About a year ago I read an article about Seoul in a magazine. I already forgot what the article was about, but I can still vividly remember my annoyance when I noticed that the author spelled Seoul as ‘Seoel’. As first I thought this was just an error on the author’s part which had somehow escaped the editor’s attention. When I decided to Google it however, I realized that Seoel has in fact become a valid spelling in Dutch. Apparently Seoul is also still valid as well, but it seems that most Dutch language sites, including the Dutch version of Wikipedia and the KLM website, use Seoel as its spelling. I find this to be rather baffling, because I believe that this change in spelling is actually the result of the erroneous pronunciation of Seoul in Dutch instead of there being a well thought out reason behind it. Let me try to explain.
The official English spelling of Seoul is based on the Revised Romanization of Korean (RR), and it is broken up into these two parts: Seo(서) and Ul(울). The way you pronounce Seo is like the first part of sock (or sok in Dutch), so eo is pronounced as a short o, which may be a bit counter-intuitive at first. The way you pronounce Ul is like ool as in pool (or oel as in poel in Dutch). So Seoul would sound somewhat alike to soul (hence the ‘Korea’s got Seoul’ pun you might have come across), albeit with a short o instead of a long o.
The Dutch however erroneously breaks down Seoul in the following two parts: Se and Oul. They — and I as well before I spent a couple of months of my life in South Korea in 2004 — pronounce Se as the English word say. Oul is pronounced in the same way as Ul in the previous explanation. So the pronunciation would sound somewhat similar to the English phrase say you’ll, whereby the accent should be placed on you’ll instead of say. You may have derived from the previous explanation already that the Dutch spelling for the sound Oul is Oel (i.e. poel has the same pronunciation as the English word pool). So now Oul becomes Oel, and therefore Se-oul now becomes Se-oel. To be honest, I haven’t done extensive research on this theory, but rather it is based on my own deductive reasoning. In any case, there is no way that Seoel would be the correct spelling for the way it is originally pronounced.
I realize that the pronunciation or the spelling of city names is often altered in other languages. Honestly, I can live with the fact that Seoul is pronounced incorrectly in Dutch, but to change the spelling to reflect that incorrect pronunciation is pushing it too far and to me it is a sign of ignorance and myopia. It is sometimes said that two wrongs may make a right, but in this case the two wrongs just, well, make things even worse. That’s why I find this to be rather baffling. I mean, seriously, if you decide to change the official spelling of one of the largest cities in the world –or even the largest according to some measures (check the rankings on Citymayors, World Atlas or Wikipedia) — shouldn’t someone at least double check whether there is actually a valid reasoning behind the change?
UPDATE – It seems that Seoel was mainly being used by the Flemish (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) initially, but that Netherlands Dutch took over this spelling as well. On January 5th 2011, the Nederlandse Taalunie removed the distinction of Seoel being predominantly Flemish and is now apparently seen as a widespread spelling for the Netherlands Dutch as well.