C or K and L or R: Japanese involvement in the etymological root of Korea


Last Updated: July 18, 2016.


Some Koreans, both in the North[1] and the South, claim that around a century ago, Japan changed the English spelling of Korea from Corea to Korea so that it would not precede Japan in the alphabetical order.[2][3] It is yet another conspiracy theory from Korea that is not to be taken seriously. However, digging into this problem reveals a lesser known story of Japan's role in the historical development of the word. In this article, I will show that Japanese is in fact the donor of European words for Korea. However, it was more than 4 centuries ago, not a century ago, that Europeans borrowed Japanese Kōrai (高麗).

Korea was not completely unknown to Europeans prior to their contact with Japan in the 16th century. However, earlier, fragmentary references to Korea by Europeans reflect the Chinese pronunciation: Caule (c. 1253) and Cauli (c. 1300). In comparison to modern names, these words are characterized by the /l/ in the second syllable. Hence I collectively refer to them as the L-type as opposed to the modern R-type. The point is that the L-type cannot be an ancestor to the R-type. The L-type failed to survive and was replaced by the Japanese-based R-type.

Of course, I am not the first to notice the Japanese origin. For example, an encyclopedia of Korea by Pratt and Rutt (1999) contains the following passage in the entry of "Korea, names for":

Koryŏ remained the familiar name for the country in China (as Gaoli) and Japan (as Korai) and was thus the name first heard by western voyagers. The earliest known western reference is to 'Caule' in chapter 29 of William of Rubruck's account of his visit to Mongolia in 1253. This becomes 'Cauli' in Marco Polo's story of Nayan's revolt against Kublai Khan. Cartographers begin to reflect Japanese contacts in the latter part of the 16th century, as when the Fleming Peter Plancius notices 'Corai' in 1593 and Jan Huygen van Linschoten 'Corea' in 1596. English 'Coray' appeared in Hakluyt (1600), apparently learnt through Portuguese. 'Corea' (1613) soon became normal, but 'Korea' appeared as early as 1738 and was generally accepted in the 19th century, though 'Corea' lingered as a rarity until 1940.

Keith Pratt and Richard Rutt. (1999). Korea: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary. p. 232.

To my knowledge, however, the Japanese root of the word has never been linked to the C/K conspiracy theory.

The C/K conspiracy theory

Let me first overview the C/K conspiracy theory. There is no doubt that the English spelling of Corea was prevalent before being replaced by Korea. However, what caused this transition remains an open question. Also, another point of controversy appears to be when the turning point was.

The C/K conspiracy theory can be summarized as follows:

The English spelling of Corea was replaced by Korea.
Japan did.
Because Japan did not want Korea to precede it in the alphabetical order.
Several variants of the conspiracy theory can be found. According to a conspiracist at the GoldSea website, it was after 1905 when the Russo-Japanese War ended with the Japanese victory.[2] Chung Yong Wook, a historian at Seoul National University, specifically claimed that Japan had "changed the name by the time of the 1908 Olympics in London."[3]
As is typical of many conspiracy theories, no one gives clear details about how Japan supposedly managed to change the spelling.

As you can see, this story is full of question marks. First of all, there were two English-speaking great powers in the world: the United Kingdom and the United States. Did Japan persuade the two countries at the same time? That would not have been an easy job. I can hardly imagine that British or American imperialists of the day would have obeyed what the "Orientals" said about their own language. Was anyone able to move the Japanese bureaucracy for such a silly purpose? Let us assume that the almighty Japan wasted its national resources doing so. Why aren't the conspiracists able to discover written orders to implement the campaign? Why was only English subject to the supposed campaign? Why does the language of diplomacy, French, still use a C-type spelling, Corée? Why was the 1908 Olympics supposedly targeted even though Japan was not one of the only 22 participating countries at the game? After all, this story does not deserve serious consideration unless someone brings hard evidence for Japanese involvement.

