Friday, June 28, 2013

Why are Korean Names Two Syllables?

(To read more about Korean names, here is a list of all posts related to Korean names.)

Dear Korean,

I want to know what the deal with the two syllable names. After almost 8 months of teaching and living here in Korea 99.9% of the names I come across are two syllable names. Why the two syllables all the time? And why is it ok to break that rule sometimes?


Jo-Anna is correct that most Korean names are two syllables, like, for example, Jin-yeong [진영]. Why the two syllables? 

Actually, this question was partially answered in the previous post that explained dollimja [돌림자]. To recap: generally, Koreans follow a convention in which they use one of the syllables to signify the generational level, and the other syllable is given as the "true" name. Thus, a traditional Korean "given" name ends up being two syllables: one to show your generational level, the other your "true" name.

Dollimja tradition is somewhat weakened today, but the convention for two syllables stayed. For Koreans, it just looks normal for a given name to have two syllables. So even in case of a given name that do not follow the dollimja system, Koreans tend to name their children with two syllables. For example, purely Korean names, by definition, do not follow dollimja, because dollimja requires Chinese characters. Yet even Korean people with purely Korean names tend to have two-syllable first names. (E.g., Ha-neul [하늘] or Na-rae [나래]).

Deviation from this rule can come in two forms: a single-syllable given name, or a given name with 3+ syllables. Single-syllable name is generally still in the dollimja framework. Certain clans (e.g. Yangcheon Heo [양천 허씨]) consciously reject the "generational syllable," and name their children with a single syllable. Certain others name their firstborn son with the generational syllable only (without a "true" name,) to signify that the child is the first of the generation.

On the other hand, given names with 3+ syllables--which are extremely rare--are almost always a result of the parent's attempt to use a purely Korean word. For example, in 1997 there was a notorious kidnap-murder case involving an 8-year-old girl. Although a murder of an 8-year-old is a sensational news under any circumstance, the murdered girl's name was so unusual that it stayed with Korean public's consciousness like the way Jon-Benet Ramsay's name stayed with American public consciousness. The girl's name? Take a deep breath: 박초롱초롱빛나리, a given name with whopping seven syllables.

Interestingly, because the two-syllable convention is so strong, even Koreans with 3+ syllable given names are usually compelled to use a two-syllable nickname. (For example, in a lot of official forms in Korea, there are only two spaces to fill out one's first name.) The murdered 8-year-old was also known as 박나리, taking the last two syllables of her name.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Is there anything to the transliteration conventions? Sometimes, it's "Mi-young" (how I learned it), "Mi Young", or "Miyeong". A spoken example is how "Somyeon" is pronounced on Busan city buses. In Korean, the words is said correctly, but then the English translation turns "Somyeon" into three syllables. Why does pronunciation and syllabification of transliterated words often conflict with the correct Korean usage?

    1. In summary: it's messy. There is an official, ROK endorsed romanization system that was adopted in 2000. However, many names were transliterated before this official system was established. Some used older systems like McCune-Reischauer, some made up things on their own and some, like my parents, just used what their English teacher suggested. The result is a huge hodge podge of variations. Consider the family name "박"; using the current system, it's romanized as "Bak." Yet in English, most Koreans romanize it as "Park." Of all the variants I've seen, it's probably the least accurate, but because it's been used for so long, it's become defacto. Yet, I've also seen other Koreans use "Pak", "Bahk" and "Bak." You see similar things with other last common names like "이" (officially "I" but commonly "Yi," "Rhee" or "Lee") and "김" (officially "Gim" but defacto "Kim"). With this much variation in family names, you can see why given names are an even wider hodge-podge.

    2. I've often wondered why a 박씨 has never (to the best of my knowledge) used "Bach" as a transliterated version of the family name. To my ear, it's pronounced exactly like the Korean name "박." Not to mention - it's also the name of a famous composer.

    3. To my best knowledge the German name "Bach" is pronounced [bax] i.e. ending with a [x] (voiceless velar fricative). Surely this cannot be the Korean pronunciation. I don't speak Korean, but according to the Wikipedia page on Korean phonology, Korean language doesn't even have a velar fricative. In fact, I'm fairly sure that the last sound in "Park" is a plosive and not a fricative.

    4. Didn't know that. ㅑn America, the name Bach (actress Barbara Bach, for example) pronounces it exactly the way Korean pronounce the name "박."

    5. you are mispronouncing the composers last name Bach - it is closer to mach than batch. Barbara Bach is pronounced more similar to batch. Same spellings, perhaps even similar origins - now different pronunciations.

    6. They're not mispronouncing Bach. The English pronunciation of the German name Bach is simply different.

  2. Thanks for finally answering! I remember that I was inspired to write this after thinking there was a typo on my attendance sheet when I started a new class and I had a student named Kim Jinisu. And even more surprised when it was a boy not a girl. Still, in my experience, I've had more female students with one syllable names than males over past 5 years of teaching in Korea...

    1. Anecdotally, three of the four single syllable names I know were guys. Even more confusing, one was a gentleman with a two syllable last name and a one syllable first name. Given that the first syllable of his two syllable family name was also a common Korean family name, it created a bit of confusion for him every now and then.

