How to Say Ry- in Japanese or Korean

Friday’s focus on the Korean Wave hallyu 韩流 (Trad. 韓流, Hangul 한류, Hiragana はんりゅう) got me thinking that I might have paused on the linguistic footnote of how to pronounce 流 (Hangul 류, Hiragana りゅう, Roman ryu) in Korean or Japanese. The Chinese liú is pretty straightforward, except that the ‘u’ is pronounced ‘o’, but the ry- in Korean and Japanese can cause a little trouble.

To put things into perspective, it’s not a huge deal. It’s not an extremely common combination in either language. 流 appears, however, in things like schools of sporting traditions or arts, like kyūdō (archery), taekwondo, and tea ceremony. Every time I go to Home Depot, I see it in their line of power tools called “Ryobi”. And most travelers to Japan will stay in a form of traditional inn called a “ryokan”.

English-speakers usually look at ry- and pronounce it as in the name Ryan, as in Rye-Oh. Or maybe ree-oh, so that ryokan often comes out REE-o-kan. In Japanese, the trick is to pretend the ‘r’ is a soft sort of ‘d’ sound. 流 is pronounced close to “dew” or “due” if you pronounce the vowel “yoo” and not so that the word rhymes with “do”.

Full disclosure. I do NOT speak Korean, but in my exhaustive research for this blog, I looked for videos of people speaking Korean and using words with ry-. Interestingly, I heard several people say that you should just pronounce 류 as “yu”, but if you listen to native speakers, you can hear a soft “d” sound in there as well. Linguists have never established a relationship between Korean and Japanese, but, in this regard, to my ear at least, the phonology is quite similar.

Thanks to Ellie for entering the raffle for Friday’s copy of our 500 Basic Korean Verbs by Kyubyong Park. Thanks, Ellie!


Korean Verbs & Hallyu, the Korean Wave

For a melting pot nation, the US can be surprisingly insulated from global pop culture, but when Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style blazed across the ‘Net for its 15 (maybe 30) minutes of fame, Americans finally got a taste of a world awash in Korean culture, the world of Hallyu.

Hallyu is usually translated “Korean Wave”. It was first coined in the ’90s by Beijing trend-spotters who took note of the popularity of popular songs, movies, and TV shows from South Korea. They labelled the boom  韩流 (Trad.韓流), hánliú. The pronunciation of those characters in Korea is hallyu, where it’s written in hangul as 한류. Japanese speakers would say hanryū.

The meaning of 韩 (韓) across East Asia is “Korea”, and its pronunciation is hán in Mandarin, han in Korean, and kan in Japanese. An exact transliteration of 한류 would be hanlyu, but through the magic of Korean phonology the ‘n’ collapses into the arms of the following ‘l’: hallyu. As an aside, I downplay the idea that in spoken Chinese you must get every tone exactly right. It’s not that you shouldn’t. You should. But if you let students believe that getting one tone wrong can turn “I’d like a glass of water” into “I’m smuggling narcotics”, you just push them into an state of emotional anxiety where they think learning Chinese is hopeless. In this case, however, second tone 韩 hán (Korea) is a near homophone of fourth tone 汉 (Trad. 漢) hàn, which is the character for the Han Chinese and China in general. In this case, the tone really counts.

流 is a bit simpler. The Simplified and Tradition forms are the same. Mandarin liú, Korean ryu/lyu, and Japanese ryū sound fairly similar. The core meaning of the character is “flow”. And if you think about how we use the word “mainstream” as a cultural metaphor or the word “current” for a particular line of thinking, it’s pretty easy to see how 流 came to be used in Asia to denote a particular “school” of thought, art, or sport. The names of “schools” of arts or sports (styles of tea ceremony or systems of taekwondo) often end in ‘Ryu’, meaning, “The School of…”.

So “Korean Wave” is a good translation of 韩流 (韓流) because it blends the meaning of “wave” in English of “a pop-culture trend” and the original sense of “flow”. The Hallyu Wave of film, song, and TV shows has been sweeping the international pop-culture scene for about 15 years now, and it’s created a spike in Korean-language learning.


Kyubyong Park’s definitive guide to Korean verb conjugations.

Tuttle most recent offering in Korean language is our one-of-kind 500 Basic Korean Verbs by Kyubyong Park.

Because of its agglutinative morphology, Korean is a good candidate for a written verb guide. There’s a reason you don’t see guides to Chinese or Vietnamese verbs. The entry for all the forms of the Chinese verb for “eat” (吃, chī) would be 吃, 吃, 吃, 吃, and 吃. Verbs don’t change that way. Korean on the other hand has many conjugations, and, like their neighbors in Japan, not just for tense, but also for honorifics that exalt or humble. In this best-in-class book, Park has compiled in one place the many conjugations of 500 verbs in both easy romanized form as well as the original hangul. As an aside, you’ll sometimes find online used copies of an older edition also by Park, but written under the pen name “Bryan Park”. This book is the updated, expanded, and improved edition.

If you’d like to win this book and brush up on your Korean, click here to email me and write “Verbs” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner next week. Elsa, a librarian in Sacramento, California, won the copy of Ron Knapp’s excellent Peranakan Chinese Home.