While consipracists remain unconcerned about the lack of solid evidence, more than adequate counter-arguments were provided by the blogger Kushibo in 2005-2008 (please refer to the Internet Archive as his blog is long dead). Here I quote the summary of his findings:

  1. There is zero solid, documentary evidence that Japan officialdom ever set out to change Corea's spelling to Korea.
  2. Having absorbed Korea, Japan would have no need to worry about whether Korea would come above it or below it in an international forum.
  3. Korea's royal and imperial governments began using the Korea spelling before Japan started wielding sufficiently hefty influence over Korea around 1904.
  4. The Japanese continued to spell Korea's name with a C (as Chōsen or Corea) when they controlled Korea.
Korea versus Corea - Monster Island (actually a peninsula), retrieved from the Internet Archive.

I would like to present another piece of evidence against the conspiracy theory, which was not available when Kushibo wrote the blog article in the 2000s: the Google Books Ngram Viewer. It provides n-gram trajectories, or graphs showing how the relative frequency of words or phrases has changed over time. Although the n-grams have several technical problems, the viewer is an excellent tool for investigating language change. Let us first see how Korea replaced Corea in American English.

American English usage of Korea and Corea (with smoothing of 3).

In American English, Korea showed a steady rise beginning from the early 1880s and started outnumbering Corea around 1895. The next graph is for British English, which exhibits a similar pattern.

British English usage of Korea and Corea (with smoothing of 3).

Although the rise of Korea in British English started about a decade later than in American English, the turning point is, again, in 1895. Korea had already prevailed before Japan supposedly launched the campaign.

I close this section by reviewing how the conspiracy theory is circulated among Koreans. I cannot pinpoint the first instance of the story. The conspiracist page at GoldSea was already there in 2001.[4] However, it won mainstream popularity when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002, where many South Koreans were displaying banners and T-shirts with the C spelling. An important clue is given by the official name for the football competition: "2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan." How this odd name was decided is explained in the following passage (brackets mine):

This [competitive hosting] seems to be the attitude of the South Korean camp. First, they were quick to interpret the 'draw' of co-hosting as in fact victory for them. Then South Korea football officials sought to 'win' the negotiation of various aspects of the World Cup. This was carried out in a fashion not too dissimilar from the way they contested the right to host. J. League chairman, Kawabuchi Saburō, in comments about the negotiations between FIFA, Japan and South Korea, explained how Japan acceded to Korea's demands of the title of 'Korea-Japan 2002 World Cup' - as Korea came before Japan in French, the official language of FIFA, rather than in English. This was despite the fact that FIFA has declared Japan's name was to come first and for the country to host the final. Chung [Korean Football Association President] declared this decision as a victory to his national media.

Here South Korea's obsession with (and Japan's relative indifference to) name ordering is evident. You can also easily find South Koreans spelling Zapan in online forums to push Japan to the bottom of their imaginary hierarchy (in Korean [tɕ~dʑ] is often substituted for [z] because it does not have /z/). It can be inferred from these that South Koreans have likely created and spread the conspiracy theory by projecting their own desire onto Japanese.

In the following year, North Korea assembled North and South Korean scholars to work together for the spelling change. Since 2002 was also the year in which North Korea finally admitted to abducting Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s, North Korea apparently needed something with which it could strike back at Japan. In conjunction with the North Korean-led conference, twenty-two South Korean legislators introduced a resolution calling for the C spelling.[3] Their stated goal was to accomplish the spelling change in time for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but we know that they did not get there. It appears that Koreans gradually lost interest in the conspiracy theory. However, there is a sign of revival: In 2015, North Korea posted the same old story to its state-run website.[5]

Arabic origin theory

The C/K conspiracy theory makes us wonder what is the origin of the word "Korea," regardless of the initial letter? The latter half of this article focuses on this question.

Let me first squash a semi-official myth often presented by South Koreans. As seen earlier, Pratt and Rutt (1999) pointed out that the earliest known Western reference was made by a Flemish monk visiting the Mongol Empire in the 1250s. However, South Koreans claim a much earlier Arabic origin. You can find the extraordinary bold speculation in South Korea's official websites (brackets, added by me, indicate the McCune–Reischauer romanization):

Its [Koryŏ's] name became known even in Europe through Arabian merchants, and hence the current English name of this country “Korea” originated from the name “Goryo.” [Koryŏ]

History - Study in Korea: run by Korean Government (Internet Archive).

