Korean name

From Academic Kids

Korean name
Revised Seong Myeong
M-R Sŏng Myŏng
A Korean name
A Korean name

A Korean personal name consists of a family name and a given name, both of which are generally composed of Hanja. In Korean, the given name follows the family name. In non-East Asian language contexts, especially when using European languages, some Koreans keep the original order, while others reverse their names to match the predominant Western naming pattern of given name followed by family name; this same approach is followed by members of many other East Asian societies in such contexts. The easiest way to identify a Korean name among other East Asian names is that they always consist of three characters, which translate to three syllables in English.


Family names

Missing image
Pie chart of the most common Korean family names

Korean family names are influenced by Chinese family names, hence, as in Chinese, the term the hundred family names (baekseong; 백성; 百姓) means "the people" or "commoners." As with Chinese family names, almost all Korean family names have just one Hanja (hence are one syllable).

There are only roughly 250 family names (seongssi; 성씨; 姓氏) in use today. Each family name is divided into one or more clans (bongwan; 본관; 本寬), identified by the city that the clan office is located in. The most populous clan is Gimhae (Kimhae) Kim (김해 김; 金海金); that is, the Kim clan based in the city of Gimhae (near Busan). Every 30 years, each clan publishes a comprehensive genealogy (jokbo; 족보; 族譜). (See Nahm 1988, p. 33–34 for more information.)

Below are the most common family names that make up over half of the Korean population:

Hangul Hanja SK Rom. Popular spellings
Gim Kim
리 (N)
이 (S)
Ri (N)
I (S)
Lee, Rhee, Yi
Bak Park, Pak
An Ahn
Jang Chang

Jo Cho
Choe Choi

Jeong Chung, Chong
Han -
Gang Kang

Ryu (N)
Yu (S)
Ryu, Yoo
Yun Yoon
Cha Cha

There are around a dozen two-syllable surnames, including:

  • Hwangbo (황보; 皇甫)
  • Seon-u (선우; 鮮于)
  • Jegal (제갈; 諸葛)
  • Seomun (서문; 西門)
  • Dokgo (독고; 獨孤)
  • Sagong (사공; 司空)
  • Namgung (남궁; 南宮)

The two-character surnames all rank after the 100 most common surnames. Most of them are uncommon Chinese surnames as well (see Chinese compound surname).

The romanization of Korean names is not standardized, thus Koreans generally romanize their name according to their personal preference.

Korean women traditionally keep their family name at marriage, but children take their father's name. This adheres to the East Asian naming systems common to the cultures of East Asia which has been under heavy influence of China. However, there is small but notable trend in South Korea where both men and women, mostly young, prefer to be called by double surnames (one from each parent) or give their children double surnames. This may be attributed to a growing feminist influence in contemporary Korean society.

Westernized pronunciations

In English speaking nations, the three most common family names are often pronounced by non-ethnic Koreans as "Kim" (김), "Lee" or "Rhee" (리, 이), and "Park" (박).

The initial sound in "Kim" is actually something like a cross between English 'k' and "hard g". Some English speakers may find a closer approximation to the actual Korean one by saying "Gim".

The name-character 李 is pronounced as 리 in North Korea and as 이 in South Korea, (with some overlap between North and South pronunciations). In the former case, the initial sound is like a cross between English 'r' and 'l', which is why "Lee" and "Rhee" are common spellings. In the latter case, the whole pronunciation of the name is simply the English vowel sound for a "long e", as in see. Perhaps owing to the awkwardness of writing "Mr. E", this pronunciation is often spelled as "Yi" or another similiar variation.

In Korean pronunciation, the name Westerners usually render as "park" actually has no 'r' sound at all. Its initial sound is like a cross between English 'p' and 'b', and the name rhymes with the "bok" in bok choy, (the vowel is the IPA sound [a], typically pronounced as the 'a' in father). In northern England, 박 actually rhymes with 'back,' as the "ㅏ" sound in Korean is almost identical to the short 'a' vowel in northern British English pronunciation.

Given names

Korean given names are usually composed of two characters or syllables. A few people have one- or three-character given names, like the politicians Kim Gu (김구; 金九) and Goh Kun (고건; 高建) on the one hand, and Yeon Gaesomun (연개소문; 淵蓋蘇文; a Goguryeo general) on the other. People with two-character family names often have a one-character given name, like the singer Seomoon Tak (서문탁; 西門卓).

In March 1991, the South Korean Supreme Court (대법원) published the Table of Hanja for Personal Name Use (Inmyeong-yong Chuga Hanja-pyo; 인명용 추가 한자표; 人名用追加漢字表) that restricts the possible Hanja in new Korean given names. Originally the list included the 1,800 Basic Hanja for Educational Use (Hanmun Gyoyuk-yong Gicho Hanja; 한문 교육용 기초 한자; 漢文敎育用基礎漢字) taught in middle and high school plus 1,054 additional characters; since then, the list has been expanded.

