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Romanization and pronunciation of Korean names

Looking at this signature, it does seem like she is still trying to be called Yun A and not Yu Na.
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Aug 04 2012

The romanization of Korean names is pretty haphazard.

There is a well-established system for transcribing Korean words into English. It is the Revised Romanization of Korean. It is a very logical system (with a few odd quirks) and if you are familiar with it, it is very easy to know how to pronounce a Korean word from its English spelling. The problem is that if you are not familiar with it, it can make things very difficult.

The problem with RROK

For example, I used to live in the city of Gumi. That is its correct spelling when transcribed in the Revised Romanization system from the Hangul characters 구미. The first syllable is pronounced like the English word goo, and the second syllable like me. However if you don’t know, for instance, that u as a syllable on its own is always “oo”, you might be tempted to pronounce it “gum”. The final vowel, if you didn’t know better, might be pronounced like the letter I.

Koreans, when romanizing their own names, tend to completely disregard the official romanization and do whatever they want. Usually this means either resorting to traditional romanizations, which pre-date the Revised Romanization system and have no end of quirks, or asking the nearest foreigner, or Korean who they think speaks English well, and accepting their verdict and using that spelling for the rest of their lives.

Koreans seem to be curiously uncaring about what English speakers call them, or how they spell their names. I’m not sure if it is politeness, or an unshakeable belief that foreigners can’t pronounce Korean anyway. I can think of two examples that illustrate this well:

1. Many Koreans have an “English name” – a first name lumped on them at some point by a foreign English teacher, which they will happily offer to foreigners and accept as their own name. “Christine” is popular, because of its association with Christ. So are names that sound somewhat Korean like Mia. They will rarely choose a name with difficult-for-Koreans sounds like F and V. There aren’t a lot of Korean Freds.

2. The figure skater Kim Yuna. Her Korean name is 연아, which should properly be written “Yeon A”, pronounced “Yohn Ah”. However, the Korean vowel 어 is particularly problematic when romanized, as it officially should be, as “eo”. No English speaker, without understanding the system, ever pronounces it correctly**There is a theory that eo was chosen as the romanization of the Korean vowel 어 just so Seoul could keep its traditional spelling. It’s absurd but there is no other logical explanation for it. – so Koreans frequently transcribe it instead with the letter u. Apparently in the third grade, Kim Yuna applied for a passport and attempted to spell her name “Yuna” on this basis. But the passport staff then incorrectly hyphenated it out again to Yu-na, which tournament officials invariably interpreted as “Yoo”, rather than “Yuh” – the latter, incidentally, would have left her name unchanged according to the rules of Korean pronunciation.

The point here is her reaction to this, which seems typical of Koreans. I think people of many other nations might have made some effort to correct what is essentially a change of names, but her response (Korean language article) seems typical of Koreans: “연아라는 이름도 예쁘지만, 유나도 좋다” – “Yeon A is a pretty name, but Yu Na is good, too.”

Here are the three most common Korean family names, used by almost half of all Koreans, with the reasons behind their peculiar romanizations:

Usually romanized as: Kim
Should be written: Gim
Correctly pronounced: with an unaspirated K sound, which doesn’t come easily to English speakers. Aim for something halfway between a G and K.

This is a legacy of the previous system of romanization, the McCune–Reischauer system, which romanized initial gieoks as K. As with the other family names here, I suspect the reason it has survived, apart from inertia, is that it “looks like an English name”.

Usually romanized as: Park
Should be written: Bak
Correctly pronounced: with an unaspirated P sound, which again isn’t easy for a native English speaker. Aim for something halfway between B and P. Definately has no R sound in it. This romanization was based on British English, and the Brits, like Australians, tend to drop R sounds.

Usually romanized as: Lee
Should be written: I
Correctly pronounced: Ee
The ultimate strange case. When I first came to Korea, I wondered about this endlessly – why did people with the family name 이 gain an initial consonant, particularly one that is foreign to Korean speakers? Korean words never begin with an initial L sound – words that start with ㄹ are pronounced with a sound much closer to R, with the exception of a few loanwords such as lemon.

