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스팰링비? Are there Korean spelling bees?

5 June 2011 3 Comments

“Why is ESPN broadcasting a spelling bee?” That was my reaction after glancing at the TV in the restaurant where I was waiting to pick up my lunch on Thursday. I often forget that ESPN occasionally covers competitive activities other than sports: poker, eating, and even the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

But then I wondered: why does competitive spelling exist at all? The goal in a spelling bee is to spell a word correctly after hearing someone pronounce the word. Unfortunately, this task isn’t straightforward because in English the spelling of a word isn’t a reliable guide for pronouncing the word. In other words, spelling bees only exist because we use our alphabet in a way that makes spelling difficult.

Then it hit me: I bet there aren’t any Korean spelling bees.

The Korean alphabet Hangul (한글) is largely phonetic (each symbol represents a sound) and was created to promote widespread literacy. A Korean spelling bee wouldn’t be much of a challenge because Hangul is designed to make a logical connection between spelling and pronunciation.

Here’s an illustrative example: a Krispy Kreme in Bundang, South Korea.

How easy is it to figure out how to pronounce “doughnut” just from the spelling? Does it rhyme with “coughnut”? (I used to pronounce “doughnut” as “dofnut” for fun.) Of course, there’s the alternate spelling “donut”, but it’s not obvious how to pronounce that either. If I asked you to pronounce the words “do” and “nut” back to back it wouldn’t sound the same as “donut”. Maybe “doenut” would be better? What about “doh nut” in honor of Homer Simpson?

“Doughnut” pronounced with a Korean accent is just 도넛. ㄷ is like the letter “d”, ㅗ sounds like “oh”, ㄴ is like the letter “n”, ㅓsounds like “uh”, and ㅅ is like a “t” when placed at the end of a syllable block. It’s spelled like it sounds.

What about Krispy Kreme? Crispy Cream? Kryspi Creem? With a Korean accent it’s just 크리스피 크림 and there really aren’t any other ways to spell it.

What about the name of the city, Bundang? If you say “bun” (which sounds like 번) and then “dang” (which sounds sort of like 댕), it’s hilariously wrong. Bundang is pronounced more like “boon dong”. It’s pronounced exactly like 분당.

Here’s another example from a subway station in Seoul:

How would you pronounce “Bulgwang”? One fun option is “Bulge-wang”. “Bul-gwang” gets the syllables right but you might pronounce the “Bul” as in “bulb” and make “gwang” rhyme with “twang”. “Bul” is actually supposed to sound like “bool” (불) and “gwang” (광) almost rhymes with “wrong”. Maybe a better way to spell it would be “Bool-gwong”.

So why not just put “Boolgwong” on the sign? The problem is that in South Korea there is an official way of using the English alphabet to “Romanize” Korean words and that’s what’s used on most signs. Unfortunately, I think that Romanization ensures that every English-speaking person unfamiliar with Korean will badly mispronounce every single Romanized Korean word.

A more prominent example of the shortcomings of Romanization emerged during the 2010 Winter Olympics when the South Korean figure skater Yuna Kim was in the spotlight. “Yuna” rhymes with “gonna”, but every single announcer called her “Yoona”, which happens to be the name of a different Korean celebrity. Sportscasters could have learned how to pronounce her name by listening, but they took their cues from the English alphabet instead, and that made mispronunciation inevitable. It’s not obvious how to pronounce “Yuna”. It’s totally obvious how to pronounce 연아.

Man, I’m starting to think English kinda sucks. Thanks a lot ESPN and Scripps National Spelling Bee.


  • Kate said:

    Your exasperation with the various subtle and seeming contradictory aspects of English is understandable and very amusing too. There actually are rules but they are complex. I remember weaving my way through them as a child in grade school in Nebraska.

    Also thanks for the correction about ‘yunna’ = gonna for Kim Yuna’s name. I too pronounced it wrong all this time. And you are correct the western pronounciation is based on the rules of English not knowledge of Korean language.

    But nothing mean or intentionally disrepectful I think in either issue. :))

  • Dr. Tae (author) said:

    Is there a rule that clearly distinguishes why (for example) “bough”, “cough”, “dough”, and “rough” are pronounced differently? I’m not aware of it.

    For heteronyms, it’s impossible to create rules for pronunciation based on spelling.

  • Robert Shaver said:

    Part of the problem is that many English words aren’t English. That’s one reason we get the ocasional fax pas. (See what I did there?:) Over the years there’s been many attempts to “regularize” the spelling of English words but most of these efforts have made things worse.

    Then there’s Esperanto with it’s very well defined spelling and pronunciation words.

    I looked at the Wikipedia page for Hangul you linked to. Here in Texas we use the vowel yeo a lot.

    The amazing thing is that humans are so flexible that we can adapt to just about anything.