In reality, all we can find is three fragmentary references (less than 80 Chinese characters in total) in an official history book (高麗史), dated 1024, 1025 and 1040, to Muslim (大食國) merchants' arrival at Korea. It is completely unknown what they called the eastern country. No source suggests they brought the hypothetical Arabic word to Middle East, not to mention the supposed Arabic-to-European transmission. Unfortunately, Korean narratives of history are full of this kind of nationalist hypes. I recommend that you check independent sources before taking what they say at face value.

As Pratt and Rutt (1999) stated, Korea became known in Europe, more than 200 years later, through the Mongol Empire. When William of Rubruck saw Korean envoys in Mongolia in 1253, Korea was negotiating a surrender with the Mongol Empire. When Marco Polo heard in China that the Mongol prince Nayan raised a rebellion in neighboring Manchuria in 1287, Korea was completely subordinate to the world empire. I suspect these facts do not fit well with nationalist narratives.

Koryŏ as the name of a dynasty

Up to this point, I have not explained non-European words: Koryŏ, Gaoli and Kōrai. They are Korean, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese pronunciations for the same word. What is Koryŏ? It is the name of a dynasty that ruled much of the Korean peninsula from 918 to 1392. The fact that Koryŏ ceased to exist 200 years before Europeans reached East Asia by sea matters a lot to the etymological root of Korea.

Under the Sinosphere, Korea adhered to a Chinese tradition that every founder of a dynasty chose a new name for it. You may have heard of one-character (one-syllable) names like Han (漢), Tang (唐), Song (宋), Yuan (元), Ming (明) and Qing (清). These were dynasties of China. The Chinese had no exact equivalent of the Western word "China" until they finally chose Zhongguo (中國) as their autonym in the 20th century. The distinction between dynastic names and country names in the Western sense is important. For the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Yuan was the dynasty it supposedly overthrew (I use "supposedly" because in reality the Ming failed to destroy Yuan and just drove it out of China). Calling the then-ruling Ming Dynasty "Yuan" must have been considered an insult.

You may notice that the approximate dates for the first European references to Korea, 1253 and 1287, fall within the range between 918 and 1392. Although Koryŏ was a long-lasting dynasty, it was finally overthrown by a general in 1392. Following the Chinese tradition, he founded another dynasty named Chosŏn (Chaoxian in Mandarin and Chōsen in Japanese). To be precise, he ceremonially asked the Chinese emperor to name the new dynasty, giving two suggestions, Hwanyŏng and Chosŏn, and the emperor chose the latter in 1393. Since then, both Chinese and Koreans have not referred to Korea as Koryŏ, perhaps except in poetic use.

Japanese Kōrai

Japan is contrasted to Korea in that it was not a faithful follower of the Chinese tradition. First of all, no dynastic change has occurred there. Nippon (also pronounced Nihon, and archaically Jippon) has been used uninterruptedly since the name was adopted sometime around 700 (there is an ongoing debate about the exact date). Thus it was not just the name for a dynasty but the name for the country in the Western sense. It is no wonder that Japanese people called East Asian countries in a sloppy way. China was usually called (or Kara), which corresponded to Chinese Tang, for a millennium even though the Tang Dynasty perished in 907.

Similarly, there is abundant evidence that even after Koryŏ ceased to exist, Japanese people stuck with Kōrai (or Koma) for centuries. To see how strong the association was, take for instance documents written by those who landed Korea by themselves. Japan waged war overseas from 1592 to 1598, in which almost all battles took place in the Korean peninsula (these campaigns were called Kara-iri (literary, entry into the Tang) in contemporary sources because the stated goal was to conquer China). After the failed campaign, numerous war memoirs were written and some survive to date. These firsthand accounts refer to Korea more often as Kōrai than as Chōsen. Titles of these memoirs include Shimazu-ke Kōrai-gun hiroku (Secret records of the Shimazu clan's Korean campaign), Oku Sekisuke Kōrai-jin oboegaki no koto (Oku Sekisuke's Memoir on the Korean campaign) and Kōrai nikki (Daily records of Korea).