The answer is a little roundabout. The Korean surname 이 is based on the Chinese character 李. This is also a very common surname in China, where it is pronounced Lee and usually romanized Li. At some time in the past (and to this day, in North Korea) Koreans pronounced this name with an initial R sound. Nowadays they don’t, but again the fact that it “looks like a name” (while Ee or I as a surname look strange to English speakers) keeps it alive today.

Ultimately, you can try to appear sophisticated by pronouncing Korean names “correctly”, but it’s unnecessary. A Korean named, say, 이명박 may happily introduce himself in English as “Hi, I’m Johnny Lee. Nice to meet you.” (Well – maybe not.) Call them what they’re happy to be called.

It does, however, produce problems with Korean idols. Whenever I see 은정 from T-ara’s name transcribed as “EunJung”, I wince at both its incorrect romanization and the horrors of people trying to guess, from that, how to correctly pronounce the name. The Korean drama wiki devotes an entire page to their own, mishmash system that attempts to romanize Korean names according to how they’re usually written by drama fans. It’s irregular, to say the least.

Waegukin wrote these 993 words on August 4th, 2012 | Posted in Living |

comments

63 comments on “Romanization and pronunciation of Korean names”

  1. 정 윤 says:

    “Waegukin” would be 왜국인, a perjorative for Japanese. 외국인 (foreigner) should be Romanized woegukin. Korean Romanization is all messed up because the first system most widely used by Westerners was developed by McCune and Reischauer, two Americans, based on what they think they heard Koreans speak. This is why 김 became Kim, not Gim and 부산 Pusan, not Busan. China, which had the same problems, is now using Pinyin,which is equivalent to RR in Korea.

  2. The Waegukin says:

    Hi 정윤, thanks for the comment. Regarding the romanization of 외국인, I know it’s not correct – see point number 9 on the About page. I think a correct romanization according to RR would be oegugin, but that just looks so hopelessly wrong and misleading to me.
    That 왜국인 is a perjorative for Japanese is new to me, and a little disturbing, but I suppose it’s too late to change the name of the site now. ㅠㅠ I confess that I can’t hear the difference between those two dipthongs, anyway.Are they clearly distinct to native speakers?

  3. Brianna Chauncey says:

    What is my korean name in korean writing?! I need a cool signature …

  4. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Brianna, it would be something like 브리아나 천시, depending on how exactly you pronounce it.
    It’s not really a Korean name, though – just your English name written in Hangeul.

  5. Mia Ramirez says:

    How is my name written in revised romanization I just want to know thank you

  6. The Waegukin says:

    In Hangeul? 미아 라미레즈.

  7. Mia Ramirez says:

    How about name in romanization?

  8. The Waegukin says:

    Your romanized name is Mia Ramirez. Romanization means to transliterate something into the Roman (Latin) alphabet.

  9. Lothar says:

    I have a new friend, he is Korean and I have asked his name several times and I cannot get the correct pronunciation. Wonder if you could help. The name is “Euichol”.

    Thank you.

  10. The Waegukin says:

    It’s nice of you to want to pronounce your new friend’s name correctly.

    I think his name would be 의철.I’m not surprised you find it difficult as the first syllable has a vowel sound that doesn’t occur in English. My suggestion would be to paste 의철 into Google translate, translating from English to Korean (i.e., the wrong way), then click on the sound icon in the bottom right corner. It will pronounce the syllables for you and you can practice from that.

  11. Thu Hien says:

    What is my korean name in korean writing? It pronounces like ‘two’ and ‘yen’ (japanese currency) as my foreign friends and teachers always call me by that name but actually the sounds of ‘thu’ as ‘th’ in ‘thing’ and ‘hien’ as ‘h’ in ‘hat’

  12. The Waegukin says:

    Two Yen in Korean would be 투옌, but a more accurate transliteration of your name would probably be 뚜혠, which you might hear as “Two Yen”.

  13. Thu Hien says:

    One of my friend learns Korean and she wrote my name like this ‘투현’ Is that correct?

  14. The Waegukin says:

    If Hien rhymes with yen, then it would be 혠, not 현, which would be closer to a rhyme to sun or con.

