Introduction to Korean Names


A Korean name consists of a family name followed by a given name, as used by the Korean people in both South Korea and North Korea. In the Korean language, ireum or seong-myeong usually refers to the family name (seong) and given name (ireum in a narrow sense) together.

Traditional Korean names typically consist of only one syllable. There is no middle name in the English language sense. Many Koreans have their given names made of a generational name syllable and an individually distinct syllable, while this practice is declining in the younger generations. The generational name syllable is shared by siblings in North Korea, and by all members of the same generation of an extended family in South Korea. Married men and women usually keep their full personal names, and children inherit the father's family name. The family names are subdivided into bon-gwan (clans), i.e. extended families which originate in the lineage system used in previous historical periods. Each clan is identified by a specific place, and traces its origin to a common patrilineal ancestor.

Early names based on the Korean language were recorded in the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE – 668 CE), but with the growing adoption of the Chinese writing system, these were gradually replaced by names based on Chinese characters (hanja). During periods of Mongol influence, the ruling class supplemented their Korean names with Mongolian names.

Because of the many changes in Korean romanization practices over the years, modern Koreans, when using languages written in Latin script, romanize their names in various ways, most often approximating the pronunciation in English orthography. Some keep the original order of names, while others reverse the names to match the usual Western pattern.

Fewer than 300 (approximately 280) Korean family names are currently in use, and the three most common (Kim, Lee, and Park) account for nearly half of the population. For various reasons, there is a growth in the number of Korean surnames. Each family name is divided into one or more clans (bon-gwan), identifying the clan's city of origin. For example, the most populous clan is Gimhae Kim; that is, the Kim clan from the city of Gimhae, Southern Gyeongsang Province. Clans are further subdivided into various pa, or branches stemming from a more recent common ancestor, so that a full identification of a person's family name would be clan-surname-branch. For example, "Gyeongju Yi-ssi" also romanized as "Gyeongju Lee-ssi" (Gyeongju Lee clan, or Lee clan of Gyeongju and "Yeonan Yi-ssi" (Lee clan of Yeonan) are, technically speaking, completely different surnames, even though both are, in most places, simply referred to as "Yi" or "Lee". This also means people from the same clan are considered to be of same blood, such that marriage of a man and a woman of same surname and bon-gwan is considered a strong taboo, regardless of how distant the actual lineages may be, even to the present day.

Traditionally, Korean women keep their family names after their marriage, but their children take the father's surname. In the premodern, patriarchal Korean society, people were extremely conscious of familial values and their own family identities. Korean women keep their surnames after marriage based on traditional reasoning that it is what they inherited from their parents and ancestors, and cannot be changed. According to traditions, each clan publishes a comprehensive genealogy (jokbo) every 30 years.

Around a dozen two-syllable surnames are used, all of which rank after the 100 most common surnames. The five most common family names, which together make up over half of the Korean population, are used by over 20 million people in South Korea.

Traditionally, given names are partly determined by generation names, a custom originating in China. One of the two characters in a given name is unique to the individual, while the other is shared by all people in a family generation. In both North and South Korea, generational names are usually no longer shared by cousins, but are still commonly shared by brothers and sisters.

Given names are typically composed of hanja, or Chinese characters. In North Korea, the hanja are no longer used to write the names, but the meanings are still understood; thus, for example, the syllable cheol (철, 鐵) is used in boys' names and means "iron".

In South Korea, section 37 of the Family Registry Law requires that the hanja in personal names be taken from a restricted list. Unapproved hanja must be represented by hangul in the family registry. In March 1991, the Supreme Court of South Korea published the Table of Hanja for Personal Name Use, which allowed a total of 2,854 hanja in new South Korean given names (as well as 61 alternative forms). The list was expanded in 1994, 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2007. Thus, 5,151 hanja are now permitted in South Korean names (including the set of basic hanja), in addition to a small number of alternative forms. The use of an official list is similar to Japan's use of the jinmeiyō kanji (although the characters do not entirely coincide).

While the traditional practice is still largely followed, since the late 1970s, some parents have given their children names that are native Korean words, usually of two syllables. Popular given names of this sort include Haneul (하늘; "Heaven" or "Sky"), Areum (아름; "Beauty"), Iseul (이슬; "Dew") and Seulgi (슬기; "Wisdom"). Despite this trend away from traditional practice, people's names are still recorded in both hangul and hanja (if available) on official documents, in family genealogies, and so on.

In English-speaking nations, the three most common family names are often written and pronounced as "Kim" (김), "Lee" or "Rhee" (이, 리), and "Park" (박). Despite official Korean romanization systems used for geographic and other names in North and South Korea, personal names are generally romanized according to personal preference. Thus, a family name such as "Lee" may also be found spelled "I", "Yi", "Rhee", and "Rhie".

The initial sound in "Kim" shares features with both the English 'k' (in initial position, an aspirated voiceless velar stop) and "hard g" (an unaspirated voiced velar stop). When pronounced initially, Kim starts with an unaspirated voiceless velar stop sound; it is voiceless like /k/, but also unaspirated like /ɡ/. As aspiration is a distinctive feature in Korean but voicing is not, "Gim" is more likely to be understood correctly. "Kim" is used nearly universally in both North and South Korea.

The family name "Lee" is pronounced as 리 (ri) in North Korea and as 이 (i) in South Korea. In the former case, the initial sound is a liquid consonant. There is no distinction between the alveolar liquids /l/ and /r/, which is why "Lee" and "Rhee" are both common spellings. In South Korea, the pronunciation of the name is simply the English vowel sound for a "long e", as in 'see'. This pronunciation is also often spelled as "Yi"; the Northern pronunciation is commonly romanized "Ri".

In Korean pronunciation, the name usually romanized as "Park" has no 'r' sound as in American English since the romanization was based on British English with r-dropping. Its initial sound is an unaspirated voiceless bilabial stop, like an English 'b' at the beginning of words. The vowel is [a], similar to the 'a' in father. For this reason, the name is also often transcribed "Pak" or "Bak".

In English publications, usually Korean names are written in the original order, with the family name first and the given name last. This is the case in Western newspapers. Koreans living and working in Western countries have their names in the Western order, with the given name first and the family name last. The usual presentation of Korean names in English is similar to those of Chinese names and differs from those of Japanese names, where they, in English publications, are usually written in a reversed order with the family name last.

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