Friday, August 05, 2011

How do Koreans refer to America?

Dear Korean,

How would the US have been referred to in everyday conversation? Surely Koreans have their own way of referring to the US other than the phonetics for "US" or "America."

Kapok Crusader


Indeed Koreans do have their own way of referring to the United States. It's 미국 (pronounced "mee-gook".) It is Korean pronunciation for the Chinese characters 美國 - the "beautiful country."


God bless 미국!

But this is where it gets interesting -- why "beautiful country"? And why Chinese? Does this apply to all countries?

The basic rule of referring to a country's name is the same rule that applies to all foreign words -- 외래어 표기법 (Transliteration Rules for Foreign Words) established by National Institute of Korean Language (국립 국어원.) In fact, the Korean already explained this once, about why Koreans call "Haiti" like "IT":
What comes into play here is Rule of Foreign Words Transliteration established by the National Institute of the Korean Language (국립국어원). Just like L'Academie francaise, NIKL governs all things related to Korean language, including how words that did not originate from Korea are supposed to be written. The overarching principle of the rule is to transliterate the words as they are pronounced in their language. Specifically, the Rule of Transliteration provides a chart that matches up the International Phonetic Alphabet to Korean characters, with more detailed rules in different languages such as English, Spanish, Japanese, French, etc.

The Korean likes this rule because it shows respect. Although Korean language sometimes has a separate name for a famous city in a foreign country -- for example, Sang-Hae (상해) for Shanghai (상하이) or  Dong-Kyeong (동경) for Tokyo (도쿄) -- under this rule, Koreans are supposed to write them as 상하이 and 도쿄, not as 상해 or 동경. (In contrast, English-speakers have no qualms for calling München as "Munich" or Praha as "Prague".) Calling a different country/culture with the name that they gave to themselves shows a lot more respect than calling with the name that we came up for them.
(By the way, did you notice Dominique Strauss-Kahn in that post? What a year he has had!)

So the default rule for a country name in Korean is to pronounce it as closely as the countrymen would pronounce. Then why 미국? Why not 아메리카 ("America")? That's because Rule 5 of the Transliteration Rules -- "For foreign words that have been already solidified in use, respect the common usage." Rule 5 sometimes feels like an exception that swallows the whole default rule, because the "solidified" foreign words are usually the most commonly used ones. In other words, the exceptions are so prominent that it becomes easy to forget the rule.

At any rate, it is no surprise that the names of the countries that interact the most with Korea fall under Rule 5.  Most of these names originate from the 19th century, when Koreans finally realized that the world had more countries that their own, China and Japan. For the newly discovered countries (from Korea's perspective,) Korea borrowed the Chinese transliteration convention -- that is, take the prominent sounds of a name, pick the Chinese characters with good meanings that match the sound, and add the character 國 to signify that it is a country. The Chinese called America 美國 -- pronounced "mei-guo", taking "mei" from "aMErica". (Yes, it is quite arbitrary.) Koreans borrowed the word 美國, and simply pronounced it their own way -- thus, Koreans refer to America as 미국.

Other countries who fall under Rule 5? At this point, China (중국 -- "joong-gook", not "zhong-guo"), Japan (일본 -- "il-bon", not "nippon") and Germany (독일 -- "dok-il", not "deutschland") are pretty much it. (-EDIT 8/6/2011- There are also Australia (호주 -- "ho-ju"), England (영국 -- "yeong-gook") and Thailand (태국 -- "tae-gook"). Clearly the Korean should have given this post another day and thought about it harder.) In older Korean books and among older Koreans, one can catch glimpses of the words like 불란서 (佛蘭西) instead of 프랑스 (France) or 구라파 (歐羅巴) instead of 유럽 (Europe). But those uses are rapidly fading away.


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

31 comments:

  1. "Calling a different country/culture with the name that they gave to themselves shows a lot more respect than calling with with the name that we came up for them."

    Actually, when the common English name of a place in Europe differs from the local name, it is typically derived from some historical name, e.g. Köln and Cologne are latter forms for the Latin Colonia as it was a Roman colony. I don't see anything wrong in using the customary English form when speaking English. It is not like calling Seoul Keijo or something similar which would be offensive.

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  2. I also don't buy that statement. I lament the fact that Koreans use exonyms less and less. It's not just that they're not using Korean exonyms. They are merely adopting English names(e.g., "스페인" instead of "서반" for Spain/Espana).

    Exonyms like "동경" and "상해" -- and even 가주 and 라성 for California and LA respectively -- were well-established before the 구어리구어유유엔 (as I like to joke) made those rules.

    Here's a link to a speech made few months back forwarding the idea of using exonyms at the National Language Planning Discussion (국어토정책론회):

    http://www.tygem.com/column/bforum/view.asp?gubun=C021&seq=15475&pagec=1&find=&findword=

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  3. From what I've read, it was not the Chinese who picked the names for western countries, but rather those countries' missionaries, who understood China, Chinese, and the need for good PR.

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  4. This sentence has a typo somewhere in it: ""when Korea finally realized that the world had more countries that themselves, China and Japan".

    Also, it's München (or Muenchen, if you're restricted to latin characters) and Deutschland, although as kimchikraut remarked, the English names tend to be adaptions of the older, Roman versions.

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  5. Interesting post, interesting comments! I knew that Chinese called America a "beautiful country" from my Chinese language class, and I knew some Korean names for other countries from Google translate, but I did not know much about the rest. Nice to know! One Korean person I talked to seemed not happy that Hanguk was named Korea in English because of Goryeo dynasty, but I guess that's another topic.

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  6. It is also interesting to note that the Korean Hanja names tend to agree with Japanese and not Chinese, e.g. 佛蘭西 vs 法國 or 獨逸 vs 德國, the most notable exception being 美國 vs 米国.
    I love discovering the bits of history revealed by names.

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  7. Thank you all, corrections are made.

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  8. "Calling a different country/culture with the name that they gave to themselves shows a lot more respect than calling with with the name that we came up for them."

    one too many "with".

    It's interesting to me that there is an actual institute governing the language.

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. Oh, and how did 洋배추 come to be known as 高麗菜 in Chinese?

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  11. "Calling a different country/culture with the name that they gave to themselves shows a lot more respect than calling with the name that we came up for them."

    So when English speakers do this its a sign of disrespect but when Korean speakers do it, it's a customary speech Rule 5 exception that makes it alright? Brilliant.

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    Replies
    1. Saying that they do something one way as a sign of respect does not mean that anyone doing it differently is showing disrespect.

      Delete
  12. The Chinese language case feels odd to me because of unique position int he Korean language. After all, the "Koreanized Hanja" pronunciation has been used for a very long time regarding the numerous Chinese people and places taught by the education system, discussed on television and even mixed into the language and culture. It feels like they're muddying what is now a very established and organized system for studying and pronouncing Chinese terms and characters in Korean.

    Should for example, Koreans start referring to 공자 as 공지? What happens to a novel like Three Kingdoms where the names of characters and locations are clearly established already in Korean culture? Just a curious thought.

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  13. One other odd exception. The old term for Vietnam (월남) has been dead for a while, replaced by 베트남. Yet for some reason, I still hear a lot of Koreans call Pho 월남국수 in Korean.

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  14. There's also "태국(泰國)" if I'm not mistaken.

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  15. "불란서 (佛蘭西) instead of 프랑스"

    Ah! So this is why the French language is known as 불어... One of my little mysteries is finally solved.

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  16. Oh, and how did 洋배추 come to be known as 高麗菜 in Chinese?

    You should ask the Chinese. The Korean recently found that out, and was fascinated also.

    So when English speakers do this its a sign of disrespect but when Korean speakers do it, it's a customary speech Rule 5 exception that makes it alright? Brilliant.

    The former is the general rule, the latter is the exception. They are different.

    One other odd exception. The old term for Vietnam (월남) has been dead for a while, replaced by 베트남. Yet for some reason, I still hear a lot of Koreans call Pho 월남국수 in Korean.

    Agreed. 월남/베트남 is a case where both usages are still going strong.

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  17. Also, there is possibly 인도(印度) for India. However, I'm not really sure what Indians call their own country. So it might be a case of 한자 pronunciation closely matching the native name or maybe its just adopting the European-based exonym?

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  18. @kimchikraut

    http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%8D%B2%E5%BF%83%E8%8F%9C

    According to the Mandarin Chinese Wikipedia, it says: "在台灣,由日本人引進,習稱高麗菜或甘藍菜。"

    I think it says: "In Taiwan, originating from Japan, by custom, it is called '高麗菜' or '甘藍菜.'" So it appears 高麗菜 is a word used in Taiwan.

    Speaking of which, Korean still call "Taiwan" "대만."

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  19. I feel left out.

    캐나다 is Canada.

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  20. "The former is the general rule, the latter is the exception. They are different."

    And your evidence for that assertion is....what? I don't mean nitpick but singling out English for that is simply unfair. Most western European languages are fairly adept at using their own words to describe cities, regions and countries and they may not conform to how the locals describe themselves. For example, I seem to remember that the German word for France is Frankenreich. I think this comes from the fact that Europeans have been aware of each other for thousands of years and the names change or stagnate on a case by case basis. That said your argument for Korean exceptionalism is quite shakey.

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  21. In no part of the post was there any singling out, nor an argument for Korean exceptionalism.

    And people think Koreans are butthurt nationalists. Geez.

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  22. 대만/타이완 is like 월남/베트남. Both usages are equally strong, although only one is correct by the rules.

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  23. For your reading pleasure:
    http://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/나라_이름의_한자_표기_목록
    http://kimzzz.com.ne.kr/ipss1/nara.htm

    I must say though, that, in general, this makes you appreciate alphabets.

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  24. India is called Bharat in Hindi. The Korean word comes from Chinese, who presumably got it from English, bizarre considering how close India is.

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  25. I believe Japan uses Chinese character for 'rice' to call America.

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  26. Yes, 미극사람 was one of the first things I learned in Korean on my first visit to Korea, because some random kid called me that and my Korean friend explained. And I'm Canadian. Actually, most Koreans will guess Canadian fourth for a white person.
    "Where am I from" "USA, Britain, Australia, Canada"
    Ahh, why can't we be even third or second.

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  27. I don't want to beat a dead horse (and I admit not to have read the all comments thoroughly), but I must insist that the statement "The overarching principle of the rule is to transliterate the words as they are pronounced in their language" does not hold to scrutiny, at least for Spanish.

    I do know the most accurate transliteration of my home country's name would be "꼬스따 리까", for there is no such thing as "ㅋ" or "ㅌ" in Spanish (which I'm pretty sure you very well know). Alas! let's not go thus far, why not "에스빠냐" instead of "스페인"?

    I hadn't given much thought to it since I just assumed they transliterated the English exonym (or English pronounciation for that matter), as that's the most probable way someone would refer to unlikely countries like my own.

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