  15. Thu Hien says:

    Oic (: Thanks alot ^^
    By the way, I have an English name, can you turn it to korean writing? It’s Heddie

  16. The Waegukin says:

    Heddie would be 헤디

  17. Thu Hien says:

    Thanks alot (:

  18. Gaia says:

    what a lovely post and site. Based on this, could you please tell me how should i pronounce the name Jinki or Gin ki – i’m not sure it’s the correct romanization though.
    Thanks in advance 🙂

  19. The Waegukin says:

    The name is almost certainly 진기. Correct romanization would be Jin Gi, and the pronunciation is more-or-less what you would expect it to be. See the name “Kim” above for how to pronounce the G/K sound.

  20. Gaia says:

    thank you very much, i have a korean student in my class, his name’s Jin Gi and I think he’s too polite to correct me when i mispell it. Would you please tell me what’s my name (Gaia Jeanne) in hangul? It would be funny to show him 🙂 thanks for your kindness, i find your blog very interesting :i)

  21. The Waegukin says:

    Honestly, without knowing exactly how you pronounce it, I couldn’t say. Accent would make a difference, too. Why not ask your student? Students love teaching things to their teachers.

  22. Gaia says:

    Thanks Anyway, I’m going to ask him 🙂

  23. Henrietta says:

    How is my name written in Korean?

  24. The Waegukin says:

    헨리에타

  25. Jay says:

    I’m a Korean who also speaks English and this article is simply flawless. Your understanding of both the Korean language and culture is astonishing. The part about English names” made me laugh because it’s so true; heck, even I do it myself! (Although I chose it so that it’s actually just the first part of my Korean name) I’m recommending this to all my “waegukin” friends in Korea.

    By the way, I stumbled upon your website by googling “Korean names in English” because I spent some time explaining how Korean words actually sound like in yesterday’s thanksgiving party. Never expected to find such a quality post though.

  26. The Waegukin says:

    Thank you so much for the nicest comment I’ve ever received on this blog. However my knowledge of Korean culture and language is very far from flawless; I’m baffled by both on a daily basis.

    This article simply began because I was puzzled for so long by why the name 이 became Lee in English. I am very happy that you found the rest of it to be accurate.

  27. Immy says:

    I have a Korean penfriend, her name is 서영 and she romanizes it as Seo~Young. Would that be pronounced “soh young” (“young” as in the English word)?

  28. The Waegukin says:

    Immy, more or less. 영 usually gets Romanized to Young for its familiarity, although according to RRK it should be Yeong ㅡ it has the same vowel sound as the first part of your friend’s name.

  29. Lila says:

    How do you pronounce the name of the singer Hyuna? Seems like I usually hear people saying “Hun Ah”, like an H instead of HY. Is the Y supposed to be pronounced or not? Sometimes it even sounds like “Un Ah”!

  30. The Waegukin says:

    Yeah, all the Hy~ names are like that. The “y” sound is there, but it’s pretty subtle. Hard to describe – almost an extra amount of aspiration, or a slight tenseness to the upper throat. Also hard to hear, at least to native English speakers.

  31. Joanna says:

    Would Koreans have any problem pronouncing my name- Joanna, or Jo? I’ve lived in quite a few places where Jo caused problems or wasn’t considered a “real name” because it was just one syllable, and Joanna causes problems with the ‘J’ sound sometimes so I had to constantly correct pronunciation.

    If I’d have to keep correcting people, I’d probably rather just go by Anna or something…

  32. The Waegukin says:

    I don’t think so. Jo is a Korean surname so that might cause some minor confusion. Joanna might end up sounding more like Jo Ah-Na, as if it were a full Korean name. Reminds me of one of my students, who thought the U.S. president’s name was Oh Ba-Ma, and during an open class tried to “correct” it back into an English name by calling him Ba-Ma Oh, much to the hilarity of everyone present.

  33. Joanna says:

    Haha, well it sounds like I’m in good company if I face the same problems as Obama! I take it Ah-Na is a girl’s name? If it is, it seems like I have my Korean secret identity sorted too.

  34. sali says:

    hi can you tell me how my name would be written and pronounced with a korean accent (in english it’s the same as sally) thank you 🙂 i love your website by the way 😀

  35. Love says:

    Hi, can you please help me with a little translation? I want to know what means this phrase: “dang si neu ni chae geul eo tteo ke ha neun ji mol la”. (romanization korean). I need an answer please. Thank you

  36. The Waegukin says:

    To everyone – with apologies, I have decided not to answer any more questions on this post regarding how to write your name in Korean or how to translate to and from Korean. It is not what the post is about, and there are simply too many such questions from people who come in via google and never visit again.

