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Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 14:05 GMT 15:05 UK
Korea's language muddle trips up tourists
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By Caroline Gluck
BBC Seoul correspondent

Tens of thousands of visitors are set to descend on South Korea for football's World Cup, but changes underway to the English spellings of Korean words are likely to leave some people unsure where they are.

If the unfortunate tourists fail to get hold of newly printed maps, they may set off for Pusan to see France play against Uruguay or Cheju for Brazil against China.

The new system is full of faults and is creating lots of confusion

Lee Sang-seok, Korea Times

Confusingly, they will find themselves in Busan not Pusan, and Jeju rather than Cheju.

The problem stems from a decision two years ago by the South Korean government to change English-language spellings of Korean words.

Signposts and tourist guides are being hurriedly re-written. Priority is being given to the name changes in the 10 cities which will host World Cup matches.

The country's new international airport, Inchon, had to hurriedly change its name and all official signs to "Incheon" before its official opening.

Only a few exemptions to the rule were granted - like the spellings for kimchi, the world-famous spicy fermented vegetable dish, and taekwondo - now an Olympic sport.

Kim or Gim?

Most of the changes affect four Korean consonants - K,T,P and CH. Under the new system, these will be written as G, D,B and J. Other changes affect the spelling of vowel sounds.

President Kim Dae-jung
Should the president now be Gim Dae-jung?
The changes could have a profound impact on the way the rest of the world sees South Korea. If most foreigners thought it was a country where many people shared the surname Kim, they will now have to get used to seeing the name spelt as Gim.

The same goes for the popular surname Park which, in theory, should be now spelt as Bak.

But while the government is insisting on the changes for official names, it is leaving it up to individuals to decide how they spell their name on documents and in passports.

Internationally-known companies will also be allowed to retain their original spellings.

The old English spellings for the Korean writing system, Hangul - now spelt as Hangeul under the new system - were first thought up by academics George McCune and Edwin Reischauer and introduced in 1939.

It was becoming a source of traffic accidents

Maeng Yeong-jae, Ministry of Culture and Tourism
The new system was promoted by academics at the National Academy of Korean Language (NAKL) after four years of research. They admit is not perfect - but believe it is more accurate than other systems.

"The former McCune-Reischauer system couldn't reflect all the consonants and vowels used in the Korean because it required phonetic symbols, which most people tended to neglect," said Kim Se-jung, NAKL director.

"The whole Romanisation system was falling apart. People were arbitrarily spelling things and in effect there was no system whatsoever."

Government officials say the old system contained phonetic symbols that ordinary people just did not understand how to pronounce.

"It was hard to read road signs from a distance and it was becoming a source of traffic accidents", said Maeng Yeong-jae, at the Korean language policy division in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

"Some people have complained about the confusion, but we've found that 80-90% of Koreans believe that this was a good change. I think other countries will eventually follow our Romanisation system, just like how Beijing was changed from Peking."

Defying change

Others, like Shin Jae-koo, at the Korea National Tourism Organisation, are also playing down problems.

"Most foreign visitors don't recognise the names of South Korea's cities, apart from Seoul, so I don't think the name changes are causing too much confusion," he said.

New names
Pusan now Busan
Kim now Gim
Cheju now Jeju
Park now Bak
"On the contrary, the new language spelling helps foreigners pronounce the city names closer to how they should originally be pronounced."

But not everyone is happy with the switch. The English language Korea Times newspaper campaigned against the change - and has decided to continue with the old Romanisation system.

"The new system is full of faults and is creating lots of confusion", said the paper's managing director, Lee Sang-seok. "I've seen tourists asking how far is Busan from Pusan. This is nonsense.

While some people may be mildly confused, it has meant a lot of extra time and money for other organisations having to make the change for promotional material and logos.

"It took us two years to make all the changes - everything from mascots and fliers, to our internet address", said Lee Jung-il, who works for the Busan Asian Games organising committee.

But, confusingly, in the same city, organisers of one of the country's best-known film festivals, the Pusan International Film Festival - known as PIFF for short - say they are retaining the spelling - as the event is too well known internationally to make the change.

Not surprisingly, the mixed spellings are creating some mix-ups. Several BBC NewsOnline readers complained about the reference to Busan in a story about the crash in April of a Chinese airliner, near the city's international airport at Gimhae (previously spelt Kimhae).

"Its gone from bad to worse," believes Kim Bok-moon, president of the Research Institute for Korean Romanisation, who has spent much of his life trying to perfect a roman lettering system for Korean.

Mr Kim - or should it be Gim? - is an economist and not a linguist by training. But he says he has worked with foreign businessmen for the past 20 years and many cannot even pronounce the names of top Korean companies, let alone find their way around the city by pronouncing names to taxi drivers.

"Around 400,000 tourists will be coming to Korea for the World Cup. When they can't find their way, they'll be packing their bags and heading for Japan," Mr Kim said.

"It'll be a global embarrassment for Korea."

See also:

11 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
South Korea readies for football 'fever'
16 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Crash prompts World Cup fears
27 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
S Korea hopes for World Cup lift
22 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
World Cup hosts stress teamwork
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