The persistent use of Kōrai is also attested in Western accounts. The Vocabulario da lingoa de Iapam (1603), a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary complied by the Jesuits, records Cǒrai (Coma) as the Japanese term for Korea (and Coria as the Portuguese equivalent). Chōsen does not appear in the dictionary. For interested readers: A short comment on the Portuguese transcription of Late Middle Japanese (LMJ). The o with a caron, ǒ, is thought to have been pronounced [ɔː] and was distinguished from the o with a circumflex, ô, which presumably corresponded to [oː] (unfortunately, the dictionary often misspelled Cǒrai as Côrai). The distinction was lost in Modern Japanese. These two long vowels came from Early Middle Japanese (EMJ) /au/ and /ou/, respectively. Thus the EMJ form of Kōrai was Kaurai and this is how the word was spelled in the old orthography (かうらい).

Our journey toward an answer seems close to the end. When European voyagers reached East Asia in the 16th century, Koryŏ was long gone, but there were people still referring to Korea as such: Japanese. Which language was the donor of European words for Korea?

L or R

Before sketching how Europeans made contact with Japanese in the 16th century, I show that the Chinese-based Caule/Cauli cannot be an ancestor to modern European words. The key to the question is liquids, a class of consonants consisting of lateral /l/ and rhotic /r/. The other parts of the word do not help much. The first syllable in Japanese resembles modern European ones. As we saw in the previous section, however, the older form kau is more similar to the Chinese counterpart. The vowel of the second syllable varies considerably among European word forms possibly because they decline for case and number. The only clear difference between two groups of words is the onset of the second syllable.

The L versus R contrast may remind you that the English spoken by Japanese is sometimes dubbed "Engrish" because it is characterized by frequent substitution of /r/ for /l/. Japanese only has a rhotic /r/, which is usually realized as a flap [ɾ]. This is a very stable feature of Japanese as it is inherited from the earliest attested form of the language. Thus this is what Europeans of the 16th century heard in Japan. The Portuguese consistently used the letter r in transcribing Japanese /r/. Conversely, both Portuguese /l/ and /r/ were introduced into Japanese with /r/. For example, Portuguese limbo was borrowed as rinbo. If Europeans borrowed Japanese Kōrai, the resultant word form definitely belonged to the R-type.

By contrast, Chinese only had a liquid /l/. Chinese /l/ regularly corresponds to /r/ in Sino-Japanese words, as demonstrated by the pair of Chinese Gaoli and Japanese Kōrai. Europeans also transcribed Chinese /l/ with the letter l. In a Portuguese grammar of Japanese titled Arte da Lingoa de Iapam (1604-1608), João Rodrigues observed that Chinese had /l/ that Japanese lacked. If Europeans had borrowed Chinese Gaoli directly, it would have retained /l/. Since European languages have both liquids and rhotics, it is highly likely that the L-type remained unchanged in these languages. For interested readers: You may know that the Pinyin romanization system of Mandarin employs the letter r, as in the Mandarin word for Japan, Riben. However, there is much evidence that the phoneme in question was not considered a rhotic by foreigners. The Wade–Giles romanization system, designed by British diplomats, uses the letter j for it. The 'Phags-pa script, created by a Tibetan monk in the 13th century, does not assign the letter ra (ꡘ) but the letter zha (ꡔ, for a voiced palatal sibilant fricative) to Chinese /r/.

We can also rule out the possibility that some non-European language X borrowed Chinese Gaoli and that an L-to-R change occurred before the X-to-European transmission. X can be Mongolian, Turkic, Arabic or Persian. All these languages have both liquids and rhotics in a diachronically and synchronically stable manner. For interested readers: To be precise, the distinction is not necessarily diachronically stable if we extend our scope to a distant past. Proto-Indo-European /l/ and /r/ (and syllabic /l̥/ and /r̥/) merged into /r/ (/r̥/) in Proto-Indo-Iranian. Conversely, /r/ merged into /l/ in the Māgadhī language of ancient eastern India.

With respect to the L versus R contrast, Korean has a peculiar sound system. It has only one phonemic liquid /r/, but its allophones include both a lateral [l] and a rhotic [ɾ]. The former appears in the syllable coda and the latter elsewhere, as in Koryŏ. Thus the Korean language has the R-type. However, Korean as the donor is an improbable scenario for two reasons. First, as discussed above, it is unlikely that Koreans called themselves Koryŏ in the 16th century. Second, Europeans did not care about what Koreans would have said, as we will see in the next section.