    I will, however, continue to answer questions about the romanization and pronunciation of Korean names, to the best of my ability.

  37. MNGirl25 says:

    Hi. Can you help me in romanizing 애나? My understanding is that it is Ae-Na pronounced like “Anna” but I am unsure. My husband would like to give our daughter a middle name using the “Ae” part of his birth mother’s name. Thank you for your help!

  38. The Waegukin says:

    Your understanding is correct 🙂
    If you want to be super-precise with pronunciation, 애/ae sounds a little closer to “eh” than the a of Anna does in English, and the stresses would be equal rather than on the first syllable as with Anna. Otherwise the pronunciation would be the same as Anna.

  39. Christine valledor says:

    what is my korean my korean name, my name is Christine and my nickname is Tintin or tin i wonder if i can know my korean name, please help me

  40. 조르조 마뇨 (대제) says:

    Dear The Waegukin,
    Because a lisping or something, I can’t correctly pronounce the sound of R alveolar trill typical of my native language, and consequently the alveolar flap which represents the sound of Korean Rieul. Unfortunately, I can only say an R sound (Namely “Erre Moscia”)vaguely similar to English R, and an alternative French R. Is there any chance that Koreans speakers grasp meaning of my words?
    Second question: you quoted loanwords such as lemon, speaking of exception to the rule (initial ㄹ pronounced with a L sound instead of usual R), therefore, Is also this statement valid for foreigner city names or something, such as Liverpool, Leicester, Livorno, Lombardia, isn’t it?

    Sorry for my superbasic English and thank you for the attention

  41. Joell Calcagno says:

    My son was born in Korea, and nobody can tell me the correct way to pronounce his name. It’s on his birth certificate as Park, Ye-Joon.

  42. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Joell – your son’s name would almost certainly be 예준, and pronounced as you would think. A close approximation would be the English words “Yeah June”, although the “yeah” part is definitely only a single syllable and without any aspiration of the final h sound (this is just an acknowledgement that different dialects of English would pronounce the word “yeah” differently, and I’m not sure where you’re from). Using Revised Romanization, it would be Ye Jun, however in this case you can be glad that they didn’t use RR, as it would be hard then to know the exact pronunciation of the last syllable, as “Jun” is also sometimes used to transcribe “전”, which sounds quite different. As for the surname Park, I wrote about the pronunciation of that in the article. Hope that helps!

  43. Kieran Maynard says:

    Hi,

    This post was just what I was looking for. I am translating Korean but I just couldn’t figure out the names since they never matched the random romanizations used in people’s emails and whatnot. When in doubt, I resorted to romanizing everything in standard romanization with the exception of Kim, Park, and Lee.

    What do you think about the theory that “Park” comes from ‘밝’? I haven’t studied much Korean language history so I don’t know the background. Hope you can fill me in.

    Keep up the good work!

    Best,
    Kieran

  44. Waegukin says:

    Well, I’m suspicious of it, as the only reference I can find to it is one unsourced sentence in Wikipedia, and derivitives of that. Also, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, as I’ve never seen the name written as 밝, and it seems more likely to be a derivation of Park, rather than the other way around. Without a better source, I’d consider it a dubious piece of mythology.

  45. Kieran Maynard says:

    Thanks for getting back to me, and so quickly. 🙂

    I found an interesting article about it here, with some historical references that I don’t have the resources to check out now. They also mention a documentary about Korean names:

    http://explain.egloos.com/4969648

  46. Max says:

    Thank you, this is great. Further details (hyphenation, capitalization) can be found at the ALA-LC romanization table for Korean:

    Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, not a single Korean applies any of these rules to her own name!

  47. amber says:

    hi can please transalate my name in korean and how to pronounce it…the name is Divya Theresa.

  48. Jesse says:

    Hi! I’m a teacher in Mexico and I’m receiving a new student from Korea on Monday! My students are making welcome posters and we’d like to write his name correctly, but we only have the romanization of it. I was told his name is “Sebum Lee,” pronounced “Sembom.” Do you know how I could write this correctly in Hangul? Could you try to explain the correct pronunciation? Apparently, this student doesn’t speak any Spanish and speaks very little English so I want to make him feel welcome by correctly pronouncing his name. It’s not much, but I hope it will help. If this falls under the category of questions you are no longer answering, forgive me and ignore the post! Thanks!

  49. Waegukin says:

    Happy to answer that sort of question, Jesse – I just don’t feel like tellling people how to write their Western name in Hangeul so they can get a tattoo or something.

    Unfortunately, for reasons discussed in the post, Romanization of Korean names is so idiosyncratic that it’s difficult to reverse engineer it. My best guess would be 이세범. I’m a little confused by the extra M in the way you were told to pronounce it, which I think is very unlikely. “Se” like the first part of “said”, bom like bomb. But I can’t be 100% certain, so I wouldn’t write it on a welcome poster.

    However if you’re feeling ambitious, welcome in Korean is 환영합니다 – hwanyeonghamnida.

  50. Jesse says:

    Thank you! I’ll wait and let Sebum tell me how to write his name. At lease I feel more comfortable with the pronunciation now. 🙂 Thanks for including how to write “welcome.”I’m sure my students will want to include some words and phrases in Korean on their posters!

  51. Kate says:

    Hey there,
    Interesting read. I have a question regarding the Romanization of Oegugin (외국인) as previously discussed (I am late to the party on this one). I am currently creating a photobook incidentally called 외국인 and I’m wondering if you can confirm with me the official romanized translation for written text? I’d really hate to get it wrong in print. I’ve seen Oegugin, Oegukin and of course Waegukin (which as explained is a phonetic interpretation).

  52. Waegukin says:

    It’s oegugin. 외국 would however be oeguk.

    This is a useful tool for transliteration – http://sori.org/hangul/conv2kr.cgi

    While I certainly wasn’t the first to use it, I’ve been interested to note the rise of “waegukin” as a spelling since I started this blog^^

  53. Kate says:

    Thanks for the link and your input.

    The plot thickens, according to sori.org Oegugin should be written as 외구긴 and not 외국인. What are your thoughts? I read elsewhere that 외구긴 is only part of the phonetic interpretation. The confusion!

  54. Waegukin says:

    Definitely 외국인. You can’t generate correct Korean spellings by turning Romanized Korean back into Hangeul! In this case, the null/unpronounced initial jamo in 인 doesn’t get transliterated into RR, so when you try to reverse the process, it ends up being omitted.

  55. Kate says:

    Ah I see, amateur mistake there. Thank you so much!

  56. Huda says:

    Hi I am Huda and how would my korean name be and to pronounce.. thank you

  57. Nurul huda says:

    How Do I Pronounce my name Huda in Korean?
    Full Name Nurul Huda thanks

  58. Junghee Byun says:

    What I should write for 정희 변

    Right now I am using as Junghee Byun. but I like to use it lkie JungHee byun. is it easy for American to pronounce?
    I am so confused how to write korean name in English.

    Some use Jung-hee, Jung-Hee, Junghee, or JungHee?
    Which one would be better for speaking in English?
    Thank you

  59. Waegukin says:

    Hi JungHee,

    AP (newspaper) style would be Byeon Jeong-Hui! But that looks very strange. But the newspaper style also says that first, you should ask the person how they like to spell it, and then use that spelling.

    So you can spell it however you want. I like JungHee too. They are all easy for English speakers to pronounce.

  60. Eva Stoffels says:

    So ive been told that my korean Name is 송 헤에 라 which would mean song hee ra. Does that name have any meaning, is it rare and is it beautiful? I can picture it because ive never been to korea…
    Thanks in advance

  61. Alejandro Andazola says:

    Now I have a question, I’m wondering what the Korean equivalent is to the name Anna. And I don’t mean a direct translation or anything. In terms of existing Korean names, I want to know which is closest to Anna?

  62. Jackielyn Labasan says:

    Hi. My Complete name is Jackielyn Labasan. I really wanted to know my Korean name. Thank you in advance for helping me out.

  63. Kim In Young says:

    Korean names beginning with J, i.e, Jun, Jon, Joo, Jin, etc., why many people using as Chun, Chon, Choo or Chin?
    For example,
    for the super rich people, called Jaebol? or Chaebol?
    What is a correct expression?

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