Monday, October 9, 2006

Korean Names 101

Korean names differ from what most people are used to. Instead of using given name and then family name, Koreans express their names as family name and then given name. Why, I'm not exactly sure. I believe it has something to do with the Confucius ethos. The family is more important than the individual. Just as addresses are written from general to specific, i.e. Starting with province, then city, urban area, neighborhood, building, and finally apartment.

Most Koreans outside of Korea adapt their name to the western convention, but a few keep the Korean style. One example would be Kim Jong-Il. He's not Mr. Il, but rather Mr. Kim. His given name is Jong-Il. For the soccer fans out there, you may know Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-Sung. He's not Mr. Sung, but Mr. Park.

Korean names usually have a specific format. But first, a brief explanation of Korean. Korean letters are arranged into patterns that resemble characters. In fact, these characters are composed of a quite limited set of letters. Each "character" represents one syllable. And that brings us back to Korean names. Family names are almost always one character. Kim, Lee, and Park being the most popular. In fact these three last names represent almost half of all Koreans. Within each family name, there are various clans. So people with the same name are only considered related if they are from the same clan. In fact, it was considered taboo to marry anyone within your own clan, no matter how distantly related. Although I've heard that restriction is being lessened. Everyone from the clan (or maybe it's just males) is entered into their family registry. Thus researching your ancestory is quite easy. Many of the clans can trace their ancestors back to the 1300s or earlier.

Next we have the given names. The given names are usually two characters or syllables, although I do have one student with just a one syllable given name. Some families still use a generational name, which is one syllable used with all children of that generation. For example, I have a brother and sister named Jin-Young and Ha-Young. But based upon my limited experience with my students, that isn't very frequent.

The greatest complication is the preponderance of similar names. The Kim, Lee, and Park problem is just the beginning. For some reason, almost everyone has one 'S' or 'J' syllable in their given name. Among 30 or so students and staff at my school, I can only count a handful without a 'S' or 'J' syllable. Permutations of 'S' syllables include Soo, So, Seo, Seh, Seul, Sun, Sung, Seung, and Sang. Among the 'J's, we have Jun, Joon, Jin, Ji, Jung, and Jae. Unfortunately, we don't give our kids Western names, so I'm constantly calling them by the wrong name or spelling their name wrong. And of course, they get upset when I misspell Seo as So.

One final point is the romanization of Korean names. Since Korean sounds don't exactly match English sounds, there is some debate as to how to romanize Korean. For example, the letter ㄱ (I'm not sure if Korean characters will show up on your computer or not) is pronounced somewhere between a hard 'g' and 'k'. In part, depending on where in the word it lies. So the name 김, which is almost always written as Kim, is closer to Gim. The name 박, or Park, should be written as Bak. And finally, 이, or Lee, is actually just a long e sound. So people with the same Korean name can romanize their names differently.

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