without logic? You are not alone. Because these rules are completely based on language experience, there is little logic to be found in the BSR. (But then again, the same is the case for a lot of grammar rules in any language.) Because this rule is so arbitrary, there actually was a significant debate within Korean language scholars as to whether BSR should be continued in modern Korean language. 

When Korea split into North and South Korea, the linguists of North Korea and South Korea came to opposite conclusions: North Korea scrapped the BSR, while South Korea left it alone. (This is partly a function of regional dialects, as the BSR tendencies were stronger in southern Korean dialects.) Thus, Sino-Korean words that begin with "r/l", for example, are written as they sound in North Korea. Thus, North Korea's state newspaper, 勞動新聞 ["Worker's Daily"], is written in North Korea as 로동신문 [rodong shinmun], rather than 노동신문 [nodong shinmun].

Now, the second step--going from Korean to English. If (South) Koreans spell 盧 as 노 [no] rather than 로 [ro], why do the former presidents transliterate their names as Roh Moo-hyeon, rather than Noh Moo-hyeon? Here, we are dealing with an exception in the Romanization rules. The Revised Romanization rules require that Korean words are to be Romanized as they are pronounced in Korean language. Therefore, the BSR-ed words are Romanized with their changes intact. (That is, the word 낙원 would be transliterated as "nakwon", not "lakwon".) 

However, the Revised Romanization rules provided an exception for people's names. The exception is simple--people may transliterate their names however they want. For historical figures who never had a reason to write their names in English, the Revised Romanization rules stand. (Thus, the famous admiral 이순신 is Yi Sun-shin, not Lee Sunshin.) But Koreans who had the time to consider how to transliterate their names into English do not really have to follow any rule. Thus, Korea's first president 이승만 (who studied and lived in the United States for a significant amount of time) chose a rather peculiar Romanization of "Syngman Rhee," although his name would be transliterated as "Yi Seung-man" under the Revised Rominization rule.

So, to sum up, why is it "Roh Moo-hyun" instead of "Noh Moo-hyun"? Because president Roh, when he decided to Romanize his name, decided to ditch Korean grammar rule that is the Beginning-Sound Rule. This is commonly done for Koreans whose last names fall under the BSR, i.e. Lee/Yee, Roh/Noh, Ra/Na, etc.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Best Artikel