  3. "given names with 3+ syllables--which are extremely rare--are almost always a result of the parent's attempt to use a purely Korean word."

    How about Koreans with two-character surnames? I met a Seonu (선우) for the first time in my life a few weeks ago.

    1. 남궁, 선우, and 독고 are the most common of these rare two-syllable names.

  4. I'm wondering, is there in Korea some sort of public record or registry where people can check on the ancestry/ clan affiliation of someone?

    1. Yes, sure we have. Every clans have their clan association locally and nationwide-grade center. I am one of Kyungju Kim (means Kyungju-origin Kim, Kyungju is a city name). We have clan meetings in most of city, and a major clan centers in Seoul and Kyungju. I have my family genealogy books(based on my direct line), when I need to check relations with someone distantly related , I can do it at the centers. However, these are not public information.

  5. Folks with two syllable last names usually have a one syllable first name in order to respect the Chinese naming tradition of using only 3 syllables for a full name. Sagong Ik (Sagong is the last name). There was a comedy from a while back with a character named Namgung Dal. The running joke was that everyone called him Kung Dal instead of "Dal."

    Some clans dropped the second character in their last name to fit in with the Chinese naming conventions. The Jae clan used to be the Jaegals (although there are still a few Jaegals left.) Maybe Eulchi Mundeok's clan dropped the deok and became the Mun's.

    As for three syllable names, if you read the Samguk Yusa or the Samguk Sagi, you'll find all kinds of long names. Asaheul (Goguryo for "morning village"), Misaheun (a Shilla Princess), Sadaham (apparently a Sanskrit name originally?). I've met some folks with three syllable names like Arisa and Miyocho. Jangnara was a famous actress with a three syllable name back in the day, and I am sure that there are a ton more, but that is all I can recall.


  6. Echoing the sentiments that you should include cases of two-syllable surnames on this post, or have a follow-up blog post of it. I did wonder why some surnames were two syllables and why they weren't more common! (and maybe how foreigners can tell apart which are the two-syllable surnames and which aren't)

  7. From the year 2000 대한민국의 인구순 성씨 목록:

    The first number is the name's rank in terms of how common it is amongst all Korean names; the last number is the number of Koreans with that name:

    93 남궁(南宮) 18,743
    112 황보(皇甫) 9,148
    132 제갈(諸葛) 4,444
    133 사공(司空) 4,307
    137 선우(鮮于) 3,560
    156 서문(西門) 1,861
    184 독고(獨孤) 807
    216 동방(東方) 220
    260 장곡(長谷) 52
    261 어금(魚金) 51
    262 강전(岡田) 51

    The ranks might be a little deceiving to those not familiar with Korean names, because while 남궁 is ranked 93rd, percentile-wise, it's not nearly as common as the the 93rd most common name in America (which is Foster).

    American names are listed here:


      And just for a fun reference, Kim is the 233rd (111,915) most common name in America, but it's not the most common Asian name. That would be the Vietnamese name Nguyen, which is ranked 229th (114,402).

      The second most common Korean name is Lee. Of course, that's also a common western name, so it's hard to say how many of the 24th (547,140) ranked Lees are Korean.

      Even though it is also a western name, presumably, most of those named Park in America are of Korean descent. That name is ranked 461st (62,175).

      Chang is listed as the 687th (42,279) most common name, however, most of them are almost certainly of Chinese descent.

      Choi, the 4th most common name in Korea, did not make the list.

    2. haha someone with the surname 동방 should name their child 동방신기!

    3. haha someone with the surname 동방 should name their child 동방신기!

  8. Anyone know why the royal family, the 이 clan, always seemed to use two-character names - 이구, 이강, and even Prof. 이석 - seems to be strictly a male thing, though.

    1. According to my knowledge, as a Korean. For thousands years, especially in Chosun Dynasty (1392~1910), Korean people cannot use same character on their name with royal family's name. That's why royal families use one charactered name, even though 2-charactered name was common for the period. It was kind of royal family's thoughtful consideration for their people. This makes people easy to make names avoiding using duplicated (same) character with royal family.

      (Most of Korean names can be written in Chinese characters.) Moreover, sometimes, they've made new Hanja (Chinese characters) for their name when royal family made names. This is all for their people making names easy.

      And why is this male thing? Traditionally, most clans of Korea didn't take female's name on their genealogy systems (books). For example, mostly, Korean genealogy systems describes like this way. John Doe, wa was born when and where, he married a daughter of AAA (should be male) who was a deputy prime minister (one's highest position of official service) when his best, and had 2 sons and a daughter. and... (following each sons details, and following only about husband details for the daughter.)

      Now a days, many clans are changing as the time is changing, for example, appx, a half or more of clans have started to put daughter's name and the details on their genealogy systems from a hundred years ago. And many people get pure Korean names or Catholic names for their sons and daughters. (pure Korean names = those cannot be written in Chinese characters, moreover, beautiful meanings and pronunciations)

      I would like to tell you more, but so sorry for my limited skilled English...


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