In the course of a post discussing his choice of Thunderbird as his e-mail client because it could handle Korean, Jonathon Delacour wondered why Korean (unlike Chinese and Japanese) couldn’t be entered in transcription:

I’m used to simply typing romaji to enter Japanese (and it took ten seconds or so to suss out pinyin) so I thought I’d be able to type ch’an maek?chu?rul chu?se?yo (“I’d like a cold beer, please”) on my English keyboard—just as I’d type bi¯ru o itadakitai’n desu ga in romaji—and that the IME would convert the hanglish to Hangul. But the only way I could enter Korean was by referring to this keyboard map. Maybe someone can tell me where I’m going astray.

In the comments, dda made an interesting point about Korean consonants that seems a convincing explanation of the keyboard problem:

The problem also is that even today, Koreans of the lower social classes can’t read latin characters. Spelling isn’t the forte of the overall spelling population either; if you’ve been to Korea, you’ve seen mispelled words and other abominations…
While this is partly a consequence of the close-mindedness of the country, it is mainly a linguistic problem: consonants can have two to four distinct values, depending on their position in a word.
For instance, ? can be pronounced t,d,tt,t’. An initial is always unvoiced. Plosives between two vowels are voiced. Etc… Spelling a foreign name is excruciatingly difficult. My given name, Didier, always comes out wrong. Same for my family name, which has two B’s. There’s always a P, a T, plus some other typos. So I can’t imagine how they could type in Korean in romanisation!


  1. 2 transliteration schemes: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/korean.htm
    It’s an easy programming task to automate this stuff, surely?

  2. Automate what? The problem isn’t the feasibility of representing the language in Roman letters, it’s the question of how likely it is that a user will come up with the right input for the word. Aside from the problems dda mentions (which pretty much guarantee that t and d, p and b, &c. will be used randomly), the name Roh is pronounced “Noh.” But if you input “no” you’ll get the wrong hangul. It’s a problem.

  3. So the vaunted rationality of the Korean system is a fake? Supposedly it’s the only system that’s not only phonemic, but also indicates significant features (e.g., supposedly if two phonemes differ by aspiration, their graph will differ by the aspiration graph). Another lovely myth destroyed, like the 57 Eskimo words for snow.

  4. No, no, the Korean system is fine, it’s much better designed for the language than our alphabet, which is exactly the problem.

  5. My point was that Mr Delacour could scratch his own itch in negligible time, assuming he knows his way around a programming language. I’ve done this to map standardised ASCII encodings of phonetic symbols (IPA) to the real things in Unicode – how much worse could Korean be?
    Most of my privately hacked up tools have failed to catch on in Korea (so far as I know) and it’s never bothered me much.

  6. Speigelbaum says:

    OS X doesn’t have this problem, You can just type it in

  7. Apologies for my tardy response. DDA’s comment on my original post did make it clear why it isn’t feasible for me to type Korean as I do Japanese, using the Roman keyboard.
    Since it’s only a minor itch (I was simply curious about Korean text entry) and I can barely manage to stumble my way around JavaScript (let alone a real programming language), I’m happy to accept that my Korean career has stalled.
    However, despite the undeniable superiority of OS X to any flavor of Windows, I am curious as to how “you can just type it in” on the Macintosh. Have Apple’s engineers actually implemented a hack along the lines Des suggested?

  8. Leonard Hahn says:

    Actually, I came to read this note while I was wondering the same thing. The problem is actually stranger. In 1990, before there was window and before internet was popular, I bought a DOS hangul word processor. In that word processor, it was possible to type in hagul the same way you would type Japanese in Romaji. That keyborad option was called Hangul Romaja. Since that option existed in a DOS program in 1990, I automatically assumed that it is availabe in this technically advanced 2004. I was astonished to find out that it is not availabe in Windows XP settings. I encountered with your comment, while I was searching for a program I can download from internet. So far, no success.

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