Korean language and culture series: Korean names, part 1

A reader asks: “Would you ladies consider doing a post on romanization of Korean names? For example, Im Soo Jung can also be romanized as Lim Soo Jung or Im Su Jeong. The surname 주 is both ‘Joo’ and ‘Ju’. I’m just curious because news sites seem to employ a variety of romanizations and none of them are consistent. Would appreciate you shedding light on this!”

Great question! And a perfect way to start off the Korean names subseries as part of the blog’s Korean Language and Culture series.

As a K-drama blogger myself, it is indeed difficult to decide on romanization of Korean names. In order to answer this question, I think it’s best to start from the basics.

As you may already know, the Korean language doesn’t follow the Roman alphabet (A, B, C, D, etc.). Many non-Korean speakers mistakenly assume that Korean instead uses characters, like Chinese. In fact, Korean alphabet is a phonetic system, with each “letter” being associated with a specific sound.


Source: Think Zone

Romanization is the representation of another language (that doesn’t employ the Roman alphabet, like Korean) using the Roman alphabet. There are several romanization schemes available, not because there are several different ways to pronounce the original language, but because there are many different ways to represent this with the Roman alphabet.

The commonly used romanization systems for Korean are McCune-Reischauer romanization, the Yale romanization, and the Revised Romanization of Korean. For example, the proper way to romanize the Korean word 엄마 (translation: mom) is as “ŏmma” according to McCune-Reischauer and as “eomma” according to the Revised Romanization of Korean. There’s only one correct way to pronounce the word in Korean, of course, but it would be too cumbersome to explain it like this: “The first syllable is pronounced like the English word ‘bum,’ but take out the ‘b’. The second syllable is pronounced like ‘ah’ but attach the ‘m’ sound at the beginning. Put it together and you have ‘um-mah’.”

For uniformity purposes, the Korean government adopted the Revised Romanization of Korean as the official Korean language romanization system in 2000. With this adoption, official names of geographic landmarks, including cities, provinces, and streets, now all follow the Revised Romanization of Korean. For example, the official romanized spelling for the Korean city 부산 changed from Pusan (based on McCune-Reischauer romanization) to Busan (based on Revised Romanization of Korean).

The one exception is names of people. Although encouraged to adopt the Revised Romanization, individuals are free to spell their own name based on their own personal preference. For instance, even in America, although the female name Jenny is most commonly spelled as “Jenny,” the correct spelling of that name for any particular individual is the way it appears in her birth certificate. One individual may spell it as Jenni, another as Jeni, and still another perhaps even as Genny.

According to the Revised Romanization of Korean, the proper way to romanize the name of the actress at the top of this page is “Im Su Jeong.” However, as Revised Romanization of Korean is relatively new, there have been certain ways Korean names have been spelled even years before the Revised Romanization of Korean ever came about. When it comes to names, there have already been some commonly established spellings for Korean names. For instance, 정 is often romanized as “Jung” in people’s names, even though the official romanization would be “Jeong.” 주 is often romanized as “Joo,” even though the official romanization would be “Ju.”  The three most common Korean family names are often written and pronounced as “Kim” (김), “Lee” (이), and “Park” (박). And needless to say, none of them follows the Revised Romanization of Korean system.

As to why certain spellings became common in the first place, I do not know for certain. But I assume the reasoning is similar to why certain Eastern European immigrants changed or shortened their names to be easier for Americans to pronounce. Since the adoption of the Revised Romanization of Korean in 2000, however, it is becoming more and more common for people to adopt the official romanization for their own names.

When it comes to names of Korean celebrities, we can never be sure of what is the “correct” romanization of their names until the celebrities romanize it themselves, for example in their international fan pages or fan meetings.

According to the actress’s own website, the actress at the top of the page spells her name as “Lim Soo Jung.” Whether it is “Soo Jung” or “Su Jeong,” it is in fact pronounced the same and in Korean, it is just one and the same name- 수정. The Korean family name “임” is pronounced as “Im” in Korean, but for the past several decades, many Koreans have adopted the spelling as Lim, just like how “김” (pronounced as “Gim”) has been commonly spelled as “Kim.”

As a blogger, if I know of the “correct” romanization of a celebrity’s name (i.e., what the celebrity uses himself), I try to refer to him by that name. But honestly, most of the time, I’m too lazy to look it up myself, and I just go by what is the common way that others spell it on Dramawiki or Soompi forums. Further, I admit that there are some celebrities whose names are officially romanized so differently from what I would have expected that I just choose to ignore the way they romanize their own name. (Bad, I know!)