Traditionally, given names are determined by a rule called dollimja, (돌림자), which originated in China. One of the two characters in a given name is unique to the individual and the other is shared by all people in a family of the same sex and generation, called the generation name.

While the traditional practice is still largely followed, since the late 1970s, some people have given names that are native Korean words, usually of two syllables in length to follow the old 2-character pattern. Popular native Korean given names include Haneul (하늘; "Heaven" or "Sky") and Iseul (이슬; "Dew"). Despite the general 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.

Historical names

Native names

Prior to the adoption of Chinese-style names, Koreans had indigenous names. They did not have family names, at least as part of personal names. Native given names were sometimes composed of three syllables like Misaheun (미사흔; 未斯欣) and Sadaham (사다함; 斯多含).

Under the strong influence of Chinese culture in the first millennium of the Common Era, Koreans adopted family names. Family names were limited to kings and aristocrats at the beginning, but gradually spread to the commoners during the Goryeo and Joseon periods.

Goguryeo in Manchuria and northern Korea and Baekje in southwestern Korea had many non-Chinese family names. They often consisted of two characters and many of them seem to have been toponyms. Judging from Japanese records, some characters were pronounced not by their Chinese reading but by their reading in the native language (see Hanja#Hun and Eum). For example, Goguryeo General Yeon Gaesomun (연개소문; 淵蓋蘇文) is called Iri Kasumi (伊梨柯須弥) in Nihonshoki. Like cheon (천; 泉) in Chinese, iri would presumably have meant "fountain" in the Goguryeo language.

In contrast, Silla family names were totally Chinese-style ones, which is not likely related to King Muyeol's Sinicization policy.

The ancient kings of Korea gave their subjects family names. For example, in AD 33, King Yuri gave the tribes of Saro (Silla) names like Bae (배), Choe (최), Jeong (정), Son (손) and Seol (설). Other names given by kings are An (안), Cha (차), Han (한), Hong (홍), Kim (김), Kwon (권), Nam (남), Eo (어), and Wang (왕).

Mongolian names

Under the domination of the Mongol Empire during the Goryeo Dynasty, Korean kings and aristocrats had both Mongolian and Sino-Korean names. For example, King Gongmin had both the Mongolian name Bayan Temr (伯顏帖木兒) and the Chinese-style name Wang Gi (王祺) (later renamed Wang Jeon 王顓).

Mongolian personal names did not include family names, so some Korean nobility had names that were combinations of Sino-Korean family names and Mongolian given names. For example, Ki Cheol (奇轍), a brother of the Qi Empress, was called Ki Bayan Bukha (奇伯顏不花) and the Qi Empress's eunuch was called Bak Bukha (朴不花).

Japanized names

In 1939, during the Japanese Colonial Period (19101945) and as part of Governor-General Jiro Minami's policy of cultural assimilation (同化政策; doka seisaku) [1] (http://hcs.harvard.edu/~heas/conference/2000/panel_6.htm#s4), Ordinance No. 20 (Commonly called the "Name Order") was issued, which went into law on February 11, 1940, the 2,600th anniversary of the mythical emperor Jinmu's founding of Japan [2] (http://members.jcom.home.ne.jp/yosha/minorities/names.html).

The ordinance — commonly called Soshi-kaimei (創氏改名) in Japanese — allowed in theory (but compelled in practice) Koreans to adopt Japanese family and given names. Although the Japanese Government-General officially prohibited compulsion, low-level officials practically forced Koreans to get Japanese-style family names, and by 1944, approximately 84 percent of the population had registered Japanese family names (Nahm 1988, p. 233).

Soshi means the creation of a Japanese family name or si (Korean ssi (씨)), distinct from a Korean family name or seong (Japanese sei). Japanese family names represent the families they belong to and can be changed by marriage and other procedures, while Korean family names represent paternal linkages and are unchangeable. Soshi represented a dual operation of both Japanese and Korean family name systems. A Korean was able to register a new Japanese family name, or his Korean family name automatically became his Japanese family name. A Korean was not allowed to register another Korean family name. For example, Mr. Bak (박; 朴) was allowed to register Arai (新井) or Boku (the Japanese equivalent of Bak) as his Japanese family name but was forbidden to take the name Kim (김; 金). Japanese conventions of creating given names also made their way into Korea, such as putting a character "子" (Japanese ko and Korean ja meaning "descendant" or "son") to make feminine names like "玉子" (Japanese Tamako and Korean Okja), although this practice is seldom seen in modern Korea, both North and South. See External links for more on the Soshi-kaimei policy.

After Japanese defeat in World War II and the liberation of Korea, the Name Restoration Order (조선 성명 복구령; 朝鮮姓名復舊令) was issued on October 23, 1946 by the United States military administration, enabling Koreans to restore their Korean names if they wished to.


  • Nahm, Andrew C. (1988). Korea: Tradition and Transformation — A History of the Korean People. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym International. ISBN 0930878566

See also

External links


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