HYPHE-NATED

Culture KOREA 101 Language

Why do all Korean names have three syllables?

CONTINUED FROM KOREAN NAMES – Why do Korean people only have like… Three last names? Kim, Lee, Park?

Now that we’ve covered the family name portion of a Korean name, let’s turn to how a Korean first name is composed. If you’ve been following Korean celebrities for quite some time, you should have noticed a pattern that almost all of their names have three syllables (family name (1 syllable) + first name (2 syllables, for example, the Korean name of a famous K-Pop star G-Dragon is Kwon (family name) + Ji Yong (first name), and might have wondered if it’s something required by law or people are simply following the social norm, keeping in mind the Korean proverb “a cornered stone meets the mason’s chisel.” 

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To understand the science behind it, we need to refer back to the Korean genealogy system we’ve just learned – a Korean last name is indicative of one’s ancestral history and bongwan 본관 tells which clan they belong to. So what’s the role of a Korean first name? While a Korean family name provides information regarding its origin and its following lineage in a vertical direction, a Korean first name works in a horizontal direction, providing information related to a given generation. 

Traditionally for each generation, the belonging members of the same sex share one syllable of a first name. This “generational name,” or hangryeol 항렬, is unique by the clan and the placement location, which can be the first syllable or second syllable of a first name, is also decided and approved by the clan society (which is often not observed nowadays). Similar to a serial number of a manufactured product which tells us when and where it’s made, the shared syllable serves to indicate what “generational level” one comes from. Thanks to such detailed record-keeping effort, members (not just one’s siblings but everyone along the line of one’s generation) of the same clan can pinpoint how far, in terms of the number of generation, one’s stretched down from the first ancestor, thereby making it possible to determine one’s “generational level,” and the relative “rank.” For that reason, even when one happens to be a lot younger but comes from an older generation (higher rank), the much older one (lower rank) has to use honorifics, and it’s quite a comical and confusing situation even for average Koreans. And as for the remaining slot, it’s left for the parents to freely decide.

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Here’s another real-life example:

Traditionally for each generation, the belonging members of the same sex share one syllable of a first name. This “generational name,” or hangryeol 항렬, is unique by the clan and the placement location, which can be the first syllable or second syllable of a first name, is also decided and approved by the clan society (which is often not observed nowadays).

With the nation’s relentless endeavor for modernization and the Korean lifestyle rapidly shifting away from collectivism to individualism, however, large portions of traditional values and cultural practices are weakening, and this syllable-sharing tradition is getting less and less observed (but if you come from an extremely orthodox clan, they might throw the book at you).

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Also at this point, I should make clear that the three-syllable system is not a legal requirement, and different combinations are perfectly fine. For instance, two-syllable versions of a Korean name is very common (1 syllable family name + 1 syllable first name, e.g., Kim Hwan), or two-syllable family names like Sunwoo and Namkung, four-syllable combinations (2 syllable family name + 2 syllable first name, e.g., Sunwoo Hyun Soo) are also a dime a dozen.

DO KOREAN PEOPLE HAVE A MIDDLE NAME?

More often than not, Korean people who apply for an English-based document such as an international driver’s license will find a syllable missing in their name upon picking it up. The reason for this mysterious disappearance is largely attributable to a common mistake where they think of their “middle syllable” of their name as the “middle name” in English, and putting it in the “middle name” section. If your name is Yong Jin (first name) Kim (last name), the end result will be Yong Kim or Yong J. Kim, or Yong Kim, as the middle name is often initialized or omitted in the American English system.What could be the cause?

As an educated reader, you must have figured out that it’s the spacing between the two syllables of a first name that creates the confusion. A popular solution is inserting a hyphen between the two syllables (i.e., Yong-jin Kim), or eliminating the space between the two (i.e., Yongjin Kim). Both are pretty solid solutions, but the hyphen method does a better job at separating pronunciations, thereby providing readers guidance (i.e., without spacing, Yongil could be read as Yon Gil or Yong Il, but hyphen eliminates that issue). And for those of you who ever wondered if there is any difference between a hyphenated and the no-space version first name, they are exactly the same.

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Now that we’ve successfully learned the structure of a Korean name, let’s continue the winning streak and jump to another popular topic – what does a Korean name stand for and how can I decode it?

More often than not, Korean people who apply for an English-based document such as an international driver’s license will find a syllable missing in their name upon picking it up.

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