The prime example is the actor pictured above. Actor 정경호’s name is frequently romanized as “Jung Kyung Ho”. But in fact, I learned that he romanizes his own name as “Choung Kyung Ho”. Even after this knowledge, I’m guilty of continuing to “misspell” his name as Jung Kyung Ho, only because I think his own spelling is… well, weird. (The more conventional way to romanize 정 is as Jung, Chung, Cheong, or Jeong. How the heck he came up with Choung, I do not know.)

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11 Responses to Korean language and culture series: Korean names, part 1

  1. mrmz says:

    Thats interesting!!!! thx really getting interested in the Korean language (my first love is Japanese) first thing I wanna do as soon as I graduate: learn Japanese, now, second thing i wanna do: Learn Korean
    Priorities might change in 6 months (when I graduate) though loool 😛

    • Kristal says:

      I was considering buying one of those Rosetta Stone series sets they sell online to try and learn Korean but they are so expensive! Maybe I can get one as a christmas gift, lol. What kind of dork asks for a language lesson series for christmas you ask?! Me.

      Korean seems like it would be really really hard to learn though with all the different levels of speech etc but I think it would be fun to try.

  2. caffeinate_me says:

    Wow. Informative post. I’ve always wondered where the “L”s go when I hear names being pronounced. Although, I think there is a phonetic system in Chinese, which I remember as kok im . When I was in school, memorizing the phonetics was the only way I could pronounce the words in our Chinese class. Too bad, I still can’t understand Chinese.

    Question, though: In the word mianada , why does if come off sounding like BI-anada? (yup, loved MiSa) Is that a phonetics thing too?

    • blue says:

      Ooh, thanks for the clarification about the phonetic system in Chinese! My Chinese friend once taught me several Chinese characters that are pictorial in origin (like 木), and I mistakenly assumed that all/most Chinese characters were likewise pictorial.

      As for your question, 미안하다 is pronounced “mianhada”. And yes, it is phonetical. You can refer to the chart above of the Korean alphabet and find the corresponding English letter to each of the Korean “letter” to arrive at “mianhada.” I think you might have misheard “mi” as “bi,” especially when spoken fast (which we Korean speakers are often guilty of), but it should definitely be “mi.”

      Btw, love your screen name!

      • galen says:

        Chinese characters are pictorial for most part. The phonetics only work for certain characters and mostly with a component that also gives the word it’s context. Unless the first poster was talking about the Taiwanese phonetic system of sounds for which China uses pinyin instead, which I have completely no understanding of at all.

      • caffeinate_me says:

        Thanks for the quick reply. I’m so stupid I actually googled it. @galen is right, it is called pin yin as in ㄅㄛ ㄆ ㄇ and is used in learning Mandarin Chinese. The kok im I mentioned is Fookien, I think.

        Anyway, keep up with these language and culture posts because they’re awesome. I’ve been a lurker at your site for a while now because of these posts.

  3. joonni says:

    Thank you so much for this little lesson! Brief and well-organized so that I can quickly digest it. Thank you!

  4. snow says:

    thanks for doing this! it’s very informative and quite amazing that while there’s just one way to say a korean name, there are several ways to romanise it. i especially like the chart on the phonetics of the korean alphabet, very interesting. and that’s a cute pic of im soo jung XD

  5. supah says:

    Good topic!
    Much prefer dropping the L and just saying/typing: Im Soo-jung, Im Sung-han, Im Jong-yoon etc.

    Haha @ Choung Kyung-ho. Lovable dork!
    I liked how you’ve clarified romanisations. One thing I’ve noticed is how everyone spells Lee Seong-mo (Park Sang-min’s character name in Giant) as SeUng-mo. It kind of irks me when I read it spelt that way, though I can understand that it’s easily done, when the standard romanisation is Sung-mo it’s probably more natural to jump to Seung-mo. I’ve romanised Korean names all wrong myself. (But really, that’s just wrong, yo, it alters the name).

  6. wap says:

    so korean writing is somewhat similar to stenography?

  7. nonski says:

    hi blue, thanks for posting another lesson on korean language… i have been planning to take up korean languages classes, just haven’t gotten into it yet. but i will, soon. it comes in handy when you want to watch dramas raw. yup, my main purpose to learn korean is to be able to watch raw vid. 🙂

    what always confuses me is when is a p/b and g/k is to be used on certain words. take for example the word kimbap, kimbab and kimbab. they seem to always interchange. one friend did say something about this but i forgot. does the romanizations have something to do with it? i just finished reading part 1 so you might have mentioned this on other parts.

    oh and we use the RKS system on Darksmurfsub.com.

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