South Korean Culture

Naming

Naming Conventions

  • Korean naming conventions arrange names as follows: [FAMILY NAME] [personal name]. For example, KIM Min Su (male) or LEE Hyori (female).
  • Each Korean name usually consists of three syllables. The first is the family name while the second and third are the given name. For example, in the name KIM Min Su (김민수), KIM is the family name.
  • The family name (or ‘surname’) is inherited patrilineally from one’s father and shared with other siblings. It always comes before the given name and is usually a single syllable/character.
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) usually contains two syllables/characters. Both components of the personal name are considered to be a single unit. The concept of a ‘middle name’ is not followed in South Korea.
  • Traditionally, one component/character of a person’s given name is a unique name chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier. The other is a generation name that is typically shared by all siblings of the same gender within a family. For example, LEE Hyori (이효리) may have sisters named LEE Yuri and LEE Aeri, in which case ‘Ri’ (리) is the generation name.
  • The two syllables/characters of the given name may be written together, hyphenated or divided into two. For example, 효리 could be written Hyori, Hyo Ri or Hyo-ri. However, it is advisable to write both words as a single unit (e.g. Hyori) to clearly indicate that it is one name.
  • Single syllable given names exist, but are uncommon (e.g. KANG Min (강민) or JO Kwon (조권)).
  • There are no spaces between a person’s family name and given name when written in the Korean alphabet (hangul), e.g. 김민수 (KIM Min Su).
  • Women do not change their legal names at marriage.

 

Romanisation

  • Be aware that Korean names written in the Roman alphabet have all been transcribed from the original Korean or Chinese characters. There are many different ways to represent these characters in English, which can result in the same Korean name being written with many different spelling variations. For example, LEE may also be spelt RHEE, YI, LI, RI, LEIGH, REE, RHI or NI.
  • The romanisation system most widely used is the ‘Revised Romanization of Korean’.1

 

Westernising Korean Names

  • Many Koreans use a ‘westernised’ version of their original Korean name to adapt to international and English-speaking contexts.
  • This may involve reversing the arrangement of their given name and family name to suit English-Western naming conventions: [personal name] [FAMILY NAME]. For example, KIM Min Su may be known as Min Su KIM.
  • Some married Korean women may adapt to English-Western naming practices by using their husband’s (or both) family names. For example, if LEE Hyori married KIM Min Su, she may be known as Hyori LEE-KIM. However, this is very rare unless the person is living overseas. 
  • Many Koreans have an ‘English name’ that they use in international and English-speaking contexts. For example, LEE Hyori may be known as “Michelle”.
  • Most people will revert to using their original Korean name amongst family or when writing or speaking in Korean.

 

Names

  • It is common belief that a good name brings luck, and an unfit name may bring bad luck. Therefore, Korean parents generally prefer to choose names that embody goodwill, prosperousness and have positive connotations in their meaning and sound.
  • Names may be chosen in accordance with a child’s birth date and time, as well as the number of strokes of the name in Korean characters, to assure it is auspicious.
  • Some parents may consult a shaman/fortune teller to find the luckiest name for a child.
  • Many Korean given names are instilled with some significant meaning that symbolises aspirations and wishes for the child, e.g. Kyong (brightness), Geon (strong), Cho (beautiful), Young (valiant).
  • While traditional Korean naming practices are common (i.e. using generation names etc.), it has also become popular for parents to name children using native Korean words (usually two syllables or more). For example, 하늘 Ha-neul (heaven/sky), 아름 Areum (beauty), 슬기 Seulgi (wisdom).
  • Korean given names often have a gender-specific meaning relating to traditional gender roles. Female names tend to reflect feminine-associated qualities such as beauty or softness, while male names commonly signify traditional male-associated qualities such as strength, bravery, success or ambition. However, it may be hard to assume a person’s gender from their name alone once translated into the Roman alphabet.
  • It is not customary or appropriate to name a child after their elder or family member.
  • The most common family names in South Korea are KIM (김), PARK (박), LEE (이), CHOI (최), CHUNG (정), with around half of all Koreans having one of these five names.2
  • While most Korean family names are one syllable, there are some exceptions (e.g. HWANGBO (황보), SEON-U (선우), DOKGO (독고), NAMGUNG (남궁).
  • Each family name can generally be traced back to a clan. For example, most people with the surname LEE (李) in Korea belong to either the Jeonju or Gyeongju clans. There are usually multiple different clans related to a family name.
  • Some Koreans may also have a religious name (different to an English name) that they are given at baptism. For example, KIM Min Su may have the English name ‘Eric’ and the baptismal name ‘Joshua’.3

 

Addressing Others

  • It is appropriate to address friends and acquaintances who are the same age or younger than one’s self using their first name alone. However, this only applies to casual relationships. 
  • Most of the time, Koreans use the titles to indicate polite speech based on people’s age and social relationship to one another.
  • Titles come after a person’s full name in Korean: [family name] [personal name] [title]. For example, KIM Minsu Ssi (Mr. Minsu KIM). However, one may use a title with the given name alone if wishing to be more casual. For example, Minsu Ssi (Mr. Minsu).
  • It is incorrect and uncommon to refer to anyone by their family name alone (either with a title or without).4
  • The most commonly used titles are ‘ssi’ (씨) and ‘nim’ (님), which are gender neutral but roughly translate to ‘Mr/Ms’. ‘Ssi’ is used for anyone of the same age and social status, and is common upon meeting strangers. ‘Nim’ is slightly more formal and used to show respect and politeness to someone in formal and professional settings.
  • People refer to someone older themselves self using the titles ‘unni’ (언니) or ‘noona’ (누나) for women and ‘obba’ (오빠) or ‘hyung’ (형) for men, meaning “older sister” and “older brother” respectively.
  • Koreans do not refer to people who are older than themselves by their given name alone without a title.
  • It is common to refer to people based on their occupation, e.g. ‘Sonsaeng’ (Teacher), ‘Kyosu’ (Professor). People may use someone’s occupational title with ‘nim’ or ‘ssi’, e.g. Sonsaeng nim.
  • People may also refer to parents by their child’s name. For example, KIM Minsu’s mother may be addressed literally as “Minsu’s mum” in Korean (민수 엄마) by her husband or other parents.
  • Be aware many Koreans have several names that they may use interchangeably to identify themselves across different circumstances. For example, they may have a social name, married name, business name, school name, English name or a baptismal name (see above). A Korean will usually tell you which name to refer to them as.

 

_____________________

1 Han, 2005
2 United Kingdom Government, 2006
3 Lee, 2011
4 Kim, 2021
Incluude

Create your own Cultural Atlas with bookmarks, collections and a unified, searchable interface.

Inclusion Program

Inclusion logo

Join over 450 organisations already creating a better workplace

Find out more
Download this Cultural Profile

Too busy to read it right now?

You can download this cultural profile in an easy-to-read PDF format that can be printed out and accessed at any time.