Q: Why is there an “e” in Seoul? What’s it for, anyway?
A: Europeans are responsible for putting the “e” in “Seoul.” This spelling represents the commonly accepted transliteration of the word from the Korean alphabet into the Roman.
We’ve found mentions of the name “Seoul” or “Séoul” dating from the 1840s in French, German, Italian, and English writing.
The spelling was considered an approximation of the way native Koreans pronounced the word, which means “capital” in their language.
The first Europeans in Korea were French Roman Catholic missionaries who arrived in 1836, according to the Korea scholar James Huntley Grayson. (We’re citing a chapter he wrote in the anthology Christianity in Korea, 2006.)
It’s probable that these French priests were the first to spell “Seoul” with an “e.” We say this because the earliest example we’ve found is from a letter written in Italian on July 18, 1846, by a French priest, Antoine Daveluy, a missionary in Korea at the time.
In naming the provinces of “la Corea,” Father Daveluy gives the fifth province as “Kiang-kè, capitale, Han-iang, o Seoul, che è pure capitale di tutto il regno.” (Translation: “Kiang-kè, capital Han-iang or Seoul, which is also the capital of the entire kingdom.”) His letter was published in a Catholic periodical in Italy in 1848.
British missionary publications—the Rambler (1849) and the Gleaner in the Missionary Field (1850)—used nearly identical language, though in English, to describe this province of “Corea,” except that they reversed the accent in “Kiang-ké.”
The Korean Repository, an English monthly published in Seoul in the 1890s, printed an exchange of letters in 1892 about the spelling “Seoul.”
One letter-writer expressed the opinion that “the transliteration Syoul as given in the Dictionnaire Coréen-Français is probably nearer correct than Seoul.”
Another correspondent said that attempts to reproduce the word in Roman letters had produced “kaleidoscopic variations that are as curious as they are perplexing.”
He mentioned “Seoul,” “Söul,” “Sowl,” “Sôwl,” “Sool,” “Sole,” “Sau-ull,” “Saw-ool,” “Sye-oul,” and “Syö-ul.”
He gave his own preference: “Söul, not a perfect medium it is true, but an intelligible and practical rendition, and one which will at least leave the public in the neighborhood of the correct pronunciation.”
The editor of the Korean Repository replied: “The word Seoul means Capital to the Koreans and is used as the name of the capital of Korea by foreigners. It is, as all admit, a word of two syllables, commonly transliterated Sye-oul. Unfortunately this does not help those who do not study the language to anything like a correct pronunciation because it does not spell it phonetically any more than Séoul, Sool, Soul &c.”
“Any attempt however to pronounce it as a monosyllable must necessarily lead astray and is as unintelligible to the uninitiated Korean as N’jork would be to the mass of the people in New York,” he added.
After discussing the word’s history as rendered in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing, the editor noted that “the populace said Syeoul” at a time when the only writing “used in the peninsula was the Chinese ideogram, and it is probable that the word was not written as it had long been spoken until the general adoption of the Korean alphabet, with its phonetic spelling.”
He insisted that “the pronunciation of the word as a monosyllable is not like that of the Koreans ‘who speak the dialects’ nor, for that matter, like that of any Koreans.”
Foreigners, he added, usually stress the first syllable, with “the o as in long, or aw in law.” This vowel sound, he said, might be written with an “ó” (Sóul).
That rendering “would probably come nearest the native sound,” he said, “but there is always the danger of these top-knots [i.e., accent marks] being discarded after a brief season’s handling by the busy public, in which case we should have Soul left, than which nothing could be farther from the correct pronunciation. We have seen the name of our city written in this way by advocates of the ö (Söul) having ‘forgotten the umlaut’ and we fear Sóul would fare no better.”
The editor’s conclusion: “We are therefore inclined to think it just as well to continue to write Seoul, though Sóul is nearer the native pronunciation.”
Despite the 19th-century admonitions against a monosyllabic pronunciation, English speakers today pronounce the name of the capital like “soul” or “sole.”