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Korean surname


Korean surname

Template:Infobox Chinese/HeaderTemplate:Infobox Chinese/KoreanTemplate:Infobox Chinese/Footer

A Korean name consists of a family name followed by a given name, as used by the Korean people in both North Korea and South 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. There are only about 250 Korean family names currently in use, and the three most common (Kim, Lee, and Park) account for nearly half of the population.

Traditional Korean names typically consist of only one syllable. There is no middle name in the Western 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. During periods of Mongol influence, the ruling class supplemented their Korean names with Mongolian names. In addition, during the later period of Japanese rule in the early 20th century, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names.

Because of the many changes in Korean romanization practices over the years, modern Koreans, when using European languages, 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.

Family names

The five most common family names[1]
Hangul Hanja Revised MR Common spellings
Gim Kim Kim
리 (N)
이 (S)
Ri (N)
I (S)
Ri (N)
Yi (S)
Lee, Yi, Rhee, Rhie, Reeh, Yie, Ee
Bak Pak Park, Pak
Choe Ch'oe Choi

Jeong Chŏng Chung, Jung

There are approximately 250 family names in use today.[2] 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. 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, "Kyoungjoo Yissi" also romanized as "Kyoungjoo Leessi" (Kyoung-Joo Lee Clan, or Lee Clan of Kyoung-Joo) and "Yeonan-Yissi" (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 that 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 pre-modern, 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.[3]

There are around a dozen two-syllable surnames, 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.[1]

Given names

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. Therefore, it is common for cousins to have the same character (dollimja) in their given names in the same fixed position. In North Korea, generational names are no longer shared across families, but are still commonly shared by brothers and sisters.[4]

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.[5] Unapproved hanja must be represented by hangul, or Korean characters, 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 alternate forms).[6] The list was expanded in 1994, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2007. Thus there are now 5,151 hanja permitted in South Korean names, in addition to a small number of alternate forms.[7]

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. This has been largely restricted to girl's names. Popular native Korean given names of this sort include Haneul (하늘; "Heaven" or "Sky"), Areum (아름; "Beauty"), Gippeum (기쁨; "Joy") and Iseul (이슬; "Dew"). 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.


Forms of address

The usage of names is governed by strict norms in traditional Korean society. It is generally considered rude to address anyone by their given name in Korean culture. This is particularly the case when dealing with adults or one's elders.[8] It is acceptable to call someone by given name if he or she is at the same age with the speaker. However it is considered rude to call one's name if one's age is even one year older than the speaker. This is often a source of pragmatic difficulty for learners of Korean as a foreign language, and for Korean learners of Western languages.

A variety of replacements are used for the actual name of the person. It is acceptable among adults of similar status to address the other by their full name, with the suffix ssi (氏, 씨) added. However, it is inappropriate to address someone by their surname alone, even with such a suffix.[9] Whenever the person has an official rank, it is typical to address him or her by the name of that rank (such as "Manager"), often with the honorific nim (님) added. In such cases, the full name of the person may be appended, although this can also imply that the speaker is of higher status.[9]

Among children and close friends, it is common to use a person's birth name.

Traditional nicknames

Among the common people, who have suffered from high child mortality, children were often given amyeong (childhood name), to wish them long lives by avoiding notice from the messenger of death.[10] These sometimes-insulting nicknames are used sparingly for children today.[11]

Upon marriage, women usually lost their amyeong, and were called by a taekho, referring to their town of origin.[10]

In addition, teknonymy, or referring to parents by their children's names, is a common practice. It is most commonly used in referring to a mother by the name of her eldest son, as in "Cheolsu's mom" (철수 엄마). However, it can be extended to either parent and any child, depending upon the context.[12]

Korean names and gender

Korean history has a strong foundation of Confucian Principles, acquired mostly during the Chosŏn Dynasty, 1392.[13] These principles determine the family as the fundamental unit of society. This emphasis on family is placed within a patriarchal family structure with the male as the superior. Traditionally, males dominate females and the elders dominate the young. Males are depicted as ambitious, have aspirations, are strong, practical, and independent. Women are [ideally] seen as not ambitious, have no aspirations, are emotional and romantic.[13]

Confucianism is characterized by extreme sexual segregation and a double standard of sexual morality. Examples of this can be observed in the clear hierarchical order of sexes. For example, women who are married are often referred to as ansaram (inside person) or jibsaram (home person), indicating that a wife’s realm is strictly restricted to domesticity.[14]

In traditional Korean name acquisition, it is very common for the wife to keep her family name after marriage; however, the children must take their father’s name.[15] But the revised South Korean Civil Law, which went into effect from 1 Jan 2008, allows children to be named after either of their parents' or step-parents' last names.[16]

Honorifics suggest the more complicated relationships of roles and power to be the prime system of address in Korean society. Kinship ties are very important and these ties will go beyond the nuclear family unit. In Korean names however, the singular pronoun used to identify individuals has no gender.[17] This means that, while most English first names (Jennifer, Mark, Candice, and Nicholas) attach a gender specific context, Korean names do not. Commonly, English-to-Korean translating programs cannot identify the proper Korean pronouns as being male or female and will therefore skew the original sentence structure.[17]


The use of names has evolved over time, from the first recording of Korean names in the early Three Kingdoms period through the gradual adoption of Chinese forms of naming as centralized kingdoms came to dominate Korean life. A complex system, including courtesy names and pen names as well as posthumous names and childhood names, arose out of Confucian tradition. The courtesy name system in particular arose from the Classic of Rites, a core text of the Confucian canon.[18]

Native names

During the Three Kingdoms period, native given names were sometimes composed of three syllables like Misaheun (미사흔) and Sadaham (사다함), which were later transcribed into hanja (未斯欣, 斯多含). The use of family names was limited to kings in the beginning, but gradually spread to aristocrats and eventually to most of the population.[19]

Some recorded family names are apparently native Korean words, such as toponyms. At that time, some characters of Korean names might have been read not by their Sino-Korean pronunciation but by their native reading (see hanja). For example, the native Korean name of Yeon Gaesomun (연개소문; 淵蓋蘇文), the first Grand Prime Minister of Goguryeo, can linguistically be reconstructed as "Eol Kasum" (/*älkasum/).[20] Early Silla names are also believed to represent Old Korean vocabulary; for example, Bak Hyeokgeose, the name of the founder of Silla, was pronounced something like "Bulgeonuri" (弗矩內), which can be translated as "bright world".[21]

In older traditions, if the name of a baby is not chosen by the third tri-mester, the responsibility of choosing the name fell to the oldest son of the family. Often, this was the preferred method as the name chosen was seen as good luck.

Confucian naming system

According to the chronicle Samguk Sagi, family names were bestowed by kings upon their supporters. For example, in 33 CE, King Yuri gave the six headmen of Saro (later Silla) the names Lee (이), Bae (배), Choi (최), Jeong (정), Son (손) and Seol (설). However, this account is not generally credited by modern historians, who hold that Confucian-style surnames as above were more likely to have come into general use in the 5th and subsequent centuries, as the Three Kingdoms increasingly adopted the Chinese model.[22]

Only a handful of figures from the Three Kingdoms period are recorded as having borne a courtesy name, such as Seol Chong. The custom only became widespread in the Goryeo period, as Confucianism took hold among the literati.[23] In 1055, Goryeo established a new law limiting access to the civil service exam to those with family names.[10]

For men of yangban rank, a complex system of alternate names had been developed by the Joseon Dynasty. Peasants sometimes had only amyong throughout their lives.[10] According to a census taken in 1910, at the end of the Joseon Dynasty and the beginning of Japanese rule, a little more than half of the population did not have family names.[10]

Mongolian names

For a brief period after the Mongol invasion of Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty, Korean kings and aristocrats had both Mongolian and Sino-Korean names. The scions of the ruling class were sent to the Yuan court for schooling.[24] For example, King Gongmin had both the Mongolian name Bayan Temür (伯顏帖木兒) and the Sino-Korean name Wang Gi (王祺) (later renamed Wang Jeon (王顓)).[25]

Japanese names

Main article: Sōshi-kaimei

During the period of Japanese colonial rule of Korea (1910–1945), Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese-language names.[26]

In 1939, as part of Governor-General Jiro Minami's policy of cultural assimilation (同化政策; dōka seisaku), Ordinance No. 20 (commonly called the "Name Order", or Sōshi-kaimei (創氏改名) in Japanese) was issued, and became law in April 1940.[27] Although the Japanese Governor-General officially prohibited compulsion, low-level officials effectively forced Koreans to adopt Japanese-style family and given names. By 1944, approximately 84 percent of the population had registered Japanese family names.[27]

Sōshi (Japanese) means the creation of a Japanese family name (shi, Korean ssi), 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. Japanese policy dictated that Koreans either could register a completely new Japanese family name unrelated to their Korean surname, or have their Korean family name, in Japanese form, automatically become their Japanese name if no surname was submitted before the deadline.[28]

After the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, 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 south of the 38th parallel north, enabling Koreans to restore their original Korean names if they wished to.

Japanese conventions of creating given names, such as using "子" (Japanese ko and Korean ja) in feminine names, is seldom seen in present-day Korea, both North and South. In the North, a campaign to eradicate such Japanese-based names was launched in the 1970s.[4] In the South, and presumably in the North as well, these names are regarded as old and unsophisticated.

Romanization and pronunciation

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".[29]

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.[30]

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".[31]

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".[32]

Korean names in English

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.[33]

See also

Korea portal


  • Power, John. "EBSCOHost.


Further reading

  • (Korean)
  • (Korean)
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  • (Korean)
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  • (Korean)
  • (Korean)

External links

  • Translate your name into Korean
  • Korean surnames at
  • Table of in 2001 added Hanja for Personal Name Use
  • Choosing between Korean Hanja and Hangul Names
  • Family Register Law, Act 6438, 호적법, 법률6438호, partially revised October 24, 2005. (Korean)
  • Saga Women's Junior College (Japanese)

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