The family name of South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, whose impeachment has sparked widespread protests, sounds more like "Noh" than "Roh" when spoken aloud. (Click
The Romanized spelling of Roh's name hearkens back to how it was written in Chinese characters. Up until the 15th century, written Korean relied entirely on Chinese ideograms. In the 1440s, King Sejong asked a group of scholars to develop a uniquely Korean writing system, and they eventually came up with a 28-letter alphabet. Over time, the alphabet was streamlined to 24 letters and dubbed hangul. However, names continued to be commonly written in Chinese characters until the 1950s, and the characters were widely taught in primary schools until the 1980s.
Among Chinese speakers, the first Chinese character of Roh's name sounds very much like "ro" when pronounced. But this is not a very natural sound in modern Korean, and in Southern Korean dialects, when speakers pronounce the same character, it sounds a lot more like "no."
But there are no hard and fast rules as to how a family can Romanize its name. While some opt to make it easier on non-Korean speakers by going with phonetic transliterations, others prefer to pay homage to their names' roots in Chinese characters. According to the National Academy of the Korean Language, of the millions of Koreans who share the same family name as the president, 40.3 percent Romanize it as Noh, 22 percent as No, and 16.2 percent as Roh.
The mystery is why, exactly, President Roh has chosen the more traditional spelling. Last year, New York Times columnist William Safire asked the president's media adviser that very question and received a rather unenlightening response: "It is common practice." It's quite possible that Roh chose to preserve his peculiar Romanization because he didn't want English speakers to associate him with a negative phrase. This was the rationale used by 1980s South Korean President Roh Tae-woo.
There are only 274 family names in Korea, but each one has at least a few Romanized variants. In Korean, golfer Se Ri Pak and baseball pitcher Chan Ho Park actually share the same last name. And to confuse matters even more, it's pronounced more like "bark" than "park" or "pak." (Click
The South Korean government has recently tried to overhaul and standardize the Romanization of the language, introducing a new system in 2000. But many people complain that this has caused even more confusion for foreigners. The world was just getting used to saying "kimchi," for example, but now is being encouraged to say "gimchi." (Click
Thanks to Soyoung Ho, who kindly provided the sound clips.