Wednesday, March 14, 2012

the varying dignity of letters

I respect the letter "i"
Which I find more dignified
Than "y" or "ee"

When I spell Korean words
On the page they're seen, not heard:
I write "kimchi"

Same is true when I write "u"
It's superior to "oo"
Ask Noh Moo Hyeon

Would you rather be a "Wu"?
Or instead a lowly "Woo"?
That can't be fun

Letters know their place and rank
Like the fishes in a tank
They dominate

Change a spelling, add some verve
Set your words upon the curve
From good to great

"Chattahoochee," lacking wit
Fails with dignity to sit
Upon the page

"Chatahuchi," by contrast--
There's a name that's meant to last
Through every age!

It's an orthographic game
But some spellings are too lame
To greet the eye

Know your letters! Treat them well!
Don't consign your words to hell
With glyphs awry!

I admit I like "y" when it's pronounced "ih" as in "dysfunction" or "nymph"-- or the aforementioned "glyph." "Y" acquires an aura of power and mystery(!) in such contexts.

But spelling a foreign word with unsavory letter choices leaves me cold: I don't like "kimchee," which looks infantile, but I do like "kimchi." While I'm used to seeing surnames romanized as "Lee" and "Woo," I prefer "Li" and "Wu." True: the "Lee" versus "Li" distinction is often useful in distinguishing Korean versus Chinese surnames, even though the respective surnames are derived from the same Chinese character. If, back in the beginning, the Koreans and Chinese had some sort of contest to decide who got to use which spelling, I think the Koreans got the short end of the stick. But I've also seen Koreans deliberately choose the lamer orthography, as in "Jee-young" instead of the far more dignified "Ji-yeong." That unsavory "ee" combination should be reserved for childish utterances: "Oh, gee!" or "Hee hee hee!" (which can't be rendered in English as "Hi! Hi! Hi!" for obvious reasons).

My orthographic sensibility kicks into overdrive whenever I see names like "Sarkozy" and "Grozny." Wouldn't Sarko's name be cooler as "Sarkozi?" The change from "y" to "i" would give it a sort of mafioso cachet. And "Grozny" is just plain sad, whereas "Grozni" is, at least, not totally prostrate.

For Koreans, the inconsistent romanization of Korean names has led to some intractable problems. What's the valence of "u," for example? In the official ROK romanization scheme, it's clearly an "ooh" sound, but so many Koreans use it to mean "uh" that it's hard to tell who means what (e.g., "Sun-hee," where "Sun" sounds like the English "sun," not "soon"). That's why a dude with the surname "Yoon" is probably trapped into writing it that way: were he to write "Yun," it'd be hard for a non-Korean to know whether the name should rhyme with "tune" or with "fun." (Officially speaking, "Yun" should be pronounced "yoon," and if the name rhymed with "fun," it would/should be romanized "Yeon.") "Yoon" looks too close to "cartoon" for my taste. The most infamous example of the Korean surname problem? "Moon."

Does anyone else share this aesthetic, or am I all alone on this one? If you do feel similarly about letters, do you deplore, as I do, the change of that cable channel's name from "Sci-Fi" to "SyFy"? I just can't take the new spelling seriously.



John said...

Outstanding, Kevin! Really enjoyed this.

So, where do you stand on Konglish like fishee and lunchee? Y won't work, and the two ii configuration doesn't resonate with me. I know, I know, they're not "real" words, but I hear them all the time.

Kevin Kim said...

Since "fishee" and "lunchee" are simply heavily-accented versions of English, and perhaps a bit ridiculous-sounding to the native speaker's ear, I'd say that those "-ee" spellings work just fine. I'm not sure I'd consider those words Konglish, per se, but they've certainly had a Konglishy phonetic spin imparted on them.

A stickler would note that there may be a nearly inaudible "w" between the final "ee" and the preceding consonant sound: "fishwee" (but not so much for "lunchee"). Of course, by adding the "w" to the spelling, I've exaggerated how "loud" that sound actually is, but the "w" is (arguably) there because of how Koreans would transliterate such words into hangeul. Final "sh" in English is hard to render in hangeul given Korean phonetic rules; the "ee" makes the consonant more audible without creating an awkward transition to the next syllable. Hence:

Georgetown = jyo-ji-tah-oon
church = cheo-chi
sandwich = saen-dwichi
English = ing-geul-li-shwi

and perhaps most infamously, Macaulay Culkin's movie "Richie Rich" is "ri-chi-ri-chi" (no distinction possible between the first and last names).

I do think, though, that some of the above problems are preventable. "Georgetown," for example, doesn't have to be rendered as "jyoji-tah-oon." The "i" vowel could be easily replaced with the "euh" vowel, producing a more accurate rendering, from the American point of view. Same with "sandwich": it could just as easily be rendered "saendwicheuh," with the "euh" being barely audible.

Elisson said...

I called upon my Chatahuchi mama
She beat me hard, a veritable trauma