European contact with Japan

The best way to trace the origin of an English word is to begin with consulting the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). For some reason, the OED has no entry for "Korea," but it does for "Korean." Its first usage quotation, which is the first recorded instance that the OED editors are aware of, is as follows:

1614 R. Cocks Let. 25 Nov. in Diary (1883) II. 270 He was prevented by a Corean Noble-man.

The Oxford English Dictionary second edition. Volume VIII. (1989). p.531.

Who was R. Cocks? Richard Cocks was the head of the trading factory of the East India Company in Japan. The collection of letters written by its employees is available online and you can find the sentence in question and also slightly earlier instances of "Corea" in it. Where was the letter written? The answer is Hirado (Firando in the letters), a port town in western Japan, where the factory was located. In short, one of the first attested uses of English "Corea" was from Japan.

It was in 1600 that the first Englishman landed Japan. He was employed by the Dutch East India Company, however. Both the Netherlands and England soon set up trading posts in Japan. England closed the post in 1623 after failing to establish itself in Japan. The Dutch continued the trade and became the only Western country maintaining diplomatic relations with Japan for two centuries.

England and the Netherlands were late comers to Japan. The Roman Catholics from Portugal's Asian colonies arrived at Japan as early as in the 1540s and they were followed by the Spaniards coming from the Philippines in the 1590s. It is said that a Portuguese man introduced matchlock firearms to Tanegashima, a southwestern island of Japan, although the story is often questioned by historians. The Jesuit priest Francis Xavier reached Japan in 1549, marking the beginning of Roman Catholicism in Japan. Roman Catholicism flourished mainly in western Japan until Japan successfully enforced a nationwide ban of Christianity in the first half of the 17th century.

As I mentioned above, the Jesuits published books on the Japanese language such as the Vocabulario da lingoa de Iapam (1603) and the Arte da Lingoa de Iapam (1604-1608). In these books, we can found the R-type words like Coria, Còria, Còrea, etc. Osterkamp (2010) found that in the letters, dated 1591 and 1592, the Portuguese missionary to Japan Luís Fróis referred to Korea as Coray.[6] However, it is unlikely that this was the very first reference to Korea because (1) Osterkamp's focus was on the Korean language and script rather than the country itself and (2) he relied on a secondary English compilation, not on the original letters. In any case, it is almost certain that the first usage of the R-type can be found in the writings of Portuguese missionaries to Japan.

Direct information from Korea? European settlements in Japan were only 200 km away from the Korean peninsula. Some Jesuits were even embedded with the Japanese army in the Korean peninsula in the 1590s. Despite these conditions, they left astonishingly few accounts on Korea. They made no serious effort to establish commercial relations with Korea, as contrasted with what they did with China and Japan.

The most important firsthand report on Korea was published in 1668 by a Dutchman named Hendrick Hamel. It was during the sailing to Japan that he was shipwrecked in 1653. Hamel and his colleagues were detained in Korea for thirteen years until some of them risked their lives to escape to Japan by a boat. It was Japan who managed to free the remaining Dutchmen through diplomatic negotiations. His account on Korea reminds us of what North Korea is today, a state trying to hide all kinds of information from foreigners. It might be worth noting that he correctly pointed to the self-designation of Korea, Tiocen Cock (Chosŏn-guk where -guk means a country), while he consistently called the country Coree in Dutch.[7]


The spelling of Corea reflects Korea's not-so-glorious past. Korea played no role in world history and Europeans saw it through Japanese eyes. A South Korean conspiracist legislator said in an interview in 2003, "Scholars who have studied this more deeply than I believe it was part of the legacy of Japanese imperialists to eradicate our culture."[3] Although "eradicate" is an imprecise term, Japanese people of the 16th century certainly did not respect the Korean custom of Chinese origin and continued to refer to Korea by a vanished dynasty. If they really want to erase Japanese legacy, the spelling of Corea is obviously a wrong choice. Regardless of the C/K distinction, the R-type is Japanese legacy. The L-type Caule or Cauli would be what they want. The Chinese-based word would also symbolize South Korea's eventual return to the Chinese world order amid increasing tensions between the U.S. and China.

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