Korean names can be really confusing because most of them sound similar. So we’ve got his handy guide on how Korean names work!
Most of them have the same names and Korean names mostly contain two parts which are the family name and a given name. They are three syllables long.
The surname is written before the personal name. This helps in denoting that family comes before the individual in the Korean culture.
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Related: List of Korean Surnames
It is also common for Koreans living in western societies to reverse the order of their name because they don’t follow the conventional order of naming where the first name, middle name and last name is written in order.
Interestingly, there is no concept of a middle name in Korea either.
How Korean Names Work
History of Korean Names
The earliest record of Korean names happened during the Three Kingdoms period. Chinese characters were used to create Korean names.
The Confucian tradition led to a rise in a complex naming system that included a pen name, courtesy names, posthumous names and childhood names.
Family names were first introduced to royalty and slowly aristocrats and the general population started adopting the system.
Certain recorded family names from that period are words that are native to Korea.
There were also a lot of practices while naming a new born. The name is usually decided by the third trimester and if it is not done, the responsibility to do it is usually given to the eldest member of the family.
This is considered auspicious and the name is considered lucky for the baby.
In the historical record Samguk Sagi, it is said that the king gives the family names to their supporters.
As confucianism spread among the literati, the custom of having a courtesy name gained popularity.
Japanese Occupation and Changes in Names
When the Japanese occupied Korea, Koreans were forced to use Japanese names. Eventually, this became a voluntary practice and we can find a lot of Japanese family names.
These are also referred to as tsushomei and tsumei and it is completely valid for use in official documents like health insurance, bank accounts etc.
An ordinance number 20 was a part of Governor-General Jiro Minami’s policy of cultural assimilation in 1939.
Although it was not compulsory, Koreans were forced by the low-level officials to take up Japanese style given and family names.
After this, almost 84% of the population had Japanese style names by 1944.
The creation of Japanese family names is referred to as Soshi while the creation of Korean family names is referred to as seong.
Through the Japanese family names, you can identify the family the person belongs to. Unlike Korean family names, they can be changed upon marriage or other procedures.
After Korea got liberated, there was an order called the Name Restoration Order that was issued by the United States military administration on October 23, 1946.
Koreans can now go back to their traditional names and naming systems if they wanted.
As a sense of nationalism waved through Korea, Japanese naming conventions, especially the convention of creating given names is now all but extinct.
In Japanese culture, women’s given names usually end in suffixes like -e, -ka, -yo, -mi,-ko, etc. You’ll see this practice has been discontinued.
In fact, in many places in both the South and the North, these kinds of Japanese naming conventions can seem unsophisticated and old-fashioned.
While South Korea maintained diplomatic even friendly relations with Japan in the 1970s thanks to it’s rapid economic growth, North Korea launched a drive to “de-Japanize” the names in their society during this period.
The Family Name (Surnames)
The first part of a Korean name is the family name. Less than 300 family names were used in Korea and the most common of them are Kim, Lee and Park.
Around half the population is said to have these family names. You can also find a lot of Koren celebrities with this name.
In Korea, the family names are divided into one or more clans. The number of Korean surnames is increasing for a variety of reasons.
Each surname is divided into one or more clans (bon-gwan), each of which denotes the clan’s origin city.
The most populous clan, for example, is Gimhae Kim, which is the Kim clan from Gimhae.
Koreans consider people from the same clan to have the same blood.
Because of this, THE marriage of two people from the same clan is considered taboo even if the linkage between the individuals is distant.
Korean women tend to keep their surname even after marriage but the children have their fathers surname.
Korea had a patriarchal society earlier and it was important to uphold the family values and family identity.
Since Korean women have inherited their names from their ancestors, they cannot be changed and they keep them even after marriage.
Traditionally, the clans in Korea publish genealogy every thirty years. It records the line of descent from the various ancestors.
In recent times, there has been a growth in the number of surnames in Korea, including foreign-origin family names.
This is because there are a lot of naturalised citizens that transcribe their names in the Korean alphabet.
Although there is a surge in the types of surnames, the top ten surnames used by Koreans still remain the same.
They are Kim, Lee, Park, Choi, Jeong, Kang, Jo, Yoon, Jang and Lim.
Given names are influenced by generation names. This system has its origins in China.
A given name usually has two characters and one of them is unique to the person while the other character is commonly found in the people in the family generation.
Although this is not that common among cousins, it is still shared by siblings in a family.
They usually consist of Chinese characters which are commonly known as hanja. They should only be taken from a restricted list, according to section 37 of the Family Registry Laws in South Korea.
The table of hanja for Personal Name Use was published by the Supreme Court of South Korea. The list was later expanded in 1994, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2015.
The second syllable is the unique name of the person. This is usually chosen by the elder members of the family.
This is also decided by analysing the horoscope of the child at a naming centre referred to as the jakmyungso.
Gender in Korean Names
We often wonder how to determine which gender a Korean name is. This is because the male and female names in Korea could be the same characters, irrespective of the gender to which it is assigned.
However, there are some cues that you could check to identify the gender of a person when you get their name.
Legally, the korean government has given a list of around 2800 hanja characters that can be used as a name.
The hanja characters that are used for men usually denote socially accepted masculine characteristics such as strength, power etc.
Similarly, the hanja characters used for female names tend to denote feminine characters such as kindness, beauty, virtue etc.
Some of the examples of hanja characters for male are Yong, which means lion and Chol, which means Iron.
The common female hanja characters include Mi, which means beauty and Ji, which means wisdom.
There has also been a surge of using Korean names instead of using hanja characters. Some of the most common names in this category include Haneul, Areum, Iseul, Seulgi etc.
It is also common for modern koreans to use both a hanja character and korean names in a single person’s name.
The trick to assuming the gender using a korean name is to understand the meaning of the hanja characters. This will help you derive accurate results.
It is quite common to see people giving nicknames to other people in Korea, especially to children.
This is found in people who have suffered from high child mortality. The nickname is called an amyeyong.
An amyeyong is said to avoid any sort of attention that the child could receive from the messenger of death and grant him a long life.
These nicknames could be insulting in nature but it is not that commonly seen in recent times.
When a girl grows up to get married, they lose their amyeyong. They are instead called a taekho which is a name that denotes the town they come from.
It is also common in Korea to refer to the parents with their children’s name. This practice is termed teknonymy.
This commonly happens when mothers are referred to using the eldest child’s name. You can however use this to refer to any parent using any of the children’s names.
Pronouncing Korean Names
The most common Korean family names in English speaking countries are Kim, Lee, Park and Rhee.
Korea has a romanisation system that will help you understand how to pronounce simple vowels.
The old romanisation system included some apostrophes and accents that the revised romanisation system doesn’t.
It was revised in 2000. A lot of the names are romanticised which changes the pronunciation.
Some of the most common names in Korea like Kim, Lee, Park etc are pronounced differently. They are commonly pronounced as Gim, Yi, and Bak.
Korean Name Structure
If you look closely at Korean names you’ll see that they are usually composed of three parts – the family name and the first name split into two.
Some examples of this include:
- Lee Min-ho
- Park Seo-jun
- Kim Soo Hyun
- Park Shin-hye
- Jun Ji-hyun
Here a one-syllable surname is written first, followed by a first name composed of two phonetic units.
However, this isn’t always the case as there are surnames with more than one syllable like Seong-Hun and Kangjeon. But these are rare.
But this doesn’t mean that every Korean name must follow the one-syllable surname and three-syllable first name style. There are plenty of names that are monosyllabic like the actors Ji Sung and Hyun Bin for example.
How Do Korean Generational Names Work
Unlike western names, first names are not passed from generation to generation. So a daughter will not be named after her mother and a son after his father. So no “Seniors” and “Juniors” here!
But it’s actually a tradition for a family generational name. What’s the difference? Well, it’s not the same name that is passed down, but one beginning from the same syllable.
So if you have a family with a father called Yu-jin, it’s more than likely that the son will be called Yu-rim.
The Revised Romanisation of Korean was done in order to fix these problems by the ministry of Sports and Culture. After the revision, the official spellings have been gim, I and Bak.
Koreans who nelly register their passport are advised to follow this revised romanisation system although it